We ask hard questions about JBLM

Executive EditorMarch 18, 2012 

A week ago, our community once again found itself in a place it didn’t want to be – as home to a person gaining international notoriety for his alleged connections to a horrific crime.

Even before we knew his name, we knew Staff Sgt. Robert N. Bales was stationed at Joint Base Lewis-McChord. He’s now in a military prison in Kansas in connection with the killings of 16 civilians in Afghanistan last Sunday.

National news outlets once again descended upon our community. Many fell back on monikers first bestowed on the base in 2010. That’s when Stars and Stripes dubbed Lewis-McChord the military’s “most-troubled base.” The Los Angeles Times called it a “base on the brink.”

They pointed to high-profile crimes committed by soldiers stationed here, which are undeniable.

Just a month ago, we closed the book on the last court action against Stryker soldiers from the former 5th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division. Four so-called “kill team” members were convicted in connection with the 2010 killings of three Afghan civilians. Seven others in the same platoon were convicted of lesser crimes.

In January, a former Lewis-McChord soldier killed a ranger at Mount Rainier National Park and also died in the incident.

Last year, a medic assigned to Lewis-McChord shot and killed his wife and 6-year-old son before turning the gun on himself on a freeway in Thurston County.

Is there something going on at JBLM that’s worse than at other bases?

Maybe. Maybe not.

Our story on today’s front page attempts to answer that question with more than reports on a handful of outrageous crimes. It presents some new insights, but mainly draws on statistical research we’ve been doing for months.

In December, military reporter Adam Ashton looked into soldier suicides at Lewis-McChord. The 12 suicides in 2011 were more than ever before, but the base has almost twice as many soldiers as when the war started. Suicide numbers also were up across the Army last year.

In January, Ashton looked at crime statistics from Lewis-McChord. The base recorded new highs last year for misdemeanor crimes committed by soldiers and for offenses involving driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Felonies and domestic-violence crimes were up in 2011, but down significantly when compared to 2008.

The local numbers are not dramatically different than Army-wide trends, Ashton reported, although the Army last year saw a small decline in total misdemeanor offenses.

Ashton also has written about the investigation into Madigan Army Medical Center’s reversal of PTSD diagnoses for some Lewis-McChord soldiers. Madigan’s work is being questioned by Army higher-ups.

Frankly, it’s hard for us not to get a little defensive when out-of-towners slap labels on our base. But neither can we ignore the obviously serious issues.

As we discussed the matter last week, one editor suggested we change the question.

Rather than asking whether our post is better or worse than others, shouldn’t we be asking whether the problems at Lewis-McChord are an example of what’s happening across the military? When you send soldiers to war four or five times in 10 years and assign 40,000 of them to one base, are we simply seeing a representational amount of trouble?

Maybe the question should be whether we’ve pushed all of our soldiers too far, asked too much of them.

As former Fort Lewis commander James Dubik points out in today’s story, that’s not just a Lewis-McChord question; it’s one for our whole country.

For the past few days our reporting has focused on Staff Sgt. Bales. We are doing our best to describe the person his colleagues, friends and family know him to be. We are laying out the facts of his military and civilian past to try to establish what his state of mind may have been a week ago.

But with or without this latest incident, we’d have more reporting to do about soldiers at Lewis-McChord. We want to look at their redeployment schedules and ask what has been done to prepare, screen and care for troops before they ship out and when they get home. We’re gathering data now for those stories.

We also need to do a better job of showing readers what it’s like to be a soldier these days. Or to be part of a military family repeatedly enduring months of separation and worry. We’re working on those stories, as well.

If you have other ideas, please let us know.

Has Lewis-McChord had trouble of late? Absolutely.

But as the media glare focuses on one horrific incident, let’s also remember the tens of thousands of soldiers stationed there who volunteered to serve our country, who endure hardships most of us would find unimaginable and who perform courageously and honorably.

Karen Peterson: 253-597-8434

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