The Army’s official public accounting of Staff Sgt. Robert Bales’ massacre of unarmed Afghan civilians will not settle lingering questions about whether the military failed to catch signs of his instability or whether he had access to a paranoia-inducing antimalarial drug.
The Army rejected a Freedom of Information Act request from The News Tribune seeking Bales’ medical records, which would include descriptions of any medication he was taking and whether he had been flagged for mental health issues prior to the last of his four deployments with a Joint Base Lewis-McChord Stryker brigade.
The Army cited a privacy exemption in the Freedom of Information Act in denying The News Tribune’s request. The denial from the Army Medical Command was dated July 14.
The military generally does not release information about an individual’s medical history, but the newspaper had sought the records in the interest of assessing whether the Army had missed opportunities to divert him from the Afghanistan deployment.
Bales in August 2013 was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole after he pleaded guilty to twice slipping out of his combat outpost in the morning hours of March 11, 2012, to slaughter 16 unarmed civilians in their homes.
He could not explain his motives, and his attorneys did not attempt to defend him in court by citing post-traumatic stress disorder or the misuse of medication given to him by the Army.
Nonetheless, two medical questions have circulated about Bales since he was arrested on the morning of the massacre in Kandahar province’s Panjwai district.
One centered on whether he should have deployed at all. Bales, a father of two who spent his entire Army career at JBLM, participated in health screenings before and after his deployments.
It’s not clear if those tests raised any concerns about his mental health.
The other frequently raised question about Bales asked whether he took an antimalarial drug called mefloquine that has been associated with paranoia and hallucinations.
That question gained attention in July 2013 when former Army physician Dr. Remington Nevin obtained a U.S. Food and Drug Administration “adverse event” notification indicating that a soldier who was taking the medication had murdered “17 Afghanis” in March 2012.
The notification was an apparent reference to Bales, who initially was charged with the deaths of 17 Afghans. An unnamed pharmacist wrote the notification, which Nevin obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.
The Army started phasing out mefloquine in 2009, limiting its use to specific situations instead of handing it to the hundreds of thousands of troops deploying to Iraq and Afghanistan at that time. It remained popular among Special Forces units.
Last year, the FDA issued new guidance for the use of the drug, requiring that its packaging contain a warning about mefloquine’s possible long-term neurological side effects.
Bales’ lead defense attorney, John Henry Browne, has said the soldier used mefloquine on at least one previous deployment to Iraq. Browne did not have official documents suggesting Bales used mefloquine on his 2012 deployment, and Browne did not raise questions about the medication at Bales’ court-martial.
Bales and thousands of other soldiers in JBLM’s 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division received a different antimalarial drug called doxycycline when they deployed to Afghanistan in late 2011 and early 2012.
The News Tribune in June obtained several thousand pages from the Army’s criminal investigation into Bales’ killings. It included references to Bales’ medical records, but redacted almost all of his medical information.
The criminal report included descriptions of different kinds of pills Army police seized in Bales’ living quarters. None of them were labeled as mefloquine, though some of them were kept in unidentified bottles.
The News Tribune shared the report with Nevin, who concluded that Bales “almost certainly” had not taken the doxycycline he received prior to his deployment. The pill is meant to be taken once a day. Bales had more than a year’s worth of the medicine in his living quarters four months into his one-year deployment.
At the time of the killings, Bales was stationed at a Special Forces outpost called Village Stability Platform Belambay.
A noncommissioned officer from the 7th Special Forces Group gave Bales’ a bottle of steroids that he admitted taking. Nevin wants to see a definitive answer from the Army on whether another Special Forces soldier gave Bales mefloquine.
“Bales’ case remains suspicious for possible exposure to mefloquine,” Nevin said. “Certainly nothing in the records rules it out definitively, and the military remains stubbornly unwilling to confirm or deny that he was, in fact, taking the medication. Given the seriousness of the events that transpired, it is of critical importance for drug regulators, policy makers, and the public to know definitively whether mefloquine may have played a role in the events of that night.”
The News Tribune has one remaining FOIA request involving Bales. The newspaper is seeking an Army investigation into the command climate of his unit. The Army has refused to release the document even though Bales was given his life sentence 13 months ago. The document is expected to become available after a general considers Bales’ anticipated clemency request.