Army monitored Stryker brigade, hit hard in Afghanistan, for signs of stress

A group of U.S. soldiers from a platoon in the 5th Stryker Combat Brigade, including Calvin Gibbs, stands accused of targeting Afghan civilians for sport.
By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 18, 2010; 10:07 PM

AT JOINT BASE Army officials, concerned about the aftereffects of combat, were keeping a close eye on the 5th Stryker Combat Brigade long before soldiers from the unit were charged with atrocities committed in Afghanistan.

The 3,800-member brigade had trained for more than a year under the assumption that it would go to Iraq. In February 2009, however, it received orders to go to Afghanistan instead. With only a few months to prepare, the brigade - named for the Army's eight-wheeled Stryker combat vehicles - arrived in July 2009 and was thrust into the war's toughest fighting in southern Afghanistan.

It also paid a steep price: 35 of its soldiers were killed in combat, six others died from accidents and other causes in Afghanistan, and 239 were wounded during its year-long deployment.

Army officials at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, the military installation in the shadow of Mount Rainier that served as home to the 5th Stryker Brigade, said they took unprecedented measures to prepare for the unit's return this summer. They expanded health and reintegration programs designed to screen and monitor every soldier for potential brain injuries, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, drug abuse, domestic discord and behavioral problems.

Base officials said the return of the 5th Stryker Brigade was part of a larger influx of 18,000 troops coming back to Lewis-McChord from Iraq and Afghanistan.

"The Army senior leadership knew that this was the largest redeployment we've had out here in the northwest since the Korean War," said Army Col. Thomas Brittain, the joint base garrison commander. "I think we were very well prepared for it."

But as in the case of the alleged atrocities, Army officials are facing accusations that they didn't do enough and ignored signs of trouble.

On Aug. 27, a soldier from the 5th Stryker Brigade who had gone AWOL shortly after his return from Afghanistan surfaced in Salt Lake City. There, he marched into the Grand America - a high-rise hotel and local landmark - dressed in battle gear and carrying an AR-15 rifle, two handguns and almost 1,000 rounds of ammunition.

The soldier, Spc. Brandon S. Barrett, 28, died in a shootout with Salt Lake City police. One officer was shot in the leg, but no bystanders were hurt. Police said they were fortunate to have averted a massacre.

Barrett had been reported AWOL by his unit on July 20. On Aug. 19, the Army listed him as a deserter and issued a federal warrant for his arrest, said Maj. Kathleen Turner, an Army spokeswoman.

Barrett's family, however, said they knew exactly where he was during most of that period - at home with them, in Tucson, where they assumed he was taking an authorized leave. Relatives said the Army never contacted them until he was classified as a deserter. Turner said platoon members tried to call on July 22 but "were unsuccessful."

Army officials acknowledged that Barrett was flagged by their screening process upon his return from Afghanistan. They said he was referred for counseling after he was arrested for driving under the influence at Lewis-McChord on June 28 and also because he had told counselors that he was having "relationship concerns," Turner said.

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