A U.S. soldier suspected of killing 16 Afghan civilians on Sunday comes from Joint Base Lewis-McChord, a base located southwest of Tacoma, Washington. One of the largest military installations in the U.S., military newspaper Stars and Stripes in 2010 dubbed it “the most troubled base in the military.”
Four Lewis-McChord soldiers have been convicted in connection with the deliberate thrill killings in 2010 of three Afghan civilians, according to the Associated Press. The “kill team,” as the soldiers were called in the media, was charged with randomly targeting and killing unarmed Afghan civilians for sport. The base has also had a spate of suicides among soldiers who have returned from war.
NATO-led security mission ISAF in Afghanistan said it had no comment on Lewis-McChord while the shooting case was under investigation. But officials told the AP that any community the size of the base — a sprawling complex home to about 100,000 military and civilian personnel — is likely to have problems. Its reputation has been tainted by “a small number of highly visible but isolated episodes,” the officials said.
A U.S. military official said the suspect was part of “a village stability operation” working in Kandahar province. He was a sergeant who had served three tours in Iraq and was deployed for the first time to Afghanistan in December.
It is unclear whether the soldier was with Lewis-McChord’s 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, a division that sent about 2,500 soldiers to Afghanistan in December for a yearlong deployment.
The 2010 killings were carried out by soldiers from the base’s 5th Stryker Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division. The Post’s Craig Whitlock reported that year of “the kill team”:
Staff Sgt. Calvin R. Gibbs, 25, of Billings, Mont., is accused of leading a "kill team" of soldiers that murdered three unarmed Afghan men, hoarded body parts and photographed each other posing with their victims between January and May. Although the Army has not revealed a motive for the killings, other soldiers charged in the case have said they acted simply because they thought they could get away with it - and did so for several months without attracting scrutiny.
Four other soldiers from the 5th Stryker Combat Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division also face murder charges. Some of the defendants have described Gibbs as the ringleader, saying he planned the attacks, planted evidence to cover them up, carved fingers off corpses and intimidated other members of the unit to keep silent.
Gibbs's civilian attorney, Phillip Stackhouse, has said that the killings were combat-related and therefore justified.
Last year, Lewis-McChord was in the news again for a number of suicides — 12 in one year, up from nine in both of the years before, despite the creation of a suicide-prevention office and other efforts to counsel soldiers at the base, AP reported.
In the past five years, AP said, about 300 patients saw their PTSD diagnoses reversed by doctors at Madigan Army Medical Center at Lewis-McChord. The Army is now investigating whether those doctors were influenced by the cost of a PTSD diagnosis.
And in January, a 24-year-old Iraq war veteran from the base shot and killed a Mount Rainier National Park ranger. The veteran later died.
Officials told the AP the base has worked to create new programs to support returning soldiers. Lewis-McChord has a “Family and Morale, Welfare and Recreation” initiative, whose mission is “providing [soldiers] and their families with the same quality of life given to the society they are pledged to defend.” Its Facebook page made no mention of Sunday’s shooting. See the base’s Flickr photostream here.