By Gopal Ratnam, Alison Vekshin and Susanna Ray on March 14, 2012
For the last two years, Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state has become accustomed to the media’s glare, and not just for its contributions of thousands of troops to the U.S. war efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The sprawling installation between Mount Rainier and Puget Sound, home to both Army and Air Force commands, has played a critical role in the wars, providing everything from infantry brigades built around Stryker armored vehicles, to giant transport aircraft, to elite Special Forces and Rangers units.
Lewis-McChord, the biggest base on the U.S. West Coast, also has been the focus of headlines and government inquiries into suicides, deaths and crimes by soldiers based there. Now it’s attracting international attention because a 38-year-old Army staff sergeant deployed from the base is accused of killing at least 16 civilians in Afghanistan villages.
“Every base has its own problems, but no other base has had as much bad press as this base,” said Jorge Gonzalez, 32, executive director of Coffee Strong, a veteran-run nonprofit coffee shop in Lakewood adjacent to Interstate 5 near the base.
It’s an unfair rap, Washington’s governor said yesterday.
Leaders at the base care “very much about its returning military personnel, and making sure that they are doing it right,” Governor Christine Gregoire, a Democrat, told reporters in Seattle. Base officials have learned the lessons from Vietnam War veterans and are trying to help troops adjust to their jobs and families, she said. “So I’m not here to say that some blame goes to Fort Lewis.”
‘Most Troubled Base’
Lewis-McChord was called the U.S. military’s “most troubled base” in 2010 by the military’s Stars and Stripes newspaper.
Among the cases cited by the newspaper was the killing of three Afghans in separate incidents in 2010 involving troops from the base. Four soldiers pleaded or were found guilty, and seven others were convicted of lesser crimes from drug use to assaulting soldiers, Army Major Christopher Ophardt said yesterday in an e-mail.
Army spokesman George Wright at the Pentagon said in response to an e-mail inquiry that he didn’t have details about how crimes committed by soldiers based at Lewis-McChord compared with those at other facilities.
Suicides at the base rose to 12 last year from nine each in 2009 and 2010, Ophardt said. The Army Medical Command is investigating whether the base’s medical center improperly reversed post-traumatic stress disorder diagnoses in soldiers.
Lewis-McChord, home to the Army’s I Corps, the Air Force’s 62nd Airlift Wing, and other units, employs 43,000 military personnel and 15,000 civilians, according to Joe Piek, a base spokesman.
The base supports 56,000 family members and contributes $4 billion a year to the regional economy, he said yesterday in an interview.
With multiple tours of duty for many of its troops, the base has accounted for 115,000 deployments of active-duty, reserve and National Guard personnel to Iraq and Afghanistan, he said. Deaths of troops from the base include 201 in Iraq and 76 in Afghanistan.
“The problem is our military is getting tired,” said state Senator Mike Carrell, a Republican who represents Lakewood. “We’ve been at war for 10 years. Some of these guys have been deployed four or five times.”
Even then, most soldiers return to their lives “seamlessly” after a deployment, Carrell said in an interview.
In a city such as Lakewood, with a population of 50,000, and “you’ve one person that does a murder, does that reflect on the whole city?” Carrell said.
Units belonging to the Army’s I Corps have a storied history that includes liberating the Philippines from Japan during World War II and guarding the Korean Demilitarized Zone at the end of the Korean War.
Reports of trouble at the base cited in Stars and Stripes included the 2010 case of Army Specialist Brandon Barrett, 28, a Lewis-McChord soldier who was shot dead in a Salt Lake City parking lot after he shot and injured a police officer. In September of that year, Robert Quinones, 29, a former soldier who had been based at Lewis-McChord, held three people at gunpoint at Fort Stewart, Georgia, demanding mental-health treatment.
In January, a former Lewis-McChord soldier, Benjamin Colton Barnes, 24, killed a ranger at Mount Rainier National Park. He had left military service in 2009, Ophardt said.