Lewis-McChord hunkers down in media glare

Shooting the latest incident to draw negative attention

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LAKEWOOD -- For the last two years, Joint Base Lewis-McChord has become accustomed to the media’s glare, and not just for its contributions of thousands of troops to 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 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 says.

Leaders at the base care “very much about its returning military personnel, and making sure that they are doing it right,” Gov. Christine Gregoire 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.

Lewis-McChord was called the 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 Maj. Christopher Ophardt said in an email.

Army spokesman George Wright at the Pentagon said in response to an email 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 in 2009 and 2010 each, Ophardt said. The Army Medical Command is investigating whether the Madigan Army 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.

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 Sen. Mike Carrell, R-Lakewood. “We’ve been at war for 10 years. Some of these guys have been deployed four or five times.”

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, Ga., 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.

On Tuesday, an Army lieutenant colonel assigned to Lewis-McChord was arraigned after he told his girlfriend that he’d paid $150,000 to a hit man to kill his superior officer and his estranged wife, according to documents filed by prosecutors in Pierce County Superior Court in Tacoma. Robert Underwood pleaded not guilty to felony harassment.

Gonzalez, of Coffee Strong, an Army veteran who served in Iraq from 2006 to 2007 in the same unit as the Afghan shooting suspect, blames the incidents on the military, which he said is not providing adequate access to mental-health services.

Questions about inadequate help for troubled soldiers were reinforced last month when a psychiatrist at Madigan was found to have cautioned against “rubber-stamping” troops with a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Soldiers with the condition may receive treatment costing as much as $1.5 million during their lifetimes, which could bankrupt the Army and Veterans Affairs Departments, according to a memo from an Army ombudsman provided by the office of U.S. Senator Patty Murray, D-Wash. The Army has suspended the head of Madigan pending the investigation of whether the center withheld PTSD diagnoses.

Murray, a Democrat and chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, called for the probe into Madigan’s mental-health screening procedures. She said last month that after 10 years of war, the military still has “no consistent diagnosis, no consistent tools and different levels of professionals” working on solutions.

About 1,600 troops who were screened by the Madigan center may have received a mental-health misdiagnosis and are being reevaluated now, said Matt McAlvanah, Murray’s spokesman. About 285 troops whose PTSD diagnoses were changed are being screened again, and the military is trying to locate the rest, McAlvanah said.