The world responded with the appropriate levels of shock and horror to the news that a 38-year-old staff sergeant with the U.S. Army gunned down 16 Afghan civilians in cold blood Sunday in Kandahar province. Ashley Joppa-Hagemann was stunned, too. But when she learned that the soldier hailed from Tacoma, Wash.’s Joint Base Lewis-McChord, the senseless killings suddenly made more sense.
“When I found out he was from Ft. Lewis,” she told The Daily Beast, “it didn’t surprise me at all.”
That’s because the base has earned an infamous reputation in recent years for churning out troubled troops. One soldier murdered his wife and stuffed her body into a storage crate after his return from a third deployment in Iraq. Another allegedly set his wife on fire. Another was convicted of waterboarding his own young daughter for failing to know her ABCs. The Afghan kill team that perpetrated a three-month murder spree against innocent Afghan civilians came from Lewis-McChord. The former Army private who shot and killed a National Park Service ranger at Mount Rainier National Park on New Year’s Day was from Lewis-McChord.
Suicides of soldiers from that base totaled 12 in 2011—a base record. Joppa-Hagemann’s husband was one of them. That’s why Sunday’s news was sad but unsurprising. Jared Hagemann killed himself in order to avoid his ninth deployment overseas, his wife said. He just couldn’t go back in again.
“After he came home from his ninth deployment, he called me up, talking about how he had a bottle of pills and a gun,” she said. “He said he wanted to kill himself or get out of the military.”
Is Lewis-McChord at the root of the 38-year-old staff sergeant’s troubles? At this point, it’s tough to say for sure. The military has yet even to release his name, though sources at the Pentagon and in Congress have confirmed to other media outlets that the soldier has a wife and two children and was indeed stationed at Lewis-McChord.
Lewis-McChord is certainly not the only military base to foster tragedy. In 2009, at Fort Hood, in Killeen, Texas, an Army psychiatrist opened fire on the post, killing 12 and wounding 31. A year before, at the same base, a soldier fatally shot his lieutenant and then killed himself. At Fort Carson, Colorado, 14 soldiers allegedly committed or were charged with murder between 2005 and 2008. Earlier this year, an Army sergeant shot and killed five soldiers at a combat stress center at Fort Liberty in Iraq.
But Joppa-Hagemann and other outspoken critics of the way Lewis-McChord takes care of soldiers say it has become all too common for troops from that base—one of the nation’s largest, with 43,000 soldiers—to fall through the cracks, to have their posttraumatic-stress counseling ignored, and to be redeployed despite obvious signs that they need more help at home.
Joppa-Hagemann says there aren’t enough people helping the many who need it. “There are just too many to really take care of anyone,” she said. Her husband was a prime example, numbed during his time in Afghanistan. “This transition within 24 hours of going from killing people and coming home and holding his children, having people call him a hero. It gets to a person.”
Whether it got to the 38-year-old staff sergeant who could face the death penalty for Sunday’s killings is one of many unanswered questions. But what has become clear to many observers at Lewis-McChord is that there’s something wrong.
"There is a problem" at Lewis-McChord, said Karrie Champion, whose son killed himself to avoid returning to Afghanistan. "A congressional investigation is long overdue. Somebody needs to clean house."
“This was not just a rogue soldier,” said Jorge Gonzalez, executive director of Coffee Strong, a nonprofit G.I. coffeehouse just outside the base’s gates, in a statement. “JBLM is a rogue base, with a severe leadership problem. If Ft. Lewis was a college campus, it would have been closed down years ago.”
Last month, the Army removed Col. Dallas W. Homas from his post as commander of the base-affiliated Madigan Army Medical Center after 285 patients diagnosed with posttraumatic-stress disorder had those decisions overturned as they went through a screening process that could have resulted in their retirement from the military, according to Sen. Patty Murray. Which is to say, the center that was supposed to be treating soldiers’ posttraumatic stress was actually undiagnosing people, over a five-year period dating back to 2007.
"The only fair thing to do is to go back and find those service members who've also had their PTSD reversed by this unit in order to give them clear and unbiased re-evaluations,” Murray told the Seattle Times. “Our service members and their families deserve nothing less."
It’s unclear what the rationale was for reversing those patients’ diagnoses—or whether the staff sergeant involved in Sunday’s shootings was among them—but the Times found considerable disputes between the military and the Department of Veterans Affairs over how to diagnose PTSD.
Gonzalez and others say the reversals are nothing more than an attempt to reduce treatment costs and keep soldiers available for redeployment.
“This tactic of overturning diagnoses is another cost-cutting measure the military has set up in order to save money,” Gonzalez said, “after 11 years of the so-called global war on terror.”
Lewis-McChord officials declined to comment Tuesday on either Sunday’s killings or the base’s troubled history, but Lt. Col. Gary Dangerfield told Reuters Monday, “I don’t think we’re any different from any other base in the military.”
That attitude is part of what’s wrong, said Karrie Champion, whose son Jonathan Gilbert killed himself last July to avoid returning to Afghanistan. Gilbert’s station: Lewis-McChord.
“There is a problem at that base,” she said. “There’s been a problem for awhile. A congressional investigation is long overdue. Somebody needs to clean house.”
The base’s many critics agree that the main issue is multiple redeployments, with precious little time and counseling in between to help soldiers cope with what they’ve seen.
“You send someone on four or five deployments in a short amount of time, something’s going to happen there that maybe no manner of mental health treatment is going to really resolve,” said Matt Howard, a spokesman for Iraq Veterans Against the War. “There’s a tendency to say ‘Hey, take this medicine,’ and when soldiers ask to see a civilian provider in town, they’re looking at a four or five month wait, and get redeployed. If these guys are in the middle of treatment, it’s kind of like taking someone’s cast off when they’re halfway healed.”
Sunday’s killings may help lead to the only outcome that Joppa-Hagemann believes will actually prevent more tragedies for troops from Lewis-McChord and elsewhere: an end to the 10-year war. U.S. officials are reportedly debating a accelerated pullout from Afghanistan despite President Obama’s recent comments in a radio interview that we shouldn’t “rush to the exits” in the wake of that incident and the burning of Qurans last month.
Leaving Afghanistan for good, Joppa-Hagemann said, is the only thing that will really help.
“You can’t start to help these men and then send them back over,” she said. “We need to show these soldiers we care about them, and stop sending them. The soldiers know it’s a bullshit war. Everybody knows it.”