What’s happening at Joint Base Lewis-McChord?
Base scrutinized over war crime allegations, mental breakdowns and post-combat treatment
By MEGAN MCCLOSKEY | STARS AND STRIPES Published: September 17, 2010
JOINT BASE LEWIS-McCHORD, Wash. — First the medical center at this sprawling joint military base was alleged to have turned away National Guard soldiers seeking help for war wounds on the grounds that they were merely “weekend warriors” who were feigning injuries.
Then a dozen soldiers based here were accused of involvement in one of the worst war crimes allegedly committed by U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
And then three soldiers associated with the base suffered dangerous public mental breakdowns after returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, leading to confrontations with police and the deaths of two of them.
Now multiple criminal and military investigations are under way into the conduct of Lewis-McChord troops and the adequacy of the medical and mental health care they are receiving when they come home from war.
“We’re wrapping our arms around this in a holistic way,” Col. Thomas Brittain, the Lewis-McChord garrison commander, told Stars and Stripes regarding efforts to cope with the needs of returning troops.
He added that Army officials had warned the base to pay special attention to the mental health needs of the 5th Stryker Brigade as its members returned from intensive engagements in Afghanistan.
“We were told to take a very good look at our 5-2 coming back,” Brittain said.
Five soldiers with the 5th Stryker Brigade are currently confined to military jails, charged with conspiracy and murder for allegedly orchestrating the slayings of three Afghan civilians.
The soldiers, who returned in the spring from a yearlong tour in Kandahar province, are alleged to have thrown grenades and shot at three Afghan men in separate incidents, according to the charging documents. Seven other soldiers are charged with participating in the cover-up. Other charges include smoking hashish and mutilating corpses.
But the parents of one of the accused, Spc. Adam C. Winfield, said they can’t understand why it took months for the crimes to come to light, because they said they passed on urgent warnings to Lewis-McChord authorities about what was happening. Winfield had told his parents about the first murder and said he was aware of plans for more, according to Winfield’s lawyer, Eric Montalvo.
The Stryker soldiers were among an estimated 14,000 servicemembers who have returned to Lewis-McChord from Iraq and Afghanistan over the last five months, where they are supposed to be welcomed by a medical center that the Army says has more mental health providers on staff than any other U.S. base.
Yet those resources were not enough to prevent three soldiers associated with Lewis-McChord from suffering separate violent mental breakdowns in August and September, unrelated to the Afghan incident.
Army Spc. Brandon Barrett, 28, was dressed in full battle gear, clutching a rifle outside a hotel in Salt Lake City on Aug. 27, telling passersby that he was “in training.” When police arrived, Barrett shot one officer in the leg. The police returned fire, and Barrett was killed.
Barrett had returned a month earlier from Afghanistan after serving with the 4th Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment. His first weekend back, he was charged with drunken driving and was called out in formation. Shortly afterward, angry about that treatment and believing that he wouldn’t be allowed his 30-day post-deployment leave, he went AWOL.
But Lewis-McChord officials never told Barrett’s family that the soldier was AWOL, according Barrett’s brother, Shane. So when the soldier showed up in Arizona to spend time with his family, they assumed he was on authorized leave.
After leaving his family home, Barrett sent a text message to a fellow soldier, advising him to watch the news because he was going to be sending the Army a message, according to his unit’s chaplain, Capt. Scott Koeman. That soldier alerted his commanders, who got in touch with Tucson police. Their inquiries into Barrett’s whereabouts were the first time the family became aware of his AWOL status, Shane Barrett said.
“The Army had over a month to contact the family,” he said. “We could have done something. Anything. And this tragedy could have been avoided.”
On Sept. 6, Robert Quinones, 29, took three people hostage at gunpoint at a Fort Stewart, Ga., hospital, demanding mental health treatment. Quinones, a specialist with the 2nd Battalion, 3rd Infantry Regiment, had served in Iraq and was medically discharged from the Army earlier this year while based at Lewis-McChord,
“He hadn’t gotten the care that he wanted and he wanted it now,” Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Phillips, a senior Fort Stewart commander, told The Associated Press. “He’d had some experiences that could lead one to believe there were aftereffects to his service.”
One night later, Spc. Nikkolas Lookabill, 22, was shot dead by police in Vancouver, Wash. Police said that Lookabill, who served in Iraq with the 41st Infantry Brigade Combat Team, an Oregon National Guard unit, had been wielding a handgun on a city street and was acting in a threatening manner.
Some critics within the military fault the Madigan Army Medical Center at Lewis-McChord for failing to adequately address the mental health needs of returning soldiers.
“No one thinks there’s an issue until somebody does something really ridiculous,” said one infantry sergeant who is currently in the process of a medical discharge for PTSD and who asked not be identified.
An officer who just returned from Afghanistan said he had been praising the quality of care at Madigan to his soldiers while deployed, but grew disillusioned once back at the base.
In one case, the officer said, his unit had flagged a soldier suffering mental health problems as too high-risk to be allowed to go on leave, but Madigan providers “shuffled him off” with a prescription and cleared the soldier for leave. The soldier flew home, experienced a mental breakdown, and his platoon leadership had to fly down and get him into mental health treatment at another installation.
But base officials say they are providing adequate treatment to returning troops. Brittain noted that officials have added a family component to the redeployment process about 30 days before a unit returns and also have started doing platoon-level briefings with a behavioral health professional.
Moreover, base, mission and medical leaders meet monthly to track key indicators, such as spikes in domestic violence or drunken driving incidents.
“So we can ask: Is there something we’re not doing?’” said Col. Jerry Penner, the commander of the Madigan medical center.
Penner said he has heard only praise for the care Madigan is providing, although he acknowledged that unit officers are sometimes frustrated by the process involved in admitting a soldier suffering mental health issues. If the soldier resists treatment and is not forthcoming about symptoms he may be suffering, Penner said, doctors may not detect the need to admit him.
When commanders push the issue, Penner said he is sometimes called in as a “tie-breaker,” and in the last few weeks he said he has twice erred on the side of the commander and admitted the soldier.
Soldiers don’t need an appointment to see a behavioral health provider, but some complain that when distraught and in need of help, the first thing they are directed to do is sit down at a computer and complete a lengthy survey.
“I can understand where soldiers are coming from,” said Joe Etherage, acting chief of psychology at Madigan Army Medical Center. But he said that collecting the information gives the base an extensive record to keep track of issues and treatment and helps us “ensure everyone’s doing a good job.”
Meanwhile, the Army is currently conducting three separate investigations into allegations that Madigan treated demobilizing National Guard soldiers as “second-class citizens,” shunning their requests for medical treatment.
More than 180 soldiers with the 41st Infantry Brigade Combat Team needed medical care after returning in April from their yearlong tour in Iraq.
“We were totally just ignored and considered fakers,” said Sgt. Jason Greenless, one of the members of the National Guard unit, who needed surgery on his leg.
Instead of being assigned to the Warrior Transition Battalion so they could get treatment, a majority were sent home and were told by officials at Madigan and the base’s Soldier Readiness Center to use Tricare or the Veterans Affairs health system because the base needed to focus on the active-duty soldiers — “their own boys” who were returning.
“And that was actually said,” Greenless said. “Basically, we were told we didn’t belong and we needed to go home.”
In a PowerPoint presentation prepared by the acting chief of Madigan’s family practice department, the National Guard soldiers were depicted as “weekend warriors” who were feigning injuries to maintain their active-duty pay.
Lt. Gen. Eric Schoomaker, the Army surgeon general, later wrote a letter to Sen. Ron Wyden, D.-Ore., apologizing for the slide presentation and saying Madigan leadership had been unaware of it.
Penner said he could not comment on the National Guard allegations because they are under investigation. But he said he believes the situation was an aberration and not representative of how Madigan treats the reserve soldiers who demobilize through Lewis-McChord.
“We treat soldiers as soldiers,” Penner said.
Military base closures and realignments have resulted in about a dozen merges, such as the meddling in 2010 of Fort Lewis and McChord Air Force Base in Washington state. Now the Government Accounting Office says such mergers is proving more costly than the Pentagon predicted.
Megan McCloskey/Stars and Stripes