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Were Multiple Deployments a Factor in Afghan Killings?

March 19, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, the suspect in the Afghan massacre, had served three tours in Iraq before his Afghanistan deployment. Jeffrey Brown, The Washington Posts's Carol Leonig, a retired army general and an army psychiatrist discuss Bales' failed promotion, former deployments and mental health screenings.
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JEFFREY BROWN: Carol Leonnig is part of a team of Washington Post reporters digging into his background to build a portrait of Robert Bales and joins us now.

Welcome.

CAROL LEONNIG, The Washington Post: Thank you, Jeff.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, he grew up in Norwood, Ohio, as we say. He joined the Army at a relatively late age, 27. Fill us in. What had he been doing?

CAROL LEONNIG:  He’d been a stockbroker with his brother and also with another company, something they did together called Spartina Investments, a financial person, and joined the military, enlisted after the September 1 terrorist attacks.

JEFFREY BROWN: Do we know what happened to the business and why he joined?

CAROL LEONNIG:  There are some indications there were problems with the business. And we’re still reporting on that at the moment. So — but it appears as though there were allegations that he had been engaged in some wrongdoing there.

That’s still a little murky. There were also — there was a belief among many of the friends and family that he felt a calling to help after the terrorist attacks and to do something. And after he had enlisted and done a whole tour is when he met his wife and they married.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, you have been talking to some of his friends from early deployments, I guess. What do they tell you?

CAROL LEONNIG:  Friday night, when his name was released by the Defense Department, I talked to a Capt. Chris Alexander, who, to my surprise, could not have been more glowing in describing Staff Sgt. Bales, said that, I would want a Bales in every company I worked in, said he was a professional soldier, totally on guard at all times for risk, interested in protecting his colleagues and men, and did his job admirably.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, of course, the mental health issue has been raised to the fore now. What do we know? What can we say?

CAROL LEONNIG:  We know he was really — had been injured twice, fairly seriously, lost a piece of his foot in one, rolled over in Iraq in his Stryker vehicle and had a concussion that was described by the military as mild. So he was treated for a brain injury.

Many people said, hey, you can go back to work after a concussion. We know he was really disappointed. . .

JEFFREY BROWN: Let me stop you there. Do we know about what happened with the military in terms of what kind of vetting he got at that point?

CAROL LEONNIG: We know generally what the military at this particular base does. We don’t know from interviewing him or his wife what actually happened in his treatment file.

But what generally happens is, military service members are asked to self-report. Do you feel well? Do you feel any voices in your head? Do you feel comfortable to go back? And so it’s a self-reporting screening process when you’re redeployed.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now I interrupted you. You were about to say that he was disappointed at going back, right?

CAROL LEONNIG:  Yes. That’s a little interesting conflict in the story.

He and his wife both were very disappointed that he had lost a promotion, because he had done a lot of sacrificing in the three previous tours.

JEFFREY BROWN: Let me stop you there. Do we know why?

CAROL LEONNIG:  We don’t know why.

I mean I’ve talked to folks who worked around him in the 32 and didn’t know him personally who said that it wasn’t a typical thing for somebody his age to get this kind of promotion. A lot of guys who were moving up on that trajectory moved quickly and at the age of 27 could be promoted from staff sergeant. He was 38. So, maybe age went against him. We don’t know.

Certainly, if his previous captain in Iraq had been asked, I think he would’ve said, yes, please promote him.

So — forgive me — back to the story. We know he’s been hurt twice pretty seriously. We know he’s treated for this brain injury. And we know he and his wife have — are under the belief at least, as they report to each other, that he’s not going to be shipped out again and that they’re going to look for a calm deployment. They’re thinking about relocating to Hawaii. They’re thinking about going to Germany.

They have sort of a wish list in their mind. And then, all of a sudden, he’s back out to Afghanistan.

JEFFREY BROWN: And then, in the meantime, of course, also financial — growing financial problems, including their house.

CAROL LEONNIG:  Correct. They had put their house up for sale not too long before the incident.

And it appears that they were trying — according to her description, they were trying to consolidate some debts and try to bring down their costs. Then she reports to the real estate agency the day after the shooting that they have a family emergency and she’s not going to be selling.

JEFFREY BROWN: And just briefly, today, there was this first meeting. It was just happening, I think. Do we know anything out of what came out of that?

CAROL LEONNIG:  Browne has given some allusions — John Browne, his attorney, has given some allusions to his defense, but he hasn’t told us in great detail what they talked about.

But the idea is that he’s trying to figure out how to defend his client who, according to the military, walked back on base after this shooting that was so grisly and said, I did it.

So how do you sculpt a case to defend this person? Was he in a delirious state? Was he dissociative?

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Carol Leonnig of The Washington Post, thanks so much.

CAROL LEONNIG:  Thank you, Jeff.

JEFFREY BROWN: And now we turn to some of the larger issues raised by this tragedy.

We’re joined for that by retired Gen. Peter Chiarelli. As vice chief of staff, he was active in mental health issues in the U.S. Army. He also was deputy commander in Iraq. And Dr. Jeffrey Johns, he spent several years as an Air Force psychiatrist, and is now in private practice.

Gen. Chiarelli, I will start with you, and acknowledging that you only know what we’re all learning as we go here. But in a case like this, if it happened under your command, what questions would you want answered? What jumps out at you here?

GEN. PETER CHIARELLI (RET.), U.S. Army vice chief of staff: Well, I know from working as hard as we have all been working for the last 10 years to understand post-traumatic stress, traumatic brain injury and other behavioral health issues, that we just do not have good, reliable diagnostic tools that we can use in every single instance to tell how a soldier has been affected either by a concussion or through some kind of a traumatic event.

JEFFREY BROWN: Dr. Johns, same question to you. What jumps out at you here, having worked with and studied soldiers, particularly those serving in Iraq and Afghanistan?

DR. JEFFREY JOHNS, former U.S. Air Force psychiatrist: Well, I can’t comment specifically about the accused soldier, but what I can say is that there’s a phenomenon known as berserk or going berserk that has been reported throughout time in almost all wars.

Homer wrote about an episode about in which Achilles went on a rampage and committed several atrocities following the death of his friend. So while this is a rare phenomenon, it has been reported. Jonathan Shay writes about his patients experiencing something similar in Vietnam.

And it’s a horrible event that can happen. Unfortunately, it doesn’t lend itself to scientific study very well.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Gen. Chiarelli, just to get more specific here, one issue clearly has been raised about the multiple deployments. Now, what is known and what is not known about the impact of deployments, multiple deployments on soldiers and Marines?

GEN. PETER CHIARELLI: Well, we really don’t know a lot.

I mean, we know for sure that we’ve got tens of thousands of soldiers who have gone on multiple deployments and not displayed any of this kind of behavior. We also know we have soldiers that find themselves in Iraq and Afghanistan within a year, and some of our initial data indicates that they are more likely to attempt suicide than soldiers that have been with a unit for a long period of time, integrated into that unit.

So I think it would be wrong to jump to the idea that multiple deployments is necessarily the culprit here. I don’t believe that we have got data that shows that conclusively.

JEFFREY BROWN: Is it something that you would want to look more at, though? I mean, try to fit it in to help us to understand this, because there is so much talk about it. How do you think about it in terms of a case like this?

GEN. PETER CHIARELLI: I think you have to — every case is different. You can have a soldier that crosses into Iraq and Afghanistan for less than 24 hours and is part of a very traumatic event, sees either his good friend killed or just a horrible, horrible event, where you can have a soldier that’s been on multiple deployments and doesn’t see something like that.

You’ve got individuals that are more resilient than other folks, individuals who find themselves in a bad situation and have the resiliency to make the most out of that situation and get stronger for it. And we know that there are other people that have low resilience and they get into this kind of a situation or into a bad situation, and they don’t react in the same way.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Dr. Johns, when you get to the question of PTSD or traumatic brain injury and its impact, again, what is important for us to know when you’re trying to look at a case like this? What — how much do we really know? And, importantly, how much do we know about how the military has responded in cases where it is found?

DR. JEFFREY JOHNS: Well, we do know that once someone does have PTSD, that a subsequent trauma makes things dramatically worse. The same thing can be said for a traumatic brain injury.

We also know that these conditions can increase the risk of violent behavior. While the majority of individuals with these conditions won’t commit violence, it does increase the risks above the baseline. It’s my — also my personal experience that there are many individuals suffering in the military who do feel trapped, who feel command pressure to redeploy, even though they don’t feel capable of doing so, and feel barred by the medical process.

At Fort Lewis specifically — it’s been well written about — that the medical board system denied people a correct diagnosis of PTSD. And that’s something I’ve personally witnessed. Factors like that can unfortunately make a soldier feel trapped and perhaps more likely to do things they would later regret.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Gen. Chiarelli, this — I know this was hugely important to you over the last number of years.

It’s become more in the consciousness of the military certainly. What’s your sense of how well the Army in particular does in dealing with it?

GEN. PETER CHIARELLI: Well, I don’t know of any other organization that screens their people before they go, when they’re deployed and when they come back.

And if we had reliable screening tools, reliable diagnostics, we could go so much further. If you walk into a room with 100 people and you ask them if they have high blood pressure, and none of them say they do, and you have a blood pressure cuff, you can tell pretty quickly who is telling you the truth and who has high blood pressure. They can’t hide that.

But the stigma associated with behavioral health issues is not a stigma that is just shared by the military. It’s shared by us all. And that’s really what we have to get at. We need to get at the stigma and eliminating the stigma and advancing the science to no-kidding cures that will help us to both diagnose and cure people who have post-traumatic stress and the effects of traumatic brain injury.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Dr. Johns, would you agree though with the notion first of all that the screenings are adequate, but the diagnostics are not all there? How do you see it?

DR. JEFFREY JOHNS: No, the screenings are largely self-report.

And there could be a lot of pressure placed on an individual not to be fully disclosing on such screenings. So they are clearly inadequate. The science is going to be slow in developing. It’s going to be a long time before we fully understand these issues.

But we do know how to take care of people. And the military is not doing a good job of taking care of its own. There’s still a lot of command pressure to force someone back into a deployment, even if they don’t feel ready. And there’s pressure placed on the medical system to go along with that. That still hasn’t changed. And it needs to change if we’re going to live up to our commitment to our service men and women.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, and, Gen. Chiarelli, I mean this is — these are hard issues. This is a high-risk — very high-profile situation. What’s your sense of the military justice system’s ability to cope with the kinds of issues we’re talking about?

GEN. PETER CHIARELLI: Well, I mean, that’s really outside of the scope of what I’m here to talk about today.

The military justice system will do the job that it has always done, a very, very fine job, in handling these kinds of things. But, again, I mean, you’re going to have a clash of the titans here. You’re going to have people on both sides, like Dr. Johns, that say that the diagnostics are clearly adequate. And you’re going to have other people come in and say they’re not.

I just don’t believe that the military today, if they could be given the diagnostics they needed, would not utilize those in a way that would help us all. But I’m telling you, they’re just not available.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right.

Gen. Peter Chiarelli, Dr. Jeffrey Johns, thank you both so much.