This editorial will appear in Thursday’s print edition.
When the Stryker “kill team” arrests and prosecutions were in the news, Joint Base Lewis-McChord started getting labeled: “most troubled” base, “base on the brink” and even “rogue.”
Then a former JBLM soldier killed a Mount Rainier ranger. And the capper: Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, a JBLM Stryker soldier from a different brigade as the “kill team” members, is accused of slaughtering 16 Afghan civilians March 11. Nine of the victims were children, three were women.
Are these most recent examples – along with other crimes and a disturbing rate of suicide – conclusive evidence that there’s something rotten at JBLM?
Not if you look at the numbers. On Sunday, News Tribune reporters Christian Hill and Adam Ashton examined the data and found that the problems at JBLM are no worse than at other installations of comparable size. And in some cases, the problems aren’t as bad.
For instance, the suicide rate at JBLM has shot up. But that’s the case Army-wide. It’s not a JBLM problem; it’s an Army problem. And while the Army has stepped up suicide-prevention efforts, it’s had little success. Some critics say the service doesn’t do enough to screen potentially troubled soldiers, but there’s also some indication that many soldiers are reluctant to seek help for psychological problems, believing it will hurt their military careers.
Crime has gone up at JBLM, but so has the population. In 2010, however, the base had lower per capita rates of crimes against people and property than the Army as a whole (2011 statistics were unavailable).
Whenever there’s a large, concentrated population of relatively young men who are self-selected for a job that they know might involve violence, there are bound to be problems. This is compounded by the fact that many soldiers have been stressed by multiple deployments to war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan. Bales’ unit, the 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry, is on its fourth deployment.
As the Sunday report noted, deployment is beyond the purview of JBLM officials; decisions on military staffing levels which put a greater burden on a finite number of soldiers are national policy decisions. But the command structure at JBLM has been fragmented in recent years, with the last two base commanding generals focusing more on U.S. military operation in Iraq than on JBLM.
The Army is studying whether the base’s command structure needs revamping, especially given JBLM’s recent and projected growth. Making that kind of change – and providing more focused attention on problems related to soldiers returning from combat zones – could go far toward allaying community concerns.