March 19, 2012
I Don’t Like Mondays

These are the facts of the case, and they are undisputed.

We know his name: SSG Robert Bales. We know he is an Army-trained sniper. We know he served three combat tours in Iraq, and was deployed in December to Afghanistan for a fourth tour. We know he has a wife and two young children. We know he is assigned to the 3rd Stryker Brigade from Joint Base Lewis-McChord, what the media has dubbed “the most troubled base in the Army.”

We know he is accused of what is arguably the most heinous war crime committed by American forces since the My Lai massacre. More shocking than the Haditha massacre, more brutal than the “Kill Team” murders, more violent even than the “Blackhearts” killings in the Triangle of Death.

But we don’t know why. And we probably never will.

Some are quick to characterize Bales as a troubled man with a disturbing past. Others rush to suggest family problems at home. Others still want to portray him as a man on the brink. Nevertheless, his friends and his own family describe him as a dedicated professional, a good father and husband, and a fine Soldier. Something changed in the early morning hours on March 11.

These are the facts of the case, and they are undisputed.

Bales spent most of the past ten years assigned to Fort Lewis. While deployed to Iraq, he lost part of one foot and suffered a “mild” traumatic brain injury. Prior to his deployment to Afghanistan, that head injury was evaluated by the staff at Madigan Army Medical Center. And that is where this story begins to unravel.

After reversing the PTSD diagnoses of at least 285 veterans the commander of Madigan was relieved by Army officials, and the Secretary of Defense ordered a full review of the case. The Army, meanwhile, is busy reinstating many of the original diagnoses.

These are the facts of the case, and they are undisputed.

We tend to learn valuable lessons in the aftermath of these tragedies. They don’t excuse the crimes committed, but often reveal telling circumstances that establish the conditions that allow for the commission of those crimes. In the case of SSG Robert Bales, did the medical system provide him with the treatment and care he needed? That is a valid question in the wake of the Madigan fiasco. We should hope against all hope that Bales is not among those PTSD cases. If he is, then there are others who should answer for his alleged crimes. A leader also has a certain responsibility for the well-being of subordinates. Were his leaders actively involved in his medical case? Were they fulfilling their obligation to ensure he was truly fit for duty? A Staff Sergeant has at least eight direct leaders in his Brigade chain of command. Where were they? What were they doing for him? If he was truly “on the brink” of breakdown, why wasn’t his leadership there for him?

Some will read this and immediately assume this is about “cutting some slack” for Bales. It’s not. Tonight, we need to think about three things: responsibility, accountability, and culpability. A court martial proceeding will determine innocence or guilt in the killings. While that process ensues, we should concern ourselves with the system and the culture that put the Bales in a position where the crimes were committed for which he is accused.

There may be other veterans – men and women just like Robert Bales – out there tonight. Are we doing everything we can to care for them, to ensure their well-being, to protect them? If the answer to any of those questions isn’t an emphatic “yes” then we have work to do. Our Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, and Marines deserve our best, and we owe that to them.

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