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.

January 22, 2012
For Love of the Game

This week marks the release of Paula Broadwell’s long-awaited biography of our generation’s most recognizable military leader: All In: The Education of General David Petraeus. Since Linda Robinson first teased us with Tell Me How This Ends in 2008, we’ve waited for the Paul Harvey on The Professor of War. She took us through The Surge, and now Paula delivers The Rest of the Story. 

Over the course of three years, Paula Broadwell translated unparalleled access and exhaustive interviews into 352 pages of “moments in time.” The end result is a very good read that conveys a sense of magic usually found only in old baseball films. In this case, Petraeus is Kevin Costner’s “Billy Chapel” walking to the mound in the ninth inning of the Afghan War. You can almost hear Vin Scully in the play-by-play booth:

“He’s pitching against time. He’s pitching against the future, against age, and even when you think about his career, against ending. And tonight I think he might be able to use that aching old arm one more time to push the sun back up in the sky and give us one more day of summer.”

Just like that baseball classic, Paula Broadwell weaves the story of Petraeus’ final inning on the mound into a captivating tale of an oftentimes extraordinary life. It’s the bottom of the ninth, time is working against him, and he’s asked to find three more outs in an arm that’s given that and more for years.  Petraeus’ year on the mound is intertwined with a series of flashbacks that follow the general from boyhood through his selection to face down the Taliban with the game on the line.

All In is more than a biography. It is a study in mentorship. It is a life journey cast against the backdrop of intense competition. It is the saga of a field leader in the twilight of a distinguished career. It’s “For Love of the Game” with a twist of camouflage.

When the book hits shelves on Tuesday, do yourself a favor and pick up a copy.  Then go home, make a cup of coffee, plug in your old DVD of “For Love of the Game” and enjoy a good read. It’s a lot more fun with Vin Scully calling the game in the background.  

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