Monday, March 19, 2012

Rogue soldier's case highlights war stress

WASHINGTON: Staff Sergeant Robert Bales, the US soldier accused of killing 16 civilians in Afghanistan last week, was deployed four times to Iraq and Afghanistan over a decade, a record of combat that at the very least suggests high levels of stress.

But army officials said that Staff Sgt Bales' combat tours were hardly unusual in a force that has had an unprecedented pace of repeat deployments in two grinding ground wars, among the longest in the nation's history.

'Lots of soldiers have four deployments, and they're not accused of things like this,' said Colonel Thomas Collins, an army spokesman.

In the coming weeks, a debate is likely to turn on whether Staff Sgt Bales' four combat tours helped deliver him to the village in Panjwai district of Kandahar province, in southern Afghanistan, where he is accused of going door to door and methodically shooting or stabbing Afghan civilians, mostly children and women.

The argument could well play out in a court martial, should his case go to trial.

So far, however, his profile - including a history of war injuries, financial pressures, disappointment about being passed over for promotion, brushes with law enforcement and a wife who went through pregnancy and years of parenting alone - matches that of many other US soldiers and Marines.

Over the years, high-ranking army officials have spoken out about how those strains were affecting morale and the mental health of the troops. Official surveys have researched the relationships between repeated deployments and a range of problems like marital stress, suicide and post traumatic stress disorder, and commanders have said that they are acutely aware of the problems that can follow combat.

Since the Sept 11 attacks on the United States in 2001, more than 107,000 soldiers out of 570,000 - the size of the active-duty army at its height - have been deployed three or more times, army officials said on Saturday.

Staff Sgt Bales, a 38-year-old father of two, had year-long deployments, although his tour in Panjwai was to be for only nine months.

Little is known so far about his deployment to Panjwai, but his unit appears to have been charged with building up the local police, a frustrating task that requires organising often-suspicious Afghan men into a security force.

Staff Sgt Bales received extra pay every time he was deployed, although it amounted to only US$150 (S$189) more a month for combat duty and US$250 more for separation pay because he was away from his family. Overall, his annual tax-free compensation when he was deployed to a war zone, including housing and food allowances, came to around US$68,000, the army said on Saturday.

His wife Karilyn Bales wrote of the disappointment within the family, when he was passed over for promotion, in a family blog.

A little less than a year ago, last March, she wrote that her husband had not received a promotion to E-7, sergeant first class. The family was disappointed, she said, 'after all of the work Bob has done and all the sacrifices he has made for his love of his country, family and friends'.

But she was also relieved, Mrs Bales wrote, because she hoped that the army might allow the family some autonomy in choosing its next location, after Staff Sgt Bales had spent years at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state.

Mr John Henry Browne, lawyer for Staff Sgt Bales, meanwhile said on Saturday that the latter had joined the military within about a month of the Sept 11 attacks, out of patriotism. 'It was not 'I'm going to get the bad guys' kind of thing. It was 'I'm going to help my country',' he said.