Former Lewis-McChord soldiers weigh in on Bales

The (Tacoma) News TribuneMarch 19, 2012 

Two former Stryker soldiers who've gone on multiple combat deployments and dealt with the trauma that can follow them offer divergent perspectives about whether such experiences could have played a role in Staff Sgt. Robert Bales' alleged massacre of Afghan civilians.

“It’s not shocking to me,” said Kevin Baker, a former staff sergeant with Joint Base Lewis-McChord’s 4th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division. “There are hundreds, if not thousands, of soldiers who are screaming for help, but they aren’t getting it. And this was what, his fourth deployment? That’s pretty ridiculous.”

But Joshua Renschler, a retired sergeant with Lewis-McChord’s 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, sees it differently: “These were planned, cold-blooded, clear-cut killings.”

“I don’t see it as just being a culmination of military-related events that took place, and he just snapped and did it,” said Renschler, who belonged to the same brigade as Bales. “I’m sorry, but this is not to be blamed on multiple deployments or (post-traumatic stress disorder) and (traumatic brain injury).”

Bales, 38, of Lake Tapps, is at a military prison in Kansas awaiting charges. He allegedly left his base in southern Afghanistan on March 11, gunned down 16 villagers including nine children, and burned some of their bodies.

His Seattle-based attorney says it’s too soon to say whether Bales suffered from PTSD, but that he sustained a head injury on one of his three previous deployments. Accounts have varied over whether it was combat- or noncombat-related.

Both Baker, 27, now a Los Angeles Community College student and anti-war activist, and Renschler, 29, national director of the Tacoma-based support group Men of Valor, served more than one deployment to Iraq.

Both veterans also developed PTSD. And both reject the idea that Lewis-McChord is a rogue base that breeds troubled soldiers, although they reach that conclusion in different ways.

“To say this is all Fort Lewis’ problem, that’s really just doing containment for the military,” Baker said. “The entire military is in crisis. There’s more suicides among soldiers nationwide in the last six years than there have been (soldiers) killed in combat. There needs to be an investigation and overhaul of the entire military culture in this country.”

Renschler said, “There’s a danger in wrapping this all up as a ‘Fort Lewis thing.’”

“Fort Lewis and Madigan (Army Medical Center) have done a really good job saying some things have got to change for soldiers transitioning back from combat. But it’s an extremely overworked system, and they are extremely understaffed. We need the community to step up and fill those gaps.”

Baker, who deployed to Iraq in 2007 and again in 2008, said he was struggling with combat-related stress and sought treatment while awaiting a third deployment. After an Army psychologist initially diagnosed him with adjustment disorder, he turned to an on-base, military-sanctioned group therapy program that led to a re-diagnosis of PTSD and his eventual separation from the Army.

“I was the last one to be medically discharged and then they disassembled (the program),” Baker said. “What I heard was that the administration believed it was leading to too many PTSD discharges.”

Meantime, he said fellow soldiers in his Stryker unit were showing tell-tale signs of PTSD but being sent back into combat. One soldier threw himself out of a window, he said. Another killed himself.

“It’s absurd,” Baker said. “You have hundreds of soldiers who should be getting discharged that instead are essentially getting punished administratively for not living up to Army values because they have PTSD. Then, they’re sent back to combat.”

Renschler, who served 51/2 years in the Army, said he suffered a traumatic brain injury and broke his back falling off a Stryker combat vehicle in Iraq in 2004. While he was recovering back home at the base south of Tacoma, his Stryker unit in Iraq struck a roadside bomb. Six soldiers and one Russian journalist were killed in the May 2007 attack, which at the time was the largest single loss of life in a Stryker vehicle.

Already suffering from severe physical injuries, Renschler developed survivor’s guilt. He tried to save his military career but ultimately received a medical retirement. He later took a state corrections officer’s job at McNeil Island, but during a traumatic event at the prison he suffered a panic attack and was rushed to a Lakewood hospital.

“That’s when I was finally told I had PTSD and needed to get help,” Renschler said.

He joined a Veterans Administration treatment program but found it lacking. Through his church, he discovered a workbook for returning soldiers, called The Combat Trauma Healing Manual. He worked through its exercises, discovering his “new normal.”

Renschler now uses the manual to help guide group-therapy sessions for soldiers who’ve suffered trauma.

“The soldiers I work with at Fort Lewis and at the VA system as well, they have places they can go,” he said. “There are plenty of resources out there, but some of this stuff needs to be supplemented. More often than not, a soldier doesn’t want to admit they have a problem. That will keep them from going to get these services.”

Renschler said he’s able to reach soldiers through the Men of Valor program because he’s able to identify with what they’re going through.

“But we don’t fix them,” he added. “We’re here for them and support them, but we’re clear: ‘You’re going to need to get some help for some of the other issues.’”

Unlike Renschler, Baker, who co-founded a veterans’ and active service members’ anti-war group called March Forward, believes the Army has ignored combat-related stress and over-deployment problems among soldiers.

“I was honestly at the point of breaking,” Baker said of his mental state at the time of his last ordered deployment. “It was to the point where I wasn’t sure what I was going to do. I was not going back (to Iraq) and I was going to get out no matter what. But how that path would have developed, I’m glad I didn’t have to find out.”

Renschler believes the complexities of multiple deployments and combat stress are too often used as a scapegoat – likely by soldiers with mental health issues and other problems that existed before they enlisted.

“I had it really bad, but at no time did I ever have thoughts of blowing up the state Capitol or taking innocent people’s lives,” he said. “I’m not a puppet on string. I still have the ability to make a choice.”

“I’ll tell you flat out, some of the therapies are inadequate,” Renschler added. “But that doesn’t mean you give up and say there’s nothing out there to fix me. Look for something better.”

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