Who’s to Blame When Vets Turn Homicidal?

by , August 04, 2009

So it seems Gen. Stanley McChrystal may be poised to ask for more U.S. troops to fight in Afghanistan. This should come as no surprise, because he found the need to consult not one, but two members of the American Enterprise Institute-affiliated Kagan family, to whom nothing sounds better in the morning than "boots on the ground," for his recent 60-day assessment of the war.

Neoconservative hawk Frederick Kagan was responsible for selling his Iraq surge plan to President Bush in ’07, and he and wife Kimberly Kagan have been beating the drum for a similar surge in Afghanistan since President Obama took office. It doesn’t take a psychic to see their contribution at McChrystal’s elbow this summer.

So when Secretary of Defense Bob Gates announced in late July that troops may be coming home early from Iraq, what might have been hopeful news for tens of thousands of American soldiers and families was sidelined by the prospect of them coming home only to be sent right back out to another 110-degree hellhole in Afghanistan.

"The active army is just about broken" retired Gen. Colin Powell had the audacity to say in 2007. Two years and a new president later, such talk has curiously died down. But one look at the headlines and it is easy to see what has been broken and what is still breaking. And this is one problem Powell’s famous "Pottery Barn Rule" does not apply to; it cannot be solved by tapping into the U.S. Treasury.

That’s because, while the Army can always add bodies (and it will) to its ranks to fill operational gaps and even ease strain, it cannot reverse nor easily address the fact that the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are creating a generation of veterans who are not only disabled, sick, and emotionally unstable (52 percent of returning soldiers have already accessed VA healthcare and benefits), but on a very limited scale, are also becoming extremely violent , suicidal, and even zombie-like in their willingness to die and to kill again.

Read for yourself: meticulously researched and written by Dave Philipps for the Colorado Springs Gazette beginning on July 26, "Casualties of War," a two-part series, is a graphic novella of alarming, hackle-raising proportions.

But it is for real. Precious think-tank denizens like the Kagans would hardly recognize this world, but they helped to create it nonetheless.

"We Have a Public Disaster Here"

So says Sister Kateri Koverman in The Gazette series, which zeros in like a laser on members of the 4th Brigade Combat Team (BCT), a unit within the "Lethal Warriors," a nickname given to the Army’s 2nd Battalion, 12th Infantry Regiment stationed at Fort Carson in Colorado. In two bloody tours of Iraq – first in Ramadi in 2004, then in Baghdad in 2006 – the unit took the most casualties of any Fort Carson BCT "by far."

But according to interviews with individual members, these "lethal warriors" lived up to the name, committing random, fury-fueled acts of violence in-theater – including killing civilians – and "kept killing" when they came home, earning the distinction as Fort Carson’s most "deadly" and most criminal group, far surpassing the overall crime rate for nearby Colorado Springs, a city of 361,000. Furthermore, soldiers at Fort Carson have been accused of 14 homicides and attempted murders since 2005. In a one-month period between 2007 and 2008, the murder rate among the men in the unit was 114 times that of Colorado Springs, and 20 times that of young males nationwide, according to Philipps.

"The killings are only the headline-grabbing tip of a much broader pyramid of crime," writes Philipps. "Since 2005, the brigade’s returning soldiers have been involved in brawls, beatings, rapes, DUIs, drug deals, domestic violence, shootings, stabbings, kidnapping, and suicides."

Unlike most post-deployment media stories, which typically (though not often enough) explore veterans struggling with mental health issues (experienced by some 20 to 30 percent of returning soldiers) and traumatic brain injury, reporting about so-called psycho veterans who terrorize their communities is still quite taboo, certainly when it involves confessions of war atrocities committed by U.S. soldiers and Marines. It’s too awkward, as if even talking about it betrays the rest who served honorably. We have not come far from John Kerry’s maligned Winter Soldier moment: even the 2008 Winter Soldier hearings were not given more than a marginal examination by the mainstream press.

Furthermore, Americans have been conditioned, for all the right reasons, to be wary of stereotyping and to avoid and dismiss the Hollywood Rambo caricatures that exploited the Vietnam experience. So we put the unmentionables of war, including our not-so-model veterans, in a neat little (tinder) box, closed off from further debate or discussion.

Philipps accepts the warnings and moves bravely beyond them with his judicious presentation of the facts, based on firsthand accounts and corroboration from the soldiers and their friends and family members. He prepares a fresh but scathing brief in which he asks:

"Did the infantry turn some men into killers, or did killers seek out the infantry? Did the Army let in criminals, or did combat-tattered soldiers fall into criminal habits? Did Fort Carson fail to take care of soldiers, or did soldiers fail to take advantage of care they were offered? And, most importantly, since the brigade is now in Afghanistan, is there a way to keep the violence from happening again?"

Kenneth Eastridge, 24, who was allowed to return with his unit for a second Iraq tour in 2006 despite PTSD, a relentless drug and alcohol problem, and pending criminal charges, is now doing 10 years for accessory to murder. He had the most "kills" of anyone in his company in Baghdad. He told Philipps he once needlessly fired 1,700 rounds at a park filled with Iraqi civilians.

"The Army trains you to be this way. In bayonet training, the sergeant would yell, ‘What makes the grass grow?’ and we would yell, ‘Blood! Blood! Blood!’ as we stabbed the dummy. The Army pounds it into your head until it is instinct: Kill everybody, kill everybody. And you do. Then they just think you can just come home and turn it off."

But this isn’t just a story about a culture of killer automatons running amok in the Colorado suburbs. Returning to the "broken" analogy, these young men were clearly discouraged from seeking help for their demons when they came home. So they ferociously self-medicated and entered into a sick nether world where pain must be blunted and the very impulses that earned survival in Iraq – the enemy is everywhere… lock and load… shoot first, ask questions later – won out, leaving a string of victims in their wake, including the soldiers themselves.

Army Study: "Toxic Mix" of Drugs, Mental Illness, and Leadership

The greatest indictment here is of the Army itself, which after several mind-blowing incidents throughout The Gazette report should have much to answer for. Unfortunately the Army does not comment upon or substantiate many of the serious charges raised by the soldiers in the series.

But an Army report commissioned in response to the extraordinary criminal record at Fort Carson, released just before The Gazette series, indicates that it at least has an idea of what the "Long War" has wrought stateside.

According to the conclusions of the 126-page report, which focuses on eight homicides by six soldiers in the 4th Brigade Combat Team over the course of one year, there was a combination of known "risk factors" present: repeated, high intensity deployments, PTSD, drug and alcohol abuse, failures of leadership, and barriers to help, including the lack of mental health and substance abuse treatment and a stigma on seeking help perpetuated by commanding officers and the institution itself.

"Those in combination are really a toxic mix," said Lt. Gen. Eric Schoomaker, who spoke at a press conference about the report July 15.

But the Army did the assessment only after being pressed by U.S. Sen. Ken Salazar (D-Colo.), and the results are a "whitewash," charges Paul Sullivan, executive director of Veterans for Common Sense, who points out that while the Army puts its finger on all the risk factors, it refuses to recognize a direct cause-and-effect for the murders, playing down the overall impact of its own findings and leaving no one culpable. "There is no accountability for the criminal failures of the top brass," Sullivan charged in an interview with Antiwar.com.

Nonetheless, Maj. Gen. Mark Graham, quoted in The Gazette series, acknowledged that "there is a culture and a stigma that need to change." Graham was thrust into his position "in the thick of the murders," according to Philipps, but says Fort Carson is actively working to change its reputation and address the needs of soldiers there.


Fort Carson has an extraordinary record, but veterans across the country are getting into trouble so often that special courts have been established in order to take on their unique problems, offering treatment as an alternative to jail time. "For us, not only do we want [the veterans] clean, sober, and healthy," said Buffalo City Judge Robert Russell, "but in addition we want them productive and contributing, which will help them not only with their self-esteem but the stability in their lives."

If you want to learn how a promising young 19-year-old becomes such a mess that society just wants him clean, sober, and productive again, "Casualties of War" is an effective primer. It should be required reading for anyone who flippantly tosses around phrases like "war is hell." In fact, it should be required reading for everyone. Get a whiff of what eight years of war have made us and what the next year will bring as we send more kids like Eastridge back into Afghanistan for some "population-centric counterinsurgency."

And then bring them home to a hero’s welcome.

Read more by Kelley B. Vlahos