The stress of a fourth combat deployment, a troubled marriage and alcohol use appear to have combined to provoke the killings of 16 Afghan civilians by an American soldier, said a U.S. official briefed on the case.
The drinking, a violation of regulations governing U.S. troops in combat zones, may have been what sent the 38-year-old Army staff sergeant over the edge, said the official. The soldier was being flown to the U.S. today, according to the Pentagon.
The soldier’s lawyer, John Henry Browne, denied that alcohol use or domestic discord played a role, saying the soldier had “a very strong marriage.” After sustaining a concussive head injury and losing part of a foot in tours in Iraq, the soldier and his family were disappointed when he was sent to Afghanistan, Browne said.
“It would be fair to say that he and the family were not happy that he was going back,” Browne told reporters yesterday at his office in Seattle, about 50 miles (80 kilometers) north of Joint Base Lewis-McChord, the soldier’s home station. “The brigade was told that they would not be redeployed.”
A soldier in the same unit in southern Afghanistan had been “gravely injured” a day before the shootings, an incident that affected everyone in the unit, Browne said.
Browne didn’t reveal the soldier’s name, which the military has also declined to release. The soldier, who was flown to Kuwait from his base in southern Afghanistan on March 14, is likely to be held at the maximum-security military prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, a defense official said.
The officials who discussed the case spoke on condition of anonymity because the case remains under investigation.
A Pentagon spokesman, Navy Captain John Kirby, told reporters the suspect is being brought to the U.S. and declined to name the destination. He said the transfer isn’t related to when charges will be filed against the soldier and his name will be made public.
“The movement is completely separate from the process ongoing now with respect to investigation and prosecutorial work, so I wouldn’t read anything into his movement in terms of trying to second-guess the timing of charges,” Kirby said. “They are completely separate.”
Investigators continue to seek a motive for the March 11 killings in which the soldier opened fire on civilians in their homes, according to an Army memo to Congress. The incident threatens to erode U.S.-Afghan relations, drain remaining U.S. and European support for the war and add pressure to speed troop withdrawals.
The soldier, originally from the Midwest, was highly decorated and is “in general very mild-mannered,” according to Browne, who represented serial killer Ted Bundy, executed in 1989, and, more recently, 20-year-old Colton Harris-Moore, known as the “Barefoot Bandit” for stealing aircraft, boats and cars in a multistate crime spree.
Browne, 65, joined the King County Public Defender’s Office in 1975 and became chief trial attorney, according to a 1998 Seattle Times profile. After starting his own practice in the late 1970s, he represented Benjamin Ng, accused of helping to kill 13 people in Washington’s worst mass-murder, according to the newspaper. The jury spared Ng’s life.
The shooting suspect arrived in Afghanistan on Dec. 3 from Lewis-McChord, the Army said in a memo prepared for members of Congress. It was his first deployment to the country after three tours in Iraq, Pentagon spokesman George Little has said.
“He and the family were told that his tours in the Middle East were over, and then literally overnight that changed,” Browne said.
The Afghan shooting suspect trained as an infantryman and was a qualified sniper, according to a U.S. defense official familiar with the case. The alleged gunman’s job in Afghanistan was providing “force protection” for a Special Forces compound, said a second official. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because charges haven’t been filed.
Before his duty in Afghanistan, the soldier’s most recent tour in Iraq ended in 2010, an official said. Browne said the soldier suffered a head injury in a vehicle rollover accident and lost part of a foot in another incident. The lawyer said his client got a screening for the head injury at his U.S. base, though it’s unclear how complete the exam was or if he was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
“I’ve read from reports that he had a screening evaluation,” Richard Adler, a Seattle psychiatrist working with Browne, said at the news conference. “Screening evaluations are different from thorough, complete, comprehensive examinations.”
Last weekend, the soldier hiked to a village 800 meters (0.5 miles) south of his base near Kandahar city and then to another village 500 meters north of the base to commit the killings, the Army said in the memo to Congress.
The soldier has spent his entire career at Lewis-McChord, Browne said. The soldier’s wife and two children have been moved inside the base for their safety, the official said.
In reaction to the shootings, Afghan President Hamid Karzai told visiting U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta yesterday that U.S.-led coalition forces must leave rural areas and withdraw to major bases, according to a statement from Karzai’s office.
American troops triggered riots last month by burning copies of the Koran, the Islamic scripture, in a rubbish pit at the main U.S. base in the country. In January, Afghans protested over a video that showed U.S. Marines urinating on the bodies of Afghans they had killed.
Lewis-McChord, the biggest base on the U.S. West Coast, has been the focus of headlines and government inquiries into suicides, deaths and crimes by soldiers based there. Some veterans have said repeated deployments and inadequate mental- health services are contributing factors.
In a previous case of civilian killings in Afghanistan, a soldier was convicted last year of leading a rogue Army unit from Joint Base Lewis-McChord -- where the suspect in the new case is based -- that killed three Afghan civilians for sport. That soldier, Staff Sergeant Calvin Gibbs, was sentenced to life in prison.
“There is discussion of the death penalty, understandably I think in this situation,” Browne said. “It’s certainly not off the table at this point. It’s our hope that maybe it will be. We don’t know anything about our client’s state of mind, we don’t know anything about the facts of the case, and whether they can even prove he did what he’s accused of.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Peter Robison in Seattle at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editor responsible for this story: John Walcott at email@example.com