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PTSD Could Be Part Of Soldier's Defense

8:16 AM, Mar 18, 2012   |    comments
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Fort Leavenworth, KS - The Army sniper accused of slaying 16 Afghan civilians spent his first full day in a solitary cell at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., on Saturday as questions grew about his motives and how he may have been affected by more than three years spent in war zones.

Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, 38, was held at a military prison after arriving on am Army cargo flight from Kuwait late Friday.

He is accused, but not yet charged, with going on a nighttime shooting rampage a week ago at two villages near the combat outpost where he was based in a volatile area outside Kandahar, in a region known as the birthplace of the Taliban.

Authorities said he appeared to have left the base on foot about 3 a.m. last Sunday with a weapon, then returned to the outpost after the massacre, surrendering his weapon and giving himself up.

Military officials said the dead included 11 members of one family and nine children. Some of the bodies were set on fire.

"Your mind can only take so much," Michelle Cadell, who grew up across the street from Bales in Norwood, Ohio, near Cincinnati, said in disbelief. "Bobby was sent over there four times. That's punishment, not a reward."

Bales' civilian lawyer, John Henry Browne of Seattle, said he had initial talks with his client and that he may have developed post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, from his combat experience.

According to an Army statement issued late Friday, Bales joined the Army in November 2001, shortly after the terror attacks of Sept. 11. He served three tours of duty in Iraq, lasting 12, 15 and 10 months in length. He was in the fourth month of his fourth combat tour and first in Afghanistan when the shootings occurred.

Browne suggested Bales may have been affected by severe human trauma during combat, including suffering injuries of his own and watching a fellow soldier have a leg blown off shortly before the village shootings.

Bales' case and Browne's comments suggest that combat stress could be a potential defense argument. But the condition has rarely, if ever, been used by defense attorneys to assert a defendant's innocence, legal experts say.

PTSD, however, can be effective in lessening a sentence once a suspect has been convicted.

"Usually, PTSD is a very difficult defense," said Bruce White, a California defense attorney and retired Marine colonel. "It can be significant in sentencing."

The standards for establishing insanity in military courts are similar to civilian courts, where defense attorneys need to prove a defendant couldn't distinguish between right and wrong while committing a crime. That has proven to be a high bar in most courtrooms.

"It's an uphill battle in the military and civilian court," White said.

However, the issue of combat stress could play an important role during the sentencing phase of a trial, when a defendant's state of mind can be considered a mitigating factor, legal experts say. That could be particularly important during a capital case.

Military law includes a death penalty. A handful of military prisoners are on death row, but no one has been executed since the early 1960s.

The case is likely to pose significant challenges for prosecutors, legal experts say.

Central to the case will be whether Bales made a statement and to whom. "You just cannot underestimate the importance of what he said," White said.

Bales allegedly voluntarily returned to the base after the shooting. It is not clear if he spoke to anyone about what occurred.

Gathering evidence in Afghanistan would be difficult. According to Muslim law, bodies must be buried soon after death. Relatives might oppose exhuming bodies and would not understand the nuances of American legal procedures. There were reports that some of the bodies were burned.

The shootings took place in the middle of the night, potentially making positive identification difficult.

Military investigators arrived at the scene, but by then much of the evidence, including shell casings, may have been picked over. The U.S. military cannot secure the crime scene as American police would be able to do.

Browne said Bales did not want to go on a fourth combat tour and had believed he would not be sent back to the wars before he received notification of his latest deployment.

Army battlefield research published in 2010 shows that fewer than two in 10 soldiers on their first or second combat deployment show signs of mental illness or reported marital problems. But that study showed that rate increasing to three in 10 soldiers for those on a third or fourth deployment.

PTSD is a severe anxiety disorder that has afflicted more than 200,000 veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as others in previous wars. It is marked by flashbacks or nightmares linked with violent events, a tendency toward avoidance or emotional detachment so not to dredge up disturbing memories, and a sense of hyper-arousal or a feeling constantly being on edge or angry, along with difficulties sleeping, concentrating or remembering.

"There may also be ... a strong urge to use alcohol or drugs to try to get sleep or not think about things that happened downrange (in combat)," according to an Army study on health problems released in January.

In recent years, the Army has worked harder to understand the concept of co-morbidity, or overlapping physical, psychological and habitual illnesses that soldiers can develop over time, looking at the relationship between, for example, PTSD, alcohol and aggression, the Army study found.

"Each soldier can be adversely affected by one or more physical or behavioral health issues at the same time but each in very different ways," the study says. "Leaders and healthcare providers now recognize that many individuals who suffer from PTSD or depression are at greater risk for alcohol and substance abuse, aggressive behavior (and) failed relationships."

Despite a ban on alcohol in the Afghanistan war zone, troops still manage to obtain through the mail or from Afghans, and there were Army reports that Bales was drinking shortly before the shootings. Alcoholism in the Army has been a leading problem for soldiers as the wars have dragged on.

"You have about 27% admitting they have a problem with drinking across all ranks," Army Col. John Stasinos, the addiction consultant to the Army surgeon general, said in a recent interview. "Alcohol is the most common (substance abuse) problem in the Army."

About 63,000 soldiers who fought in Iraq or Afghanistan last year admitted during health screenings three to six months after returning home that they may have a problem with alcohol, according to Pentagon data. But a Walter Reed Institute of Research study shows that only about 16% are referred to substance abuse programs for treatment.

The rate of alcoholism among soldiers doubled from 6.1 cases per thousand in 2003 to 11.4 cases per thousand in 2009, according to research.

In a move to curtail abuse, the Army launched an experimental program in 2009 at a handful of bases, including Joint Base Lewis-McChord where Bales is assigned, allowing soldiers to seek confidential treatment for alcohol abuse without their commander being notified. Since then, 519 soldiers at Lewis have asked for confidential help for alcohol.

 

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