LAKEWOOD, Washington (Reuters) - Around the home base of the American soldier accused of killing 16 Afghan civilians there is a sense of dedication to a tough job, but stress from years of battle in repeated tours in the “sand box” of Iraq and Afghanistan is eating away at troops.
“A lot of the guys, especially those with a lot of deployments, have built up a numbness to people being killed or hurt,” said one veteran of six tours abroad, including Iraq and Afghanistan, describing his own reaction to the weekend shooting. “The people who hate us are going to put a bad spin on us no matter what we do.”
The 33-year-old sergeant says he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. He asked not to be identified, since the base has told soldiers not to speak with media.
“These things happen,” Vietnam veteran John Haddick, an elder at Lake City Community Church in Lakewood, Washington, said of the weekend killings in Afghanistan.
“It’s not going to change individuals that much, this one incident, or their attitude to deployment. They understand it’s a hazardous place,” said Haddick, who speaks to many serving soldiers and veterans in his role at the church, a 10 minute drive from Joint Base Lewis-McChord, and helps them overcome their ordeal.
A U.S. staff sergeant from the base has been detained by U.S. authorities after 16 Afghan civilians, including nine children, were shot dead at the weekend in what witnesses described as a night-time massacre near a U.S. base in Afghanistan’s Kandahar province.
A U.S. official said the military flew the soldier out of Afghanistan, and media reports said he was taken to Kuwait.
Lewis-McChord, 10 miles southwest of Tacoma, Washington, is the largest military base on the West Coast, with about 40,000 military personnel, swelled to more than 60,000 by civilians and families.
Currently, 5,955 troops - including 5,400 Army, 500 Air Force and 55 Air Force Reserve troops - are serving in Afghanistan from the base. That accounts for about 7 percent of the 90,000-strong U.S. force in Afghanistan.
“They are not going to be normal again,” said Alicia Underberg, 60, a retiree, in an interview at the nearby Veterans Affairs hospital, where she was helping a retired Marine sniper with PTSD who takes 11 medications daily and sleeps away most of his days.
“They serve so many tours,” she said. “What is it going to be like when they try to integrate with society?”
There are concerns that the Army does not always take care of soldiers damaged - physically or mentally - by the rigors of war.
“It’s like they break them, and don’t want to fix them. So they just find anything to shut them out,” said the wife of a sergeant who has served multiple tours of duty in Iraq over a 17-year Army career.
More than 4,000 Army combat soldiers from Lewis-McChord’s 2nd Stryker Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, are scheduled for deployment to Afghanistan in April and May.
“If I was to go to Afghanistan, I would be scared,” said 23-year-old Alyssa Patrick, a reservist who left her full-time post in the Army in 2010 after serving at a big base in Iraq, which she said felt normal in comparison.
Together the two countries are called “the sand box”, she said.
Patrick said a male friend of hers who is single was getting ready to deploy and excited by the prospects of higher pay and a new experience.
“Some people are addicted to war, some are moderate, and some people don’t want to go,” said a second soldier who declined to be identified.
A third, who once served near the place of the civilian shooting in Kandahar, said his unit had struggled to establish a rapport with locals.
“I put in blood, sweat and tears, and I mean that literally. It just makes it harder. We can’t leave like we left Vietnam, scrambling from the embassy rooftop,” he said.
The 33-year-old sergeant who spoke of numbness toward violence said the main hit to morale after the Kandahar shooting was having to deal with more training about PTSD.
“Everyone was like, Really? Are you kidding me?,” he said. “Somebody screwed up, and we have to do additional training.”
Additional reporting by Laura Myers; editing by Mohammad Zargham