Army beefs up leadership at troubled Lewis-McChord base

SEATTLE (Reuters) - The U.S. Army announced a new layer of command at Joint Base Lewis-McChord on Thursday as it looks to strengthen leadership at the Tacoma, Washington-area post which has earned a reputation as one of the most troubled in the U.S. military.

The joint Army-Air Force base, with 43,000 active-duty military personnel and some 14,000 civilian employees, most recently attracted attention as the home base of Robert Bales, the staff sergeant accused of massacring 17 Afghan villagers in March. It was also home for a so-called “kill team,” convicted of wartime atrocities in 2010.

“This is an appropriate step for the U.S. Army to take,” said John McHugh, Secretary of the Army, to reporters after meeting leaders and soldiers at the base on Thursday.

A civilian, McHugh is effectively chief executive of the U.S. Army, in charge of manpower, equipment, weapons and financial issues. Under his plan, the Army will establish a new division headquarters at the base, under the leadership of two-star general, who has yet to be named.

The division will report to existing leadership at the base and take the lead in training, leadership development and equipment matters for five of the ten brigades stationed there.

McHugh said the change was not the result of recent events, but demanded by recent growth of the base, which has doubled in personnel over the last 10 years. “This analysis has been going on for months, the better part of a year,” said McHugh.

Lewis-McChord, formed in 2010 with the merger of Fort Lewis Army base with the adjacent McChord Air Force base, is now the largest military base on the U.S. west coast, comparable in size to Fort Bragg in North Carolina and Fort Hood in Texas.

That rapid growth, and repeated deployments of its Army units to Iraq and Afghanistan, has been blamed for a string of problems. The independent military newspaper Stars and Stripes in December 2010 called Lewis-McChord “the most troubled base in the military.”

The Army is reviewing accusations that doctors at the base’s hospital, Madigan Army Medical Center, reversed diagnoses of post-traumatic stress disorder in an apparent attempt to cut the cost of disability benefits paid out by the Army.

In 2011, the base had its worst year for suicides, with 12 people taking their own lives. A recent statistical study showed suicides, crime, and the number of deployments at Lewis-McChord was not out of line with Army averages.

Two high-profile cases have badly damaged Lewis-McChord’s public image. It was the home base of five enlisted men from the former 5th Stryker Brigade charged with premeditated murder in connection with three killings of unarmed Afghan civilians.

Four of the accused killers were convicted or pleaded guilty in court-martial proceedings of murder or manslaughter charges and were sentenced to prison. One was found guilty of cutting fingers off corpses as war trophies.

Last month Bales, a member of the 2-3 Infantry, 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team from Lewis-McChord, allegedly walked off his base in Afghanistan and gunned down 17 villagers. He is being held at the Army’s detention barracks at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, awaiting mental evaluation.

Reporting By Bill Rigby; editing by Todd Eastham