'A base on the brink': where the trail to Afghan tragedy began


The trail to the Panjawi district of Kandahar Province in Afghanistan, where 16 civilians were murdered in the early hours of Sunday morning, begins at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, a sprawling US military facility just south of Seattle.

Here, beneath the mountains of the Pacific Northwest, around 40,000 soldiers are at any one time housed in between deployments. At 400,000 acres, and with 60,000 civilian residents, it is the largest and busiest base west of the Rockies.

Lately, it has become the most notorious. The suspect in Sunday's killings, said to be a 38-year-old sergeant with two children, is the most recent former Lewis-McChord resident whose behaviour during or after deployment has made headlines for the wrong reasons.

Two years ago, after four of the base's soldiers, led by Calvin Gibbs, were convicted of the deliberate "thrill killings" of three Afghan civilians, the forces newspaper Stars and Stripes called Lewis-McChord: "The most troubled base in the military." At Christmas, reporting on a rash of suicides – 62 since 2002 – along with soaring rates of domestic violence, drink-driving, murders, fights, robberies and drug overdoses there, the Los Angeles Times dubbed it: "A base on the brink."

The paper referred to a string of recent tragedies. They included an Iraq veteran who pleaded guilty to torture after water-boarding his seven-year-old foster child; another charged with torturing a daughter who refused to say her ABCs; and a husband who poured lighter fluid over his wife and set her on fire.

A soldier also kidnapped, tortured, and raped two women, attaching one, via cables, to a car battery and a husband murdered his wife and left her body in a bin.