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December 6, 2012

Deeply Layered Bales Case Requires Examination Beyond Sensationalized Media Reporting

Deeply Layered Bales Case Requires Examination Beyond Sensationalized Media Reporting

Written By: Shannon P. Meehan, IVMF Communications Specialist

As the country wrangles over the sexual exploits and extramarital affairs involving an adulterous CIA director, a jealous – and quite territorial – biographer, and a Tampa socialite, a less publicized hearing regarding the worst case of civilian slaughter attributed to an individual U.S. soldier in our country’s history since the Vietnam War has finally concluded.

Robert Bales, a decorated staff sergeant in the U.S. Army, is accused of killing 16 Afghan villagers, including nine children, in a pre-dawn rampage inside Afghanistan’s Kandahar province.

With the pre-trial hearing now concluded, military officials must now decide whether the case against the accused Sergeant Bales will proceed to a court martial. Investigative Officer Colonel Lee Deneke, who oversaw the preliminary hearing at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state, will write a recommendation to brigade command. Ultimately, the decision will be made by the base’s commanding general, Lieutenant General Robert Brown, who may take several weeks to decide whether to refer the case to a court martial.

Sergeant Bales would face the possibility of the death penalty if a court martial proceeds as a capital case. The last execution in a U.S. military case occurred in 1961 when U.S. Army Private John A. Bennett was hanged after being convicted of rape and attempted murder.

Army Prosecutor Major Rob Stelle urged the presiding officer to recommend a court martial, citing the “heinous, brutal, methodical, despicable nature of these crimes.”

Defense attorney Emma Scanlon pleaded that Bales’s judgment had been clouded the night of the shootings by steroids, alcohol, and sleeping pills, stating, “We don’t know what it means to be on alcohol, steroids, and sleeping aids.”  Bales tested positive for steroids three days after the massacre, and soldiers testified that Bales had been drinking the night of the shootings.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injury (TBI) have been raised as issues in this case. Bales had previously been screened for a brain injury at Madigan Army Medical Center, and his attorney laid the groundwork for a possible PTSD defense by highlighting pre-shooting incidents in which Bales easily lost his temper.

So, to what extent – if at all – should PTSD and other cognitive injuries be considered in the case?  On one hand, it seems reasonably plausible that PTSD would play a role in Bales’s actions, but on the other hand, a great deal of people suffer from PTSD and function quite capably in society.

This is a deeply layered issue that requires great examination.  Given the sensitive issue of PTSD – a subject wrapped in as much assumption and hearsay as ignorance – speculation should not be made without substantial follow-through.  Once the media flooded our living rooms with the initial story, particularly the tenuous speculation of PTSD as the potential catalyst, I feel that they assumed a responsibility to see the case through and thoroughly examine it in its entirety- namely the issue of PTSD and violence explored at trial.  Without this, the case runs the risk of being trivialized as another PTSD-raged killing spree by another imbalanced soldier.

The result of such fly-by-night coverage without thorough exploration is an indictment of everyone suffering from PTSD as capable of such horrific crimes.  I fear that – as the shock value of the story wanes – many of the questions raised will go unanswered, or even worse, the greater issues of PTSD and TBI will remain unexplored in society.  Like the billboard signs dotting our highways, the story will be behind us as quickly as it was plastered in front of us.  Lots of reporting and lots of buzz, but little actually explored or learned.

The massacre in Kandahar, Afghanistan received major news coverage when the story broke.  In a flash, every aspect of Bales’s life – marriage, financial situation, mental and emotional history, friendships and affiliations – was splattered across our TV screens. Nightly news and talk shows revolved around the tragic incident, and we were instantaneously oversaturated with the shallow basics and scant details of the story. But now that the novelty of the once-hot story has waned, the real substance of the story—the issues of PTSD and violence—remain much less explored.

Little publicity and little coverage were afforded to the pre-trial hearing, as it lacks the sensationalism that the shootings had.  Years from now, or perhaps already, I worry that this story will be framed as a soldier with PTSD going on a killing rampage; a sentiment falling far short of the deep examination this criminal tragedy, this trial deserves, given its implications regarding PTSD and violence. This leaves the potential for all of those with PTSD to be stigmatized as being capable of such a horrific crime.

In a following piece, I will discuss the issue of PTSD as it relates to the Bales case, pulling from some of my own personal experiences. I hope that it becomes an issue that is well-explored and openly discussed in society, and that we can move beyond the initial feelings of shock this story caused, to a chance to learn about serious issues affecting many of our veterans.

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