As US military investigators try to piece together what led a 38-year-old staff sergeant to commit Sunday morning’s killing spree, psychological experts agree a psychotic break or underlying mental illness may have been behind the massacre.
Such a barbaric action would normally be preceded by strong signals that something is wrong, signals that, in this case, may have been missed or gone unreported.
“This could have been signalled by erratic and changed behaviour in the soldier including strange or unusual behaviour, insomnia, weight loss, talking nonsensically or incoherently, making threatening statements and using drugs,” said Dr Jeffrey Lieberman, chairman of psychiatry at the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and director of the New York State Psychiatric Institute. “Rarely do such incidents of extreme behaviour occur without some preceding signs.”
Dr Bengt Arnetz, professor of occupational and environmental medicine at Wayne State University in Detroit, said that even if these signals were present, the current system used by the military is woefully inadequate at detecting them.
“All the systems have never been evaluated,” said Mr Arnetz, whose research focuses on the effects of stress on the psychological wellbeing of police, first responders and soldiers. “I think that they’re very, very bad at monitoring people close to the breaking point. We don’t have good surveillance tools.”
Afghanistan has been described as a “pressure cooker” for US troops assigned there. One army psychiatrist who was posted there, but wished not to be named, said daily bloodshed could push an unstable soldier to kill innocent Afghans. “There’s a lot of death,” says the Army psychiatrist, “and all the Americans there are under a lot of stress. The whole region — it’s the birthplace of the Taliban — is a very dangerous area. If the soldier was going out on patrol, he probably was attacked pretty much every day. If he stayed on the FOB [Forward Operating Base], he was probably being shelled regularly.”
The suspect comes from one of the largest military bases in the US and one that has seen its share of controversy and violence. Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state, home to about 100,000 military and civilian personnel, was the home of four soldiers convicted in the deliberate thrill-seeking killings of three Afghan civilians in 2010.
Military newspaper Stars and Stripes called Lewis-McChord “the most troubled base in the military” that year.
A US official said the shooter was a conventional soldier assigned to support a special operations unit of either Green Berets or Navy Seals engaged in a village stability operation in Afghanistan.
The base has suffered a spate of suicides among soldiers back from war. In 2010, a dozen soldiers from the base were arrested on a slew of charges that included using drugs, beating up a whistleblower in the unit and deliberately killing three Afghan civilians during patrols in Kandahar province. Four were convicted in the killings.
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