COMMENTARY | One early morning last March, Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, 39, allegedly left his base in southern Afghanistan to attack a village, returned to the base, and then left again to attack another village. When he returned just before dawn, the Associated Press reported , he was reportedly covered in blood and making statements such as “I thought I was doing the right thing.” The Army is now seeking the death penalty against Bales for the murders of 16 people, including nine children.
I can’t decide whether or not the death penalty is appropriate in this case. If the prosecution’s facts are true, Bales — who was allegedly drinking the night before the massacre took place and also tested positive for steroids — definitely bears a lot of blame for the deaths of those people. But his lawyers have a point that should certainly be considered: Bales was serving his fourth deployment in a war zone when the crime happened. After that much time spent in Iraq and Afghanistan, and what he undoubtedly saw and experienced during his time there, he was most likely suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
According to the website military.com , post-traumatic stress disorder can occur following a life threatening event such as military combat. The symptoms include depression, substance abuse, problems with memory and cognition, and other physical and mental health problems. A Daily Beast article last year detailed the fact both suicides and violent crimes have climbed in recent years among active military that has served in Afghanistan and/or Iraq. Former Army sergeant Joseph Carter, who served two tours in Iraq stated that the problem is that these young men and women are serving a tour and then preparing to go back and do it again 15 months later, without time to recover from the trauma of the first experience.
I have long worried about the mental health of military members serving multiple tours. There are only so many ways to put the scenes of war to the back of one’s mind before they start to take over the whole mind. The whole life. I’m not saying that Bales should face consequences for those he killed in Afghanistan. But I can’t help but think that Bales didn’t get the proper mental health services during and after his previous tours. He didn’t get the chance to recover properly. We — the United States collective, now at war for more than a decade — didn’t give him a chance to. We just sent him out to witness more atrocious acts. To add a few more life-threatening events to his memory.
If the Army wants to seek the death penalty against Bales — and they reportedly do — they should ask themselves first how much blame they bear in what happened. How much blame our country bears in allowing this to happen; in allowing people to be deployed over and over again. They should ask themselves how many times a man can be sent to war before the war comes home to his own mind.