Robert Bales not the only one to blame for Afghan killings

17 Mar
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Robert Bales in 2011

Robert Bales, the staff sergeant who allegedly murdered 16 Afghan civilians last week, is not the only one to blame for his mental breakdown.

According to MSNBC, Bales has a history of anger issues and violence. He assaulted a girlfriend in 2002, and fled the scene in a hit-and-run accident soon after. He’s been evicted from his home in Washington state and had a host of financial issues including chronic unemployment. His wife’s blog also hints at family problems. Some of his platoon mates say he was known for drinking too much and acting erratically.

This is a portrait of a man under immense stress and suffering from depression. Those can only be magnified when serving in a combat zone – always on edge, seeing the citizens as potential terrorists, and trained to kill.

It was his fourth combat tour in 10 years. Combat tours run about 18 months on average, according to Men’s Health magazine. Even if you assume Bales was at the beginning of this tour, he had spent nearly five years in combat. Five years is a long time to be scared for your life. It’s a long time to hold a gun with your head in the sand and wonder what’s coming around the corner. That kind of stress has emotionally scarred men who spent just one tour experiencing it – let alone four.

Instead of focusing on Bales and his faults, we should also put a spotlight on the men and women who made the decision to keep Bales in Afghanistan. While they didn’t wield the guns that took the lives of Afghan children, they put Bales on that base. They kept him there despite three previous tours, an alcohol problem, and anger management issues. And while they didn’t fire the gun, they did put it in Bale’s hands.

No soldier ends up deployed on accident.

Instead of reporters taking photos of the house where Bale’s family lives or trying to contact him in Fort Leavenworth, Kan. federal prison, they should be asking for the name of his commanding officer, and then asking that man how this could have happened and how he is planning on preventing this with the rest of the troops. They should be talking to the Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and asking how our military can better care for our soldiers’ mental health. Instead of focusing on one man and his atrocious actions, we should be focusing on making sure they never happen again.

We cannot treat this case as one rogue soldier. If something about our military system doesn’t change, we will continue to have men and women who cannot take the stress of combat anymore and do something that ruins lives – civilians, their families’, and their own.

If Bales shot those people, as he’s been charged with, then he should serve the time the justice system decides is fair. But his commanding officer and all those who made decisions that put Bales in Afghanistan that night should be called onto the carpet to take their share of justice, too.

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