Suspect in Afghanistan killings had history of alcohol incidents

04/02/2012 5:29 AM

04/02/2012 5:29 AM

TACOMA, Wash. — Staff Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, accused in the shooting deaths of 17 Afghan civilians, showed risk factors for alcohol abuse, including acting out violently while drunk, but it's unclear whether the Army knew about this behavior or whether he ever was referred to treatment.

Bales, who's stationed at Joint Base Lewis-McChord nine miles outside Tacoma, is charged with gunning down four women, four men, seven girls and two boys in a pair of villages near a military outpost in Kandahar province on March 11.

No motive has been divulged for the shootings, but the New York Times, citing unnamed senior military officials, reported shortly after the massacre that Bales had been drinking that night with other soldiers.

In the years leading up to the rampage, Bales, who joined the Army in November 2001, had five brushes with the law. Four of those involved alcohol, according to public records and news reports. They were:

_ A 1998 citation for having alcohol on a Florida beach.

_ A 2002 arrest for fighting with two security guards at Tacoma casino while drunk.

_ A 2005 arrest for driving under the influence in Pierce County, where Joint Base Lewis-McCord is located.

_ A 2008 fight at a local bowling alley where police reported Bales was "extremely intoxicated."

Substance-abuse experts say those run-ins with law enforcement show Bales might have a drinking problem.

"Those are definitely risk factors for abuse," said James Oliver, the program manager for chemical-dependency services at Good Samaritan Hospital in nearby Pullayup, Wash.

Lewis-McChord spokesman Maj. Chris Ophardt, citing federal privacy laws, declined to say whether Bales ever had been referred to the Army Substance Abuse Program, which is designed to help soldiers overcome alcohol abuse, or, in worst-case scenarios, to drum them out of the military.

Bales' attorney, John Henry Browne of Seattle, refused to discuss his client's drinking habits. "This is a bunch of crap," Browne said via email last week. "Sorry, but find another issue."

The Seattle attorney told The Washington Post last week his client took "two sips" of an unknown liquor provided by another soldier on the night of the massacre. Browne called the notion that alcohol had anything to do with his client's alleged behavior "silly."

Efforts to reach the attorney representing Bales' wife, Karilyn, were unsuccessful.

Regulations under the Army's Substance Abuse Program, last updated in 2009, require company commanders to get involved if they suspect one of their soldiers has a problem, either through the self-report of the soldier, medical records or law enforcement investigations.

Commanders who identify soldiers who have abused alcohol "must refer them within five working days for screening, education/training and/or rehabilitation as necessary," the regulations state.

Sanctions facing soldiers who abuse alcohol range from counseling to separation from the military.

Bales did not qualify for separation under the regulations, but it appeared he should have been referred to the substance-abuse program after being charged in 2002 with misdemeanor assault following his fight with the casino guards. The guards told police Bales was intoxicated and rushed them with a garbage-can lid after they kicked him out of the casino.

Bales received a deferred sentence in Tacoma Municipal Court. The charge later was dismissed after he completed an anger management assessment, had no other law violations in six months and paid a $300 fine, court records show.

He never was charged with DUI following his 2005 arrest, and he was neither arrested nor charged following the 2008 fight at the bowling alley. Police said the complaining witnesses also were drunk and there were no injuries.

While alcohol-related brushes with law enforcement are indicative of drinking problems, they don't tell the whole story, said Oliver, who is only familiar with Bales' case through media accounts. He's never examined Bales nor seen his medical records.

"That is not in and of itself indicative of a problem," Oliver said. "We'd really have to see how alcohol is affecting the different parts of his life: his family life, his work life, his health."

Still, soldiers like Bales, who deployed three times to Iraq before deploying to Afghanistan in December, are at a higher risk to develop alcohol problems than others, Oliver said.

"The stresses of being in combat would certainly make them more at risk for alcohol abuse," he said.

In 2010, the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research screened more than 1,100 combat troops recently back from deployment to Iraq. Nearly 25 percent screened positive for alcohol misuse three to four months after their return; nearly 12 percent "exhibited alcohol-related behavioral problems," according to an abstract of the study.

(Lynn reports for the The News Tribune in Tacoma, Wash.)

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