Army sergeant accused of Afghan killings struggled to pay bills, passed over for promotion
War Is Brain-Damaging
What caused Sgt. Bales to snap? A group I facilitate for Vietnam Veterans struggled with this question even before the name of the accused sergeant was released. Violence, injury, death and war stir intense emotions in all, particularly among veterans who have been up close and personal. The issue of atrocity and slaughter of civilians is, naturally, an incredibly intense and sensitive subject.
My group members wrestled with this for 90 minutes; most had extreme empathy for the cumulative damage war has upon warriors. They could not even begin to grasp the immense pressure put upon younger soldiers, some of whom serve three, four, and up to nine tours. They/we are humbled by shocking reports of soldiers committing sudden violence, some of which is toward family, but more often towards self. They embraced the contributing factors that need be considered: alcoholism, traumatic brain injury, PTSD, financial problems, issues of unemployment, possible relationship problems, a passed over promotion, an unwanted next tour, recent injury, and experiencing the wounding or killing of fellow warriors.
Reports indicated that Sgt. Bales was suffering from many of these factors; he was also reported to be highly decorated, a model soldier, and saved lives of civilians and Americans in some of the hottest conflicts in Iraq. How could a highly trained soldier, a member of an elite unit, trained sniper and leader of men possibly commit such an atrocity? Our group struggled with this question and did not come to a clear explanation. They had empathy and contempt; some launched into politics of the current wars, some blamed the military for too many rotations, some defended the military, others discussed the role of combat, loss of recent friends, PTSD, alcohol, and tbi (traumatic brain injury). The discussions were intense and a few favored certain factors, but no consensus or full explanation was derived.
One thing we did derive: in certain situations our usual narratives fall apart. If the conditions are right, we are all capable of sudden violence or extreme behavior. The media will no doubt speculate on which factor(s) were critical in this current horror. Forensic experts will attempt to definitively opine, but we may never fully know why this particular soldier ‘snapped’ in such a dramatic and horrific fashion. Thousands of soldiers carry the burdens of war. Most struggle in silence and harm no one, and if they do injure anyone, they hurt or punish themselves.
We may never know the full explanation of what went wrong. My personal speculation is that alcohol played a large factor. It is the most common variable in violence: domestic, self or toward others. It also works in tandem with PTSD and traumatic brain injury. What will probably emerge is a complex picture of a determined and accomplished soldier worn down by many variables, military and domestic. Early reports suggest Sgt. Bales and others were drinking heavily that evening, against military rules. Those early reports also suggested drinking to levels of blackout. Sgt. Bales allegedly had a drunk driving hit and run episode while stateside. Whereas not the sole factor, alcohol might have been the ‘tipping point’. Alcohol is a common way of “self-medicating” or “de-stressing”, but it can have an almost ‘evil’ impact in unleashing primitive emotions. In fact, it is a common but often understated factor in the surging suicide numbers in young soldiers. Alcohol has a long history of violence in so many settings, especially the home. Unfortunately, we continue to deny alcohol’s power or even its presence. Mr. Bale’s attorney alleged his client had not been drinking.
We will know more as facts emerge, but we may never fully grasp what went wrong or why. We do know that war is ugly; it changes people and distorts mind, body and soul. The results of war can make you feel ‘untouchable’ and unique. My hope is that veterans or military personnel reading this blog will recognize that their worst fears are not reflected in the rare disasters. Most people, even civilians, have a fear of ‘snapping’. Exposure to the horrors of war intensify that fear beyond that which most observers can express or comprehend. The vast majority of those who develop PTSD do not snap. Instead, they suffer quietly and deconstruct their lives. PTSD, especially with co-occurring addiction, is complicated and destructive, but highly treatable. Recovery requires Sleep, Safety and Sobriety, the three “Ss” that are the first steps in separating you from the demons of war.
Jerry A. Boriskin, Ph.D.
March 18, 2012