Beech Island vet sees dark side of war in Afghan civilian tragedy

Daniel Smith doesn’t make excuses for the Army staff sergeant accused of killing 16 Afghan civilians, including women and children.

But the Army veteran of the Iraq war understands the pressures service members experience in combat and how a traumatic brain injury drastically affects behavior.

“There are a lot of things expected of you, and when you throw a TBI in the middle of it, someone can just go off and snap that quick,” said Smith, 41, who lives in Beech Island with his family and a service dog to help him cope with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, 38, was named Friday as the suspect in the attacks, and news reports say he served multiple tours in Iraq and suffered a head injury in a service-related wreck in 2010. Both are red flags for Smith, who still struggles with short-term memory problems and flashbacks six years after he was injured by a roadside bomb.

“This was back before the TBI was considered a serious thing,” he said. “I was raised up rough, so I brushed the dirt off and went back to work.”

The mental effects of multiple deployments are still being uncovered, but a 2008 report by the Army’s Mental Health Advisory Team provides some insight. Doctors interviewed soldiers of both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and found that in Iraq “soldiers on multiple deployments report low morale, more mental health problems, and more stress-related work problems. Soldiers on their third (and) fourth deployment are at particular risk of reporting mental health problems.”

Anecdotally, multiple deployments seems to be a problem unique to post-9/11 service members. The change to an all-volunteer military force reduced the number of available personnel and forced military leaders to extend deployments and boost numbers with “weekend warriors” from the National Guard. Advances in medical technology have also allowed more service members to survive injuries and return to service.

Department of Defense records show 1.3 million of the 2.3 million service members who deployed in support of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars served one tour. That includes troops serving in support roles outside those countries. More than a quarter have served more than two tours and 10 percent served three tours. Four percent have served more than four tours and 36,254 troops have served more than five.

Marine Corps Maj. Chris Perrine said the Pentagon doesn’t keep records of the number of deployments in earlier wars such as Vietnam, Korea and World War II. But anecdotally, Perrine said service members sent overseas in World War II remained there for the duration of the war and that multiple tours were uncommon in Vietnam and Korea.

The second issue is the traumatic brain injury Bales reportedly suffered in a rollover wreck in Iraq. Department of Defense numbers show 233,425 service members have been diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury from 2000 to 2011, including noncombat related injuries. Congressional lawmakers last week pushed for answers from the Pentagon on how a soldier with such an injury was placed back into the combat theater.

Smith said the pressures of combat manifested in a similar tragedy while he was deployed in Iraq in 2005. Marines in Haditha killed 24 unarmed civilians execution-style, including women and children, in retaliation for the death of a popular lance corporal from a roadside bomb.

Smith also has his own story to tell. He and his company were searching for improvised explosive devices when his lieutenant and two friends were nearly killed in an explosion. Smith and two others chased those responsible about 3,000 meters into a graveyard and called in support from an Apache helicopter. The helicopter fired and wounded two of the insurgents, but a third was possibly still in the vicinity.

Smith came across the wounded and briefly contemplated shooting them. It took tremendous self-control not to, Smith said.

But “as Americans, we do set the example as far as what’s right on the battlefield,” Smith said.

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