JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD - Army officials, concerned about the aftereffects of combat, were keeping a close eye on the 5th Stryker Combat Brigade long before soldiers from the unit were charged with atrocities committed in Afghanistan.
The 3,800-member brigade had trained for more than a year under the assumption that it would go to Iraq. In February 2009, however, it received orders to go to Afghanistan instead. With only a few months to prepare, the brigade – named for the Army’s eight-wheeled Stryker combat vehicles – arrived in July 2009 and was thrust into the war’s toughest fighting in southern Afghanistan.
It also paid a steep price: 37 of its soldiers died in combat and 239 were wounded during its year long deployment.
Army officials at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, the military installation that served as home to the 5th Stryker Brigade, said they took unprecedented measures to prepare for the unit’s return this summer. They expanded health and reintegration programs designed to screen and monitor every soldier for potential brain injuries, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, drug abuse, domestic discord and behavioral problems.
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Base officials said the return of the 5th Stryker Brigade was part of a larger influx of 18,000 troops coming back to Lewis-McChord from Iraq and Afghanistan.
“The Army senior leadership knew that this was the largest redeployment we’ve had out here in the northwest since the Korean War,” said Army Col. Thomas Brittain, the joint base garrison commander. “I think we were very well prepared for it.”
But as in the case of the alleged atrocities, Army officials are facing accusations that they didn’t do enough and ignored signs of trouble.
On Aug. 27, a soldier from the 5th Stryker Brigade who had gone AWOL shortly after his return from Afghanistan surfaced in Salt Lake City. There, he marched into the Grand America – a high-rise hotel and local landmark – dressed in battle gear and carrying an AR-15 rifle, two handguns and almost 1,000 rounds of ammunition.
The soldier, Spc. Brandon Barrett, 28, died in a shootout with Salt Lake City police. One officer was shot in the leg, but no bystanders were hurt. Police said they were fortunate to have averted a massacre.
Barrett had been reported AWOL by his unit on July 20. On Aug. 19, the Army listed him as a deserter and issued a federal warrant for his arrest, said Maj. Kathleen Turner, an Army spokeswoman.
Barrett’s family, however, said they knew exactly where he was during most of that period – at home with them, in Tucson, Ariz., where they assumed he was taking an authorized leave. Relatives said the Army never contacted them until he was classified as a deserter. Turner said platoon members tried to call on July 22 but “were unsuccessful.”
Army officials acknowledged that Barrett was flagged by their screening process upon his return from Afghanistan. They said he was referred for counseling after he was arrested for driving under the influence at Lewis-McChord on June 28 and also because he had told counselors that he was having “relationship concerns,” Turner said.
But she added, “There was nothing that pinpointed him as being so atrisk.”
Barrett’s family said he came home to Tucson on July 27. His brother, Shane Barrett, a Tucson police officer, said nothing seemed amiss.
“They were probably some of the best times I ever spent with my brother,” he said.
On Aug. 19, however, Shane Barrett said he received a call from a colleague at the Tucson Police Department who told him the Army was looking for his brother. The Army told Tucson police that, in addition to being AWOL and facing drunken driving charges, Brandon Barrett had been sending alarming text messages to members of his platoon, such as one that read, “You can’t mess with soldiers returning from deployment,” Shane Barrett said.
He said the Tucson police ran a database check but found no warrants for his brother or any record of the DUI. As soon as Brandon Barrett learned the Army was looking for him, however, he took off.
He wasn’t seen again until a week later, when he appeared in Salt Lake City. Army officials said he had been in touch with his platoon and an Army chaplain after he left Tucson, reassuring them that he was on his way back to Lewis-McChord.
Around Aug. 25, however, he posted a Facebook message that indicated he was either “going to hurt himself or someone else,” Turner said. Military police issued a BOLO alert – Be On the Lookout –for Barrett in several states and noted that he was armed, she said. But they couldn’t find him until it was too late.
Barrett’s family said that, as far as they knew, he had never visited Utah before and knew nobody there. His mother has speculated that he was attracted by the name and prominence of the Grand America Hotel.
"She thinks my brother was trying to make a statement about how America treats its soldiers,” Shane Barrett said.