The gate at Washington state's Joint Base Lewis-McChord, which has… (Stephen Brashear )
Reporting from Seattle — Joint Base Lewis-McChord, the massive military base in Washington state, has been reeling amid scrutiny over the widening cases of violence and suicide among soldiers — most recently on Tuesday, when authorities announced that a lieutenant colonel at the base had been arrested on suspicion of threatening to blow up the state Capitol in Olympia.
Earlier this week, an Army staff sergeant from the base was taken into custody in Afghanistan on suspicion of killing 16 civilians.
But base officials said it would be wrong to assume that other busy Army bases are not similarly plagued with violent assaults, slayings and suicide by troops.
“We are in a unique situation in that we have a large veteran and retired general officer population in the area, we have a large antiwar movement in the Northwest, and then we also have the distinction to be very close to a very large media market. When you put those three things together, you are constantly under a microscope, and we have both supporters and critics,” Maj. Christopher Ophardt said in an interview with The Times.
Any large military base with large numbers of young men and women embarking and returning from war zones is likely to have turbulence, he said. He pointed to an article last month in the Fayetteville Observer documenting a surge in crime — including a police shootout, a murder, and six suicides in six weeks—plaguing Ft. Bragg, N.C.
“We have got to stop the violence,” Lt. Gen. Frank Helmick told troops from the 18th Airborne Corps at Ft. Bragg.
In the latest incident at Lewis-McChord, Lt. Col. Robert E. Underwood of the 191st Infantry Brigade was charged with harassment. He is accused of threatening his estranged wife, girlfriend and another lieutenant colonel at the base.
“I can confirm that a soldier from JBLM has been arrested and is being held in the Pierce County Jail after he allegedly threatened to blow up the state Capitol in Olympia and pay a hit man $150,000 to kill his wife and a fellow officer,” Ophardt said in an email to The Times.
According to court documents obtained from the Pierce County prosecutor’s office, Underwood has been involved in a two-year divorce proceeding and recently told his daughter that “he was going to do something crazy and it would be on the news, the world would know about it.”
Underwood’s girlfriend told his estranged wife this month that Underwood had said he planned to pay a hit man $150,000 to kill the wife and his boss, Lt. Col. Shawn Reed. The girlfriend said she had found a photograph of Underwood’s daughter, naked and sleeping, on his laptop, and when she confronted him about it, he told her her “head was on the chopping block.”
The felony harassment charges allege threats made to Reed, the estranged wife, and the girlfriend. The purported threat to blow up the state Capitol is still under investigation, authorities said.
Deputy Pierce County prosecutor Lori Kooiman’s affidavit said Underwood, who has been deployed to Iraq, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Afghanistan, has been evaluated by the military but was not diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of his military service.
But the report also noted that Underwood as a young child had watched his mother shoot and kill his two siblings, and had been shot himself multiple times during the incident and left for dead.
Lewis-McChord spokesman Joe Piek told The Times that Underwood had been in the Army since the mid-1980s and was commissioned as an officer in 1992 but was assigned to Lewis-McChord only in January.
Ophardt said the base has aggressively pursued criminal charges against errant soldiers and has received “humongous” new budget allocations over the last two years to boost services for the growing number of troops returning after deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan.
“The bad thing about all the media attention is it highlights our problems. However, on the same side, you can take those criticisms and you can make sure you’re looking at yourself on a consistent basis to make sure you are in line in the Army, and you are giving every soldier access to services — are they getting what they need,” he said.
“The post is catching up. We have 32 different services to help soldiers, from alcohol abuse counseling to financial problems to child care,” he said. “And the second part of that is making sure that we’ve educated leaders, soldiers and families, to make sure they know that it is OK to get help.…We’re telling them, put your machoism aside and get to that help so the professionals can make the determination of what is the right kind of help.”
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