By GENE JOHNSON, Associated Press
SEATTLE (AP) — A U.S. soldier suspected of killing at least 16 Afghan civilians in a nighttime assault is from a brigade that was the first in the Army to use the Stryker, a nimble eight-wheeled, light infantry vehicle built for a post-Cold War era.
Now, the brigade and the Washington state base where it is located are grappling with one of its own being accused of one of the worst atrocities of the roughly decade-old war in Afghanistan.
The name of the 38-year-old soldier was not released because it would be "inappropriate" to do so before charges are filed, Pentagon spokesman George Little said. The soldier is in custody at a base in Kandahar.
The staff sergeant was deployed Dec. 3 with the 2nd Battalion, 3rd Infantry Regiment of the 3rd Stryker Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, based at Joint Base Lewis-McChord located south of Seattle, a congressional source told The Associated Press.
The person spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.
The soldier, who has been in the military for 11 years, served three tours in Iraq and is married with two children, was being held in pretrial confinement in Kandahar while Army officials review his complete deployment and medical history, Pentagon officials said.
A U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity because the matter is under investigation said that during a recent tour of duty in Iraq, the suspect was involved in a vehicle accident and suffered a head injury, although information about the extent of the injury wasn't available. The accident was not combat-related, and there was no available indication that his injury could be linked to abnormal behavior afterward, the official said. Two U.S. officials speaking on condition of anonymity said the suspect had been trained as a sniper.
The news about the killing spree was the latest difficult episode for Lewis-McChord over the past few years.
Home to about 100,000 military and civilian personnel, it's had a spate of suicides among soldiers back from war. And most famously, four service members were convicted in the deliberate killing of three Afghan civilians during patrols in 2010.
The soldier accused in Sunday's shooting is not from the same brigade. Those soldiers were from the 5th Stryker Brigade Combat Team, which has since been renamed the 2nd Stryker brigade.
The 3rd Stryker Brigade, the brigade to which the accused soldier belongs, was the Army's first brigade to use the Stryker. The brigade deployed three times to Iraq before sending 2,500 soldiers to Afghanistan for the first time last December.
For this most recent deployment, it left its 300 Stryker vehicles at home and, instead, has been using vehicles that were already in Afghanistan and are more resistant to roadside bombs.
The source said the soldier was assigned on Feb. 1 to a village stability program in Belambai, half a mile from one of the villages where the attack took place Sunday. Villagers described an armed soldier moving through homes, shooting residents.
The village stability operations are part of NATO's efforts to transition out of Afghanistan. They pair special operations troops with local villagers chosen by village elders to become essentially a sanctioned, armed neighborhood watch.
Army officials are reviewing the soldier's complete deployment and medical history.
In Washington state, Spc. Jared Richardson, an engineer at Lewis-McChord who served in Afghanistan, said the Army is working with soldiers to deal with their problems. But he said a decade of war has taken a toll on enlisted men and women.
"We're on uncharted territory now, and it's taking a toll on soldiers," Richardson said.
Jorge Gonzalez, executive director of Coffee Strong, a coffee shop near Lewis-McChord that doubles as a resource center for soldiers looking to leave the Army, said frequent Stryker deployments are taking their toll.
"There is definitely fatigue, many are on their third, fourth deployments. Many can't wait to get out," he said.
Associated Press writer Manuel Valdes contributed from near Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
Johnson can be reached at https://twitter.com/GeneAPseattle
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