Saturday, March 24, 2012

The Charles Whitman Precedent

Sergei Bourachaga’s latest essay compares the Robert Bales case in Afghanistan with the massacre by Charles Whitman in Texas almost half a century ago. The author considers the possibility that Staff Sgt. Bales may have sustained permanent damage to his forebrain as the result of an earlier IED incident. The injury could conceivably have had the same effect as Charles Whitman’s brain tumor.

Has the U.S. military considered this possibility in its investigation of the massacre in Afghanistan?

Or will political pressure for a particular outcome prevent such forensic analyses?

Charles Whitman and Staff Sergeant Robert Bales

Staff Sergeant Robert Bales and Charles Whitman
by Sergei Bourachaga

Many of us in North America are by now familiar with the name of Staff Sergeant Robert Bales, the US Soldier who on the night of March 11, 2012, after a heavy drinking binge, allegedly crept away from his military base in Southern Afghanistan and killed 16 unarmed Afghan villagers. Nine of the 16 killed were children and 11 belonged to one family.

I highly doubt any Americans, except those who studied psychiatry, law, neurobiology etc…, remember the name of the US citizen Charles Whitman and the massacre associated with his name in The State of Texas well over four decades ago. On August 1, 1966 the 25-five-year-old Whitman dragged a heavy duffle bag full of weapons and ammunition to the observation deck of the University of Texas Tower in Austin. Once inside the observation deck, Whitman killed a receptionist with his rifle butt, opened fire on a group of tourists who were visiting the tower, and then focused on pedestrians walking in the vicinity below the tower, killing first a pregnant women and her husband. By the time the police force responded to the carnage and brought the situation under control by killing Whitman, 13 innocent victims lost their lives, 32 others were seriously wounded, and some of the injured died during the subsequent weeks despite heroic medical interventions to save their lives.

The media covered extensively the tragedy unleashed by Whitman, and those who knew Whitman through social ties or professional exposure to his decent personality were in a state of shock and disbelief, especially when investigators went to Whitman’s home in search of clues that can explain the aberrant burst of violence exercised by Whitman, and discovered instead two more female bodies stabbed to death-Whitman’s mother and wife. A suicide note found by investigators on Whitman’s desk begun to shed some light on the etiology of the medical problems that affected Whitman’s judgment, and gradually dragged him into the abyss of despair where he intentionally triggered a phenomenon known as “Suicide by Cop”.

The typewritten suicide note left behind by Whitman was a mirror reflection of the pain that wasn’t only affecting his mind but also engulfing his soul. For the purpose of this article the following paragraphs are of significant importance:

I don’t really understand myself these days. I am supposed to be an average reasonable and intelligent young man. However, lately and I can’t recall when it all started, I have been a victim of many unusual and irrational thoughts.

It was after much thought that I decided to kill my wife, Kathy, tonight … I love her dearly, and she has been as fine a wife to me as any man could ever hope to have. I cannot rationally pinpoint any specific reason for doing this …

I talked with a Doctor once about my overwhelming violent thoughts and impulses. After one session I never saw the Doctor again, and since then I have been fighting my demons alone, and seemingly to no avail.

Whitman concluded his suicide note with a passionate plea to perform an autopsy on his brain after his death, to determine if any pathology affecting the structure of the brain can be connected to his tragic decisions. As suspected by Whitman and confirmed by the medical examiner, a tumor affecting the amygdala was responsible for the radical change in Whitman’s impulsive thoughts and irrational behavior.

The amygdala is involved in the regulation of two key emotions: fear and aggression. Researchers managed to associate beyond a reasonable doubt three abnormal behavioral factors — lack of fear, blunting of emotions, and overreaction — with damages inflicted on the amygdala. Under carefully controlled clinical interventions performed on monkeys, neurosurgeons inflicted lesions on the amygdala of monkeys, and a constellation of violent behavior became ubiquitous. Female monkeys killed or abandoned their infants, and monkeys who were very passive prior to the surgeries on the amygdala, turned into violent brutes bludgeoning randomly and without any provocations any creature within immediate reach.

The annals of forensic psychiatry are full of stories involving normal individuals who had serious medical problems affecting the brain, and more importantly the frontal lobe area of the brain. In general the horror stories culminating in death and mayhem start with tragic failures of the medical establishment to diagnose in a timely manner the existing structural damage and the neuro-chemical imbalance affecting the frontal lobe, until one day without any prior warning, seemingly very normal caring individuals turn into violent bloodthirsty monsters. Forensic psychiatrists, in courtrooms all over the world, on a daily basis testify and insist to judges and juries, that even minor damages to the brain structure due to concussions, mini strokes, direct blows to the head, infections etc… affect the balance of brain chemistry, and cause large and unexpected changes in behavior. Forensic psychiatrists reconfirm daily to the legal establishment the maxim researchers have discovered in hundreds of labs associated with prestigious universities: “Human behavior cannot be separated from human biology.” Thus inviting the legal community to set aside the antiquated notion that all criminals engage in acts of violence based on “free will”, because free will does not exist independently from a well chemically balanced and structurally intact brain.

According to Army Capt. Chris Alexander, former platoon leader of Staff Sgt Bales, the killings attributed to Bales are “…100% out of character.” He pointed out to the media that Bales was “one of the best guys I ever worked with. He always made sure his team was ready, that they were briefed on the mission, that the equipment was checked. Anything he was given to do, you never had to worry about it getting done and done well. “I’m not a psychologist, but you don’t go from being a solid NCO (non commissioned officer) to this unless there are extenuating circumstances. He is not some psychopath. He’s an outstanding soldier who has given a lot for this country.” What could be some of the extenuating circumstances involved in this tragedy?

A selective and partial release by the US Army of Staff Sgt Bales medical records indicate several factors that his defence team must seriously take into consideration. In three tours of duty in Iraq, Bates was injured twice. The first one was the end result of an IED (Improvised Explosive Device) that overturned Bates’ Humvee and paved the way for a TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury). The second one, again involved an IED that forced surgeons to remove part of his foot. Though any psychiatrist will admit that losing organs or undergoing surgeries in a combat zone to remove parts of a limb can easily trigger a PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder), the US Army downplayed the presence of any PTSD problems.

After each tour of duty Bates was stationed at Joint Base Lewis-McChord (JBLM) in Washington State. JBLM has an extremely bad reputation based on a terribly high suicide rate — more than 20 men in uniform have taken their lives in the past two years alone. The top brass at the base consistently and systematically pressured the team of psychiatrists working at JBLM to downplay the seriousness of TBI and PTSD, and assign mild medical labels and categories to serious psychiatric problems affecting soldiers returning from war zones:

a) To generate substantial monetary savings by absolving the US Army from the responsibility of providing long-term medical care to members afflicted with mental illnesses.
b) To make a higher number of returning soldiers ready for redeployment or a new tour of duty, since the recruitment efforts are not adequate to generate new manpower to cover the needs of an army spread very thin over several zones of operations.

As one medical expert reviewing the sad reality of the base put it, “Bales was not a rogue soldier. JBLM is a rogue base, with a severe leadership problem.”

Bales should have been under serious medical observation after his TBI. Any psychiatrist can confirm that even a mild brain injury or concussion can generate serious behavioral problems, several years down the road. TBI could have easily predisposed Bates to impulsive and irrational behavior, especially if the damage targeted the frontal lobe area of the brain. Mental test written/verbal exams administered at JBLM are not adequate to assess his or any other soldier’s readiness for redeployment. What is needed is serious MRI studies of his brain preferably with contrast dies for more accurate results.

By the way: even MRI studies can sometimes miss the presence of problems. The list of extenuating circumstances does not end with TBI and PTSD and poor medical management of these problems. Several other factors have contributed to the phenomenon defined in psychiatric jargon as “The Shattering of the Psyche”. The day before Bales allegedly committed the atrocities against Afghan civilians, he was standing next to a team member when an IED severed the soldier’s leg. And last but not least, the anger he carried with him to Afghanistan when JBLM commanders promised that he would not be affected by any other tours of duty after his third return from Iraq, and then abruptly reversed their decision by reassigning him to a tour of duty in Afghanistan. Add to all these previously mentioned details alcohol consumption, financial problems, long absences from family and social support, and you have a flammable mix of pain ready to ignite and spread horror.

I hope before the US justice system succeeds in sacrificing Staff Sgt. Bales on the altar of political correctness, his defence team will probe and exhaust all means available to assess Bale’s mental condition from the day he left JBLM to the night of the massacre. In the event that neural damage proves to be a factor, I hope that mercy will be considered before a harsh sentence is imposed in a mad race to pursue justice at any price to pacify allies such as Afghanistan, where the entire corrupt justice system is not a shining example of success.

Previous posts by Sergei Bourachaga:

2008 May 28 The Koran and The Psychopathology of The Prophet (Part I)
2010 Aug 14 The Koran and the Psychopathology of the Prophet (Part II)
    18 The Koran: A “Holy Book” or Hate Literature?
    22 The Holy Father and Turkish Incoherence
  Sep 28 Geert Wilders and the Koran on Trial
  Oct 14 An Open Letter to Dr. Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu
2011 Oct 3 An Open letter to YWCA Canada
  Dec 4 The Toronto Star, Islam, and the Inferior Status of Women
    12 Islamism, “The Naked Emperor”, and the “Useful Idiots” of Canada


kloutlichter said...

could it just not be concievable that bates just had enough of the place,the people,the religion and just thought I'm gonna put as many of these people away as I possibly can. People like Breivik and Bates would have been the kind of guys you would want in your troop a thousand years ago.I'm not agreeing with what thay did as times thankfully have moved on.Some times the simplest answer should be looked at though.

Anonymous said...

The human brain is quite delicate, I have banged my head in falls and
noticed some sort of change in my brain. I fell off a ladder, not very high up but landed on my head on concrete and later I thought I wasa different person, more explosively bad-tempered.I later fell out of a wheely bin and again banged my head hard on concrete. Something has definitely changed in my attitude to small transgressions by other people. This soldier is certainly in need of medical treatment, not punishment.

Dymphna said...

The "battle fatigue" combined with Traumatic Brain Injury for the soldiers who have served in BOTH Iraq and Afghanistan has got to be pretty high.

This source is four years old, only compares the average days in battle between WWII and Vietnam. However, the stats are food for thought:

How Many Days of Actual Combat

Just as I wonder if an fMRI has been done on Breivik, I question, too, whether Bates will get one. If his lawyer is any good, he'll insist on it.

Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging

According to the research I've read and some docs I've talked to, an fMRI (plus other modalities) can establish with fair accuracy the likelihood that a child younger than 14 has been severely abused. One of them was referring specifically to sexual abuse....

To the anon commenter with a question of Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), it would be prudent to request an fMRI. I know you'd be a candidate for one in the US, not sure about other countries.

It's important for several reasons, one of them being to establish a base line of your current brain functioning. I don't know if the sequelae from brain injuries are progressive, but it seems likely...

Please get seen. There are ways to help this condition.

Dr.D said...

When I read the name Charles Whitman, I recognized it instantly. I was three blocks south of the UT-Austin campus at the time of his shooting rampage, and I watched much of it from the back porch of the building where I was working. I was eating lunch at my desk inside the office when a fellow passed by my cube and said, "there is some nut up on the tower shooting at people." We all crowded at the back door to watch. We could see when he would fire, straight down almost, 21 stories, and when he would throw over the side things like empty ammo boxes. It was one creepy noon hour until he was rushed and killed. He was an engineering student, just as I was, although I did not know him. He went around the bend, and did not come back.

Nemesis said...

A very interesting article. I think Sergei Bourachaga is on to something here. Bales service record is exemplary and it should be pointed out that highly professional and decorated soldiers just do not go rogue. Looking at this soldiers history one is left to form the opinion that this man was in every way a highly motivated, deeply thoughtful person who took his duty very seriously.

I sincerely hope that his defence team raise the issue of his injuries and the cumulative effect on his thinking that trauma to the brain has had on this individual.

When I first learned of the incident that this fine soldier was involved in, I immediately felt that the military hierarchy, and the military machine in general, have some degree of responsibility for what occurred under this soldier's hands. I am now convinced that is the case. I only hope that the extent of that responsibilty gets an airing in the courts.

Dymphna said...

@ Nemesis--

We haven't seen the last of these. When Obama's plans to cut back military personnel, lower their benefits, etc., goes into full effect our voluntary forces will become ever smaller and more thinly stretched.

That, added to the ludicruous rules of engagement, will send the old-timers like Bales 'round the bend.

When you look at the suicide rate at his home base in Washington state - I'm glad to have that information - you can see that the fatigued, worn-out and over-used soldiers have two choices: move against self or move against other.

We can only hope the same level of scrutiny will apply to his superiors as they'll apply to him. I look forward to seeing what Diana West has to say as this develops.

Nemesis said...

Dymphna....I believe Humans have a 'use by date' when it comes to being subjected to continuous violent and stressful conditions, especially when those conditions also require a level of 'professional' ability, such as the current rules of engagement (ROE) require - physical impositions which must subject the modern soldier to even higher levels of stress than those who have gone before them.

The effects of 'battle fatigue' when added to by higher than sustainable stress levels under ROE is either being ignored by those who should be aware, or is yet to be fully appreciated.

I have no doubt, that if given the public airing that current military practice has on the individual soldier in war zones, the whole concept of 'nation building' along with 'hearts and minds' will receive the criticizm those policies so rightly deserve!

babs said...

As I have said in another post, this man had the option of opting out of the military. He DID NOT have to go to Afghanistan. He could have cashiered out of the military with medical benefits.
As strongly as I feel for this man and his family, the crime is on him.
Do I hope he gets a speedy and fair trial, you bet.

Nemesis said...

babs...ever served in the military? Do you have any conception of what it is to be a member of a Band of Brothers? Are you aware of the personal obligation a soldier feels to his military brothers and how esprit de corps, a vital component of any military group, is instrumental in binding a group of men together in a cause?

Yes, this soldier could have asked to be released from his contract, but because he did not you assume that because he did not that makes him somehow guilty?

PTSD or 'battle fatigue', as it used to be known, is still not greatly understood, and the symptoms can vary from person to person dependant on an individual's character variations.

Not all PTSD sufferers are aware that they have it, and for some the realization can be too late. This soldier also suffered head trauma while on a tour of duty, and in my humble opinion, this injury has contributed to his 'out of character' action in Afghanistan.

Yes, let us all hope that this highly decorated soldier gets a speedy trial, but also let us hope that ALL contributing factors for his aberrant behaviour is given a speedy trial as well!

Anonymous said...

Maybe Kinky Friedman will write a song about this guy too.