What Led the American Staff Sergeant to Kill

No one will be able to pinpoint exactly what made an American staff sergeant massacre 16 Afghan civilians, but the facts surrounding the senseless killing spree will loom large in his prosecution.

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No one will be able to pinpoint exactly what made an American staff sergeant allegedly massacre 16 Afghan civilians, but the facts surrounding the senseless killing spree will loom large in his prosecution. Last night, the unnamed solider's attorney, John Henry Browne, confirmed to CNN that his client could face the death penalty, which will mean extenuating circumstances will play a major role in court. Browne and U.S. officials have begun surfacing details about the 30-something father of two, including his mental state and the developments leading up to the massacre. Here were the cocktail of forces weighing on the solider:

Alcohol It's not something you think of as a determinant of homicidal behavior, but a U.S. official, speaking on background to Bloomberg this morning, says "the drinking, a violation of regulations governing U.S. troops in combat zones, may have been what sent [him] over the edge." It's not clear how much he had imbibed before the incident but senior American officials tell The New York Times that two other soliders drank with him on the night of the shootings who will now face "disciplniary action." The day before the rampage, The Washington Post reports that the solider saw his friend's leg blown off and many of the soliders at the base were affected by the incident. Pushing back against U.S. officials, the soldier's attorney denied alcohol use was a factor.

Post traumatic stress disorder, brain injury  The solider had been hurt twice while serving in Iraq, which has led many to speculate that his traumatic brain injury (TBI) or PTSD could be a factor. He suffered a mild traumatic brain injury from either hitting his head on the hatch of a vehicle or in a some sort of car accident, according to U.S. officials. He also suffered an injury resulting in the loss of part of his foot. While there's no indication he was diagnosed with PTSD, he was diagnosed with TBI. Wired's Katie Drummond notes that it would be "downright reductionist" to suggests that TBI or PTSD sufferers will commit homicide "but scientists have linked brain trauma to some violent episodes." She takes a look at some of the scholarship:

One report followed 850 young civilian adults over eight years, and found that those who’d suffered a TBI “reported more interpersonal violence” than their peers. Another, out of Sweden, tracked over 20,000 people for 35 years. That one, published earlier this year, noted that 9 percent of all TBI-afflicted study participants were implicated in a violent crime at some point after sustaining the injury. By comparison, only 3 percent of those without a brain injury ever committed a violent crime. The researchers concluded that TBI “significantly increased [the] risk” that an individual would behave violently...

In 1996, a team writing in the journal Neurologist reported the findings of their study on 279 Vietnam-era veterans who’d suffered TBIs with varying degrees of severity during their deployment. That team found a strong link between TBIs and aggression

The AP reports that he was screened by medical professionals after his head injury before he was redeployed. Browne said "He did not know if his client had been suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, but said it could be an issue at trial if experts believe it's relevant."

Marital tensions The soldier is married with two young children ages 3 and 4. U.S. officials have told various news outlets, on background, that domestic issues may have contributed to the episode though the specifics aren't clear. The family had expected him to return home after his last deployment, reportedly.  Browne said reports of marital problems were "very offensive," saying the couple had financial difficulties but nothing extreme, characterizing their relationship as a "very strong marriage." Browne said the family was "totally shocked" upon hearing about the massacre. "He's never said anything antagonistic about Muslims. He's in general very mild-mannered."

Four deployments The toll of recurring deployments weighed heavily on the soldier. According to Browne, "The suspect had been injured twice during his three previous deployments to Iraq, and didn't want to go to Afghanistan to begin with." He began his first (and fourth total) deployment in Afghanistan in December. The Chicago Tribune reports Browne saying "He was told he was not going to be redeployed, and the family was counting on him not to be redeployed, so his family was told his tours were over. And literally overnight that changed," Browne said. "He and the family were not happy that he was going back."

Weighing the totality of forces pressing against the soldier, A source told The Times that "When it all comes out, it will be a combination of stress, alcohol and domestic issues - he just snapped."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.