Missing Reaction: An Arizona Soldier Goes AWOL, and the Army Doesn't Tell Anyone Until It's Too Late

An Arizona soldier sent threatening messages and went AWOL after returning from Afghanistan. The Army didn't tell anyone until it was too late.

Two of Specialist Brandon Barrett's fellow Joint Base Lewis-McChord soldiers were killed and more than 20 wounded in three major firefights and suicide bombings the 5th Stryker brigade endured during its year in Afghanistan. Between the summers of 2009 and 2010, Barrett and his colleagues came under fire from snipers, mortars, and roadside bombs in sparsely settled Zabul province, bordering Pakistan, and, to the south, in the Taliban-controlled Helmand province.

One particular firefight between the Taliban and Barrett's 5th Stryker detail lasted five hours. "His unit saw some of the worst combat in Afghanistan," says Barrett's brother, Shane, a Tucson police detective. Firefights were so intense the Lewis-McChord soldiers were sometimes known as the Shit Magnets. "If it was bad and it happened," a grunt told a reporter last year, "it happened to us."

Curt Merlo
When he wasn't engaged in combat, Barrett loved playing combat-related video games.
Photo courtesy of Barrett family
When he wasn't engaged in combat, Barrett loved playing combat-related video games.

Brandon Barrett, who killed at least two enemy fighters during his yearlong tour, didn't seem to fare badly, however. During a post-deployment health screening last summer, he told doctors only that he was a bit nervous, could be startled from time to time, and had seen lots of dead people. Otherwise, he was fine, he added, and certainly not suicidal. But doctors, according to a 200-page Army report on Barrett's case obtained exclusively by Village Voice Media, worried he was keeping his real feelings to himself. He denied having any medical or mental-health issues, doctors noted, although they did refer him to the service's substance abuse program.

At that point in 2010, the stocky, bespectacled, 28-year-old unmarried infantryman with friendly hazel eyes and clipped brown hair had been in the Army four years, graduating from high school before attending community college in Tucson, and working in a restaurant. He had kept his record mostly clean, save for the time as a teen he was caught smoking marijuana. The son of a Marine veteran, he joined the Army in 2006 and, his Army records show, was universally referred to as a "good soldier." He learned to like military life and happily discovered barracks full of fellow video-game addicts. Soldiers fight like men but play like kids: Besides his PlayStation 3, Barrett favored the Xbox 360 and an assortment of combat-related games. He fired them up first thing whenever he came home on leave, says his family.

"That changed when Brandon came home" last July, says Shane Barrett. "Brandon didn't play a single combat-related video game."

The family just assumed he had matured and was over the video-game stage of life. What they didn't know was that Barrett was AWOL and would soon be listed as a deserter. He hadn't given up gaming; he'd given up on the Army. The turning point began on the second day of his return to Lewis-McChord from the killing fields of Afghanistan. A sometime six-pack-a-day beer drinker, Barrett decided to get roaring drunk in a local bar, downing Jägermeister and beer.

Sometime before 3 a.m., en route to his barracks, he pulled his car partially off a base roadway, turned off the engine, and went to sleep. Within minutes, military police rapped on his window. They helped him out and arrested him for DUI. His blood-alcohol level was twice the legal limit.

He was both hungover and mortified the next day, friends said. The Army immediately took away his base driving privileges and scheduled him for court appearances, treatment, and likely punishment. A week later, a superior officer larded it on. During a company formation to discuss soldier-safety issues, he turned and addressed Barrett personally, who seemed dumbfounded. The soldier, the superior informed the company, had been busted for drunk driving. He had endangered himself and others. This was just what a soldier shouldn't do, he told the others. To drive home his point, the superior said he was recommending that Barrett not be allowed to participate in the unit's month-long home leave, a few weeks away.

Though he rarely showed his emotions, Barrett was crushed. He hadn't seen his family in more than a year. Army buddies would later tell investigators Barrett was "livid" and embarrassed at being singled out. As he would tell a friend in a text message, he was "going to show them why they shouldn't fuck with recently deployed soldiers." Members of his company were worried. The Army didn't seem to notice.


It was a chaotic time at Lewis-McChord, where a series of crimes and deaths prompted Stars & Stripes, the armed-forces newspaper, to call the sprawling Army post the "most troubled base in the military." Five of Barrett's Stryker brothers had allegedly murdered at least three civilians in Kandahar Province, Afghanistan, from 2009 to 2010. Some were shot in scenes staged with prop weapons to look as though soldiers had fired in self-defense. Army prosecutors say the self-styled "Kill Team" was the warped idea of Staff Sergeant Calvin Gibbs, 25, a high school dropout from Billings, Montana, who collected fingers, a leg bone, and a tooth as mementos.

In an interview taped by the Army, one of Gibbs' co-conspirators, Specialist Jeremy Morlock, 23, of Wasilla, Alaska, said Gibbs directed Morlock and another soldier, Specialist Adam Winfield, 22, of Cape Coral, Florida, to shoot a noncombatant in January 2010. Gibbs, Morlock said, lobbed a grenade "and tells me and Winfield: 'All right, wax this guy. Kill this guy, kill this guy.'" Winfield told a similar story about a May murder of another Afghan civilian by the same threesome: "Sergeant Gibbs said, 'This is how it's going to go down. You're going to shoot your weapons, yell 'grenade.' I'm going to throw this grenade. After it goes off, I'm going to drop this grenade next to him' . . . We're laying there and Morlock told me to shoot, so [I] started shooting, yelled, 'Grenade.' The grenade blew up and that was that."

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The federal government will pay for their war crimes some day. They send these ignorant young people to do their bidding, not so that citizens can be free, but so that politicians and war contractors can get rich. Its ridiculous the brainwashing that occurs in this nation. I hope china attacks the USA one day focusing on wiping out government installments. Fuck the US federal government, I hope you all die.

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The members of the VFW were truly exemplary of the good in man.My condolences to the Barrett family, and to all families touched by these horrific governmental mistakes abroad.

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RIP Brandon. Angel wings of comfort to his family. The toll of war is tragic. All around a very sad series of events. Blessings to the Army, and all the soldiers serving in valor for our country. I believe in our Armed Forces despite the casualties that can't help but happen. Bless and comfort them all. Amen.

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