Family faults Army in case of AWOL soldier killed by police

Mar 1, 2011

It was a surreal scene last August 27th in downtown Salt Lake City. A soldier - AWOL from his base in Western Washington - emerged from an underground parking lot. He was dressed head-to-toe in combat gear and carrying a rifle.

Seconds later the soldier was dead. Now, an internal Army investigation has found shortcomings in how the case was handled. The family of Specialist Brandon Barrett blames the Army for not intervening sooner.

No one will ever know what was in the mind of Specialist Barrett that day last August. He told passersby he was "in training." They immediately dialed 911.

Here's what happened next: shots were fired between the man and an officer.

The officer was grazed in the leg. His return fire struck Specialist Barrett in the face killing him instantly.

Police have theorized Barrett was about to go on a shooting spree – perhaps from the top of the Grand America Hotel. He carried a thousand rounds of ammunition. But his brother Shane, a cop himself, has another theory:

"He wasn't shooting in the way that I know he was trained to shoot. So I think it was basically, I'm going to shoot at them first and then they're going to return fire. Suicide by cop is my opinion."

Suicide by cop. It turns out Barrett – whom the Army has described as a "good soldier" - was AWOL from Joint Base Lewis-McChord near Tacoma. A member of the 5th Stryker Brigade, Barrett went Absent Without Leave a month after returning from a brutal year-long deployment to Afghanistan.

Military reports indicate he survived three bomb attacks and saw several fellow soldiers die in action. His brother says it wasn't the kind of thing Barrett talked about:

"He was always pretty quiet about what he did over there and what he saw and things like that."

But Shane Barrett says his brother did open up in responses to a Post Deployment Health Assessment. He marked responses like: "little interest or pleasure in doing things," "down, depressed or hopeless" ability to deal with emotional problems, "somewhat difficult."

Colonel James Terrio is Corps Surgeon at Joint Base Lewis-McChord. In an interview, he explained – in general - how the Army handles soldiers who raise red flags in their assessment responses:

"If they’re identified as a high-risk soldier, they're escorted to behavioral health that day. If they're a moderate risk soldier they're given an appointment to behavioral health and they're typically seen within two days. And they're also assigned a case manager."

But in Brandon Barrett's case? He was rated "low" or "no risk." That's according to the Army's internal investigation into his death.

That report also finds - despite his candid survey responses - Barrett was referred only to the Army's Substance Abuse Program. Turns out, two days after he returned from Afghanistan he was cited for drunk driving.

Shane Barrett calls the DUI completely out of character for his brother and believes the Army missed a key warning sign that something was going wrong:

"I mean you had a soldier who was perfectly fine for the first four years he was there, he comes back from deployment and immediately gets a DUI a day later. That's got to raise a flag and you need to address that."

Instead, Specialist Barrett – with no history of disciplinary problems to that point - was made an example of forgetting a DUI. According to the Army report, Barrett's first sergeant called him out in formation – threatening that soldiers who got in this sort of trouble might not get to go on leave.

The Army's investigation concluded Barrett's superior did not deliberately humiliate him. But the investigation also notes Barrett was reluctant to seek help on his own for fear of being labeled.

Shane Barrett says his brother may have been worried about his career. The Army was "everything" to his brother:

"Him trying to put two-and-two together, the DUI plus 'hey I'm having these issues and if I go to them with I'm having some Post Traumatic issues they're going to combine that with the DUI I'm going to get booted out, I don't know what to do.'"

It's unclear why Specialist Barrett fled the Army last July just days before his entire brigade was to go on a month-long leave. He ended up back home in Tucson.

The Army's internal investigation found that Joint Base Lewis-McChord "failed" to send standard AWOL notifications to the family – in part because of a backlog of paperwork. And the Army was slow to have him arrested by Tucson police.

Even his brother – who's a detective with the Tucson Police Department – assumed he was just on post-deployment leave:

"Had no idea that there was any issue, any previous DUI, any issue with him."

In a letter to the Army, Shane Barrett writes: "My family and I strongly believe that if notification had been made... Brandon would be with us here today." Shane Barrett also feels the Army should have done more to get his brother the mental health help he needed:

"Now of course my brother could have handled this completely different and we all agree with that, one hundred percent. Not the correct choice. But I think they have a little bit more responsibility to at least make more effort into checking these guys out and getting them some help if they need it."

But the Army's internal investigation concludes "the Company chain of command did all that was reasonably possible to save Spc. Brandon S. Barrett."

JBLM officials wouldn't comment on the case, but did issue a statement that reads in part: "We work hard to identify and report Soldiers who exhibit high-risk behavior, as well as provide them with programs and resources to get the necessary help they need."