THREE YEARS AGO one of our senior editors, James Ross Gardner, came into my office to pitch a story idea: Soldiers stationed at Fort Lewis had staged a precision commando raid on a Bank of America branch the likes of which seasoned investigators had never seen.
Rarely a week goes by that we don’t hear about some crime occurring at Fort Lewis or perpetuated by soldiers there. Just last week, as I write this, it was a murder-suicide on the base carried out by a retired soldier. Then there was the 16-year-old girl found dead in the barracks last winter. There’s a host of other disturbing incidents, many of them drug- and alcohol-related: a man who assaulted his infant daughter, a drunken soldier who killed a friend, a member of the 5th Stryker Brigade who shot and killed a dog, rape attempts, meth possession, bribery, money laundering.
Such stories grab our attention perhaps because they emanate from people who defend American interests abroad. More and more military men and women and their families and support personnel are stationed at Fort Lewis, ballooning the population in and around the base to the size of a big small town. (Driven I-5 between Seattle and Olympia lately? By far the biggest bottleneck occurs at the Fort Lewis exits.) As the number of soldiers rotating through on tours to Iraq and Afghanistan rises, so do accounts of the psychological fallout that comes with being trained to kill and spending time in war zones. And when our servicemen and servicewomen come home, they are at risk of developing post traumatic stress disorder, depression, and substance abuse problems, and they face the struggle of just plain fitting back into civilian life.
One of those soldiers was Army Ranger Luke Elliott Sommer, the ringleader who planned the Tacoma bank robbery. He may have pulled off an elegant heist with no casualties, but there were victims. And he wasn’t so smart that he could avoid getting caught. While Sommer was on house arrest in Canada, James struck up an email and phone conversation with him. He was eager to tell his tale—and did, not just to James but to any member of the press who would listen. Since then the story, told at last in this issue (“Heist”), has taken startling twists and turns. We think it was worth waiting for.