John Henry Browne, the lawyer representing Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, who last month pled guilty to killing 16 Afghan civilians, says he can’t confirm whether his client was given the controversial anti-malarial drug mefloquine during his latest deployment. However, Browne says, “I can confirm he was given it on all three prior deployments to Iraq.”
The question of Bales’ possible mefloquine use has been in the air ever since the 2012 massacre. As Seattle Weekly reported at the time, some doctors and veterans—including a former top psychiatrist for the Army, Elspeth Cameron Ritchie—speculated that mefloquine might be the reason that the previously respected solider and father-of-two snapped. The drug, also known by the brand name Lariam, is associated with a range of side effects, including hallucinations and psychotic behavior.
That theory gained more credence in the last few weeks as new documents came to light. One, which SW detailed on Tuesday, was an FDA report submitted by Lariam manufacturer Roche. The company said it had received information from a pharmacist that the drug had been given to a soldier who had killed 17 Afghanis—an obvious reference to Bales.
Browne says he finds the report interesting, but that it doesn’t pin down whether or not Bales took mefloquine in Afghanistan since the information contained is not verified. He says Bales himself is no help in settling the question. “When you ask him, he says: ‘I took everything they gave me.’”
And Browne says he hasn’t yet gotten the relevant medical records from Madigan Army Medical Center. “It took us forever to get any records,” Browne adds, although he says he did eventually get documents confirming the previous mefloquine use of the soldier once based at Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
It’s that lack of information that has kept Browne from bringing up the subject so far—not, as some have conjectured, an unwillingness to venture into terrain that might face a hostile reception in a court run by the military. While the military has significantly scaled back its use of mefloquine, the drug remains in use among some units, according to Remington Nevin, who up until last year was an Army epidemiologist. Nevin, who with Ritchie last month authored a paper delving into research on the drug’s ill effects, adds that “the military has a long history of stigmatizing those who have claimed psychiatric effects from the drug.”
Army Medical Command spokesperson Maria Tolleson was unable to provide information or interviews related to mefloquine as of this posting.
Browne says he is considering the possibility of raising mefloquine at Bales’ sentencing hearing in August. Because he knows only about Bales’ prior intake of the drug, and not whether the soldier took it in Afghanistan, he says his legal team has been looking into mefloquine’s reported long-term effects. (The lawyer may soon have even more reason to look into the subject. He says he was recently contacted by a soldier--one Browne says he can’t yet name--who says he was given mefloquine and subsequently killed his wife and children.)
By pleading guilty, Bales took the death sentence off the table and agreed to a life sentence. His August hearing will decide whether he is eligible for parole. The earliest that could happen is in 20 years, when Bales is 68, according to Browne.