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Alleged Mount Rainier shooter's troubles may not have been service-related

Pierce County Sheriff's Department via AP

Benjamin Colton Barnes in an undated photo.

The man who authorities say killed a ranger before dying in Mount Rainier National Park was in turmoil over developments in his personal life after his discharge from the Army, friends say, suggesting that his alleged actions over the weekend may have had little connection to his military service.

The man, former Pfc. Benjamin Colton Barnes, 24 — who was found dead Monday, apparently of drowning in a creek after becoming hypothermic — shot and killed park Ranger Margaret Anderson, 34, on Sunday. He is also believed to have shot and wounded four people, two of them critically, earlier in the day at a New Year's party in Skyway, near Seattle, authorities said.

Army records show that Barnes served in Iraq before returning stateside to Joint Base Lewis-McChord, south of Seattle. He was discharged from the Army in 2009 for drunken driving and illegal transportation of a private weapon.

In July, the mother of Barnes' young daughter said in court papers seeking a protection order that he "has possible PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) issues." News organizations — including msnbc.com — noted the court filings and reported that Lewis-McChord is considered one of the most troubled bases in the U.S. military, with an alarming record of violent incidents and suicides among veterans returning from Iraq.

But as more has been learned about Barnes, it appears that his troubles may have had little to do with his service in Iraq or his having been stationed at Lewis-McChord.

Military records show that Barnes served in a headquarters communications job in Iraq. A spokesman at Lewis-McChord told The Seattle Times there was no record of Barnes' having received a Combat Action Badge, indicating he probably never came under fire in Iraq.

There are also hints that Barnes was already disturbed before he entered the Army. Growing up in Riverside County, Calif., he was sent to a community day school for expelled and troubled students as a teenager, the Press-Enterprise newspaper reported.

A reconstruction of Barnes' life since his discharge by The Seattle Times indicates that Barnes' erratic post-discharge behavior didn't seriously begin until this summer, when his relationship with his ex-girlfriend collapsed.

Claiming Barnes was suicidal and had threatened her, the woman won a protective order that required Barnes to be supervised whenever he was with his daughter, according to court records reviewed by msnbc.com. A civil trial had been scheduled for Jan. 31. 

The Times, meanwhile, quoting a friend, said Barnes recently traveled to the Riverside area for the funeral a close Army friend who committed suicide in October.

Another friend told the newspaper that "everything just got to him. Life got so hard. He was so stressed. He would say, 'I feel like nobody's trying to help me. I feel like everybody's against me.'"

Brandon Friedman, an Army combat veteran in Afghanistan and Iraq and author of the highly regarded memoir "The War I Always Wanted," told msnbc.com that it was wrong to link Barnes' alleged behavior to PTSD or conditions at Lewis-McChord, noting that the military "kicked Barnes out for misconduct."

While some soldiers return from overseas duty with PTSD, most aren't diagnosed with it, and misconduct by other troubled soldiers at the base doesn't necessarily mean Barnes' misconduct was service-related, he said.

Even if Barnes did have PTSD, as his ex-girlfriend says, "having PTSD doesn't signify a propensity to murder Americans," Friedman said, adding that he was concerned that depictions of Barnes as a sufferer of PTSD could fuel public perceptions that all Lewis-McChord veterans are "dangerous psychos."

"The stereotype of the crazy vet is something vets have had to deal with for years, and it's simply not backed up with hard data," he said.

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