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Base Slayings in Iraq Lead to Probe of Mental Health Care

Wilburn Russell, 73, talks to reporters in front of the house in Sherman, Tex., owned by his son, U.S. Army Sgt. John M. Russell, right, who is accused of fatally shooting five fellow soldiers at a base clinic in Baghdad on Monday.
Wilburn Russell, 73, talks to reporters in front of the house in Sherman, Tex., owned by his son, U.S. Army Sgt. John M. Russell, right, who is accused of fatally shooting five fellow soldiers at a base clinic in Baghdad on Monday. (By L.m. Otero -- Associated Press)
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By Ernesto Londoño
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, May 13, 2009

BAGHDAD, May 12 -- The U.S. military said Tuesday that it is launching a probe to identify shortcomings in mental health treatment for troops deployed in war zones, after a soldier allegedly killed five fellow service members at a base clinic in Baghdad on Monday.

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Military officials on Tuesday identified the gunman as Sgt. John M. Russell, 44, of Sherman, Tex. Russell, a communications specialist with the 54th Engineer Battalion, based in Bamberg, Germany, has been charged with five counts of murder and one count of aggravated assault.

A few days before the shooting at Camp Liberty, a military installation near the Baghdad airport, Russell's commanders grew concerned about his state of mind and confiscated his weapon as a precautionary measure, according to Maj. Gen. David Perkins, the top U.S. military spokesman in Iraq.

"He had been referred to counseling the week before," Perkins said Tuesday. "His commander had determined it'd be best for him not to have a weapon."

Another U.S. military official in Baghdad said Russell had gotten into an argument with someone at Camp Liberty's combat stress clinic earlier on Monday. Later, Russell grabbed another service member's weapon, returned to the clinic and opened fire, said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not allowed to discuss the case.

Navy Cmdr. Charles K. Springle, 52, of Wilmington, N.C., and an Army officer with the 55th Medical Company, an Indianapolis reserve unit that staffs the Camp Liberty clinic, were among those slain. The three others were enlisted soldiers, Perkins said. They included Pfc. Michael Edward Yates Jr., 19, of Federalsburg, Md. Other names will be released as relatives are notified.

Military police officers took Russell into custody outside the clinic shortly after the shooting.

Perkins said Army criminal investigators are putting together a timeline of the events leading up to the shootings. He said he was not aware of a motive and did not know whether Russell knew any of the slain troops.

Russell's father, Wilburn Russell, 73, told the Associated Press on Tuesday that counselors at the clinic "broke" his son, by putting him through stressful mental tests but not clarifying that they were merely tests. The elder Russell said his son had e-mailed his wife sometime before the shooting and told her he had had two of the worst days in his life. He told her that "his life was over as far as he was concerned," the father said. Wilburn Russell said his son was not a violent man.

The 54th Engineer Battalion is scheduled to leave Iraq in August after a 15-month tour in the country's south, where troops build roads and bases and screen routes for bombs. Russell, who is on his third deployment to Iraq, also served in Bosnia and Kosovo.

Multiple lengthy deployments to war zones have led to a sharp rise recently in suicides and diagnoses of post-traumatic stress disorder. In response, military leaders have sought to educate service members about combat stress and its symptoms.

"If we've learned anything from this war, it's that not all injuries are physical," Maj. Gen. Daniel P. Bolger, the commander of the division responsible for Baghdad, said Tuesday. Bolger said many soldiers are reluctant to seek counseling, fearing stigma. But, he said, "you've got to have that door open for the guys."

Besides the standard criminal investigation, Perkins said, top military commanders have ordered a wide-ranging probe to determine whether there are enough mental health resources for troops serving in combat zones and whether screening and treatment are adequate.

"The focus on this is looking at the overall health services here," he said. "Are we doing the right things to diagnose people? Are we doing all that we can?"

Most large military facilities have combat stress clinics, outpatient facilities where soldiers get counseling. Soldiers suffering from depression, anxiety and other common symptoms can walk in on their own. Sometimes they are referred to the clinic by squad leaders, field medics or commanders.

Soldiers in Iraq generally carry weapons and ammunition at all times while on military installations. Commanders typically confiscate weapons only when they fear the soldier is suicidal or poses a threat to others.

Staff researchers Robert E. Thomason and Julie Tate in Washington contributed to this report.


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