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U.S. Soldier Opens Fire on Comrades

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Ernesto Londono
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, May 11, 2009; 3:00 PM

Post foreign correspondent Ernesto Londono was online Monday, May 11, at 3 p.m. ET from Baghdad to discuss the shootings at Camp Liberty and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates's press conference on the upcoming investigation and Afghanistan.

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Ernesto Londono: Hi folks. I'm one of the Post's reporters in Baghdad. Earlier today, a U.S. soldier opened fire on comrades at a combat stress clinic in Baghdad, killing five. President Obama and Defense Secretary Robert. M. Gates are calling this a tragedy and promising to find out what may have prompted it. I'm happy to take any questions you might have.

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Washington, D.C.: Will this cause a change in policy of soldiers carrying weapons on bases?

Ernesto Londono: I think that's unlikely. Bases, while generally safe, are targets for extremists. The threat level and location of bases generally determines whether soldiers are required to carry weapons. I know many female soldiers who are worried about the possibility of being sexually assaulted on bases would not like to roam around unarmed.

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Colorado Springs, Colo.: Ernesto, You are my eyes and ears over there. Be careful and come home safely.

I fear that the soldiers involved are from Fort Carson. Can you tell us their units?

Ernesto Londono: Thanks for your question. The military has not released the names or units of the slain service members and the suspected gunman. We'll report those as soon as the information is disclosed.

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Fairfax, Va.: Is there anxiety there in Baghdad due to the new focus being on Afghanistan? If so, is the U.S. military doing about counseling or anything?

Ernesto Londono: I've spoken to some soldiers who feel that Iraq now feels like the "Forgotten War" -- a label that was coined to refer to Afghanistan back in 2004 and 2005. But I haven't heard soldiers express anger or anxiety over that. Some find it somewhat frustrating, but I wouldn't say it's a big deal for folks serving here that I talk to on a regular basis.

The U.S. military is paying a lot of attention to post traumatic stress disorder. Most large bases have combat stress clinics, where soldiers get counseling and sometimes medication. I know it's an issue commanders and squad leaders take very seriously. Unfortunately, seeking mental help also carries a stigma.

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New Orleans, La.: Thanks for having this Q and A. Do you know when the victims' identities will be disclosed? Do you know the service branch of the victims?

Ernesto Londono: The Department of Defense generally identifies slain service members a day after their relatives are notified. Sometimes news breaks sooner if relatives reach out to local media. I don't know have branch information.

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Washington, D.C.: It seems to me that for this many soldiers to be at a stress clinic while still deployed, long before many solders recognize their problems or address their psychological health (PH), clearly Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and other PH issues are an enormous problem. Has anyone addressed the fact that politicians are looking into whether PTSD is over-diagnosed? I would argue that this is, sadly, an demonstration of how under diagnosed it truly is. Perhaps the Department of Defense should consider prevention of stress before deployments, rather than addressing such issues upon return and after suicides have sky-rocketed and soldiers, airmen, sailors and marines have turned on themselves and each other?

Ernesto Londono: I get a sense that this is an issue folks in the military and policy circles are taking seriously. I've heard some people that post traumatic stress disorder is being over-diagnosed and that some soldiers use it to try to get out of deployments or dangerous assignments. But I think folks in Washington and commanders in Baghdad take it very seriously. The number of soldiers and veterans of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan who have committed suicide in recent years is alarming. I think military leaders recognize that and are trying to address the root causes.

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Annapolis, Md.: Would you call this incident "friendly fire" of some sort?

Ernesto Londono: No. Friendly-fire incidents are those in which soldiers mistakenly open fire on comrades in the proverbial fog of war. Based on the location and the number of victims, it's hard to believe this was an accident.

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Anonymous: Any word on possible motive?

Ernesto Londono: Nope. That's a question on a lot of minds in Baghdad tonight. I'm certain we'll learn more in days to come.

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McLean, Va.: Supposedly this base is one of the safest. How did something like this occur? What are the exact circumstances? Was he a patient in the clinic who was hospitalized or did he just walk in and open fire like a sniper?

Ernesto Londono: The base is among the safest in Iraq, but service members generally carry weapons on base. We don't know whether the suspect was a patient at the clinic. Soldiers who want to speak to a counselor can just walk in to combat stress clinics. Sometimes they are brought in by a friend or supervisor. Soldiers who seek counseling at these clinics do not have to turn in their weapons.

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Baghdad, Camp Liberty: Would this had been prevented if the Combat Stress Clinic had been guarded by the TCN's (Third Country Nationals) who guard the dining facilities, PX and even churches here on base?

Ernesto Londono: I don't see how. U.S. soldiers carry weapons on base. The foreign guards do little more than check IDs and make sure no unauthorized personnel enters bases and facilities within.

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Washington, D.C.: What do you think of Defense Secretary Gates shifting officers at the top in charge of Afghanistan, saying the job "requires new thinking"? Can you explain?

Ernesto Londono: I'm only moderately smart on Iraq stuff. I'd be interested to hear what my colleagues who cover Afghanistan regularly make of this.

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Germantown, Md.: Are you aware of any other cases of this nature that perhaps drew less attention in the past? Do you know what kind of monitoring soldiers get for PTSD or is it always a matter of self reporting? The military admires stoicism (I served long ago in peacetime) and I know admitting there is a problem at all, especially a mental one, is risky.

Ernesto Londono: Good question. I'm not aware of other cases like this one, but then again, there's a lot we don't know at this point. I don't think there's a standard degree of monitoring for deployed soldiers who have been diagnosed with PTSD. Keep in mind, we're taking about scores of people with varying degrees of symptoms. Squad and platoon leaders I know try to keep close tabs on their soldiers and make every effort to get them the help they need. I've recently began hearing soldiers talk about it more openly. But I think it's fair to say there's still a stigma attached to it. (We've seen that among war correspondents as well)

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Victory Base Iraq: Why not make a policy that weapons are not allowed at any clinic so when soldiers go to the CSC the stigma is not an issue?

Ernesto Londono: Good question. I'm sure it will come up often as we learn more about this incident.

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Radcliff, Ky.: Several news reports are referring to the shooter as "he." Has it been confirmed that the shooter is a male?

Ernesto Londono: That's what I heard from U.S. military officials.

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Bel Air, Md.: This is disturbing, especially that it happened at a military base. It's like what happens at local malls. How major an incident is this and how will it be handled. Is this the largest number of casualites in Iraq that have happened under Obama's watch?

Ernesto Londono: It's the deadliest incident in which a soldier -- apparently intentionally -- opened fire on comrades. A truck bombing in Mosul last month killed 5 soldiers.

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Dallas, Tex.: You've been covering Iraq for two years now. How candid are the soldiers about how the war has affected them, and have any of the ones you've talked to said they're not surprised this happened?

Ernesto Londono: It varies. Some soldiers don't seem to mind talking about harrowing things. In fact, many seem to find it cathartic. Others do. Every soldier I've spoken to today is dismayed, saddened and frightened. I think everyone wants answers to two questions: who and why. Before we have those two pieces of information I think it's hard to draw firm conclusions.

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Iraq: Was the soldier escorted to the clinic, was it a command referral? If so why did the commander not take the ammunition away and leave him his weapon?

Ernesto Londono: Some soldiers are escorted to combat stress clinics. Many are "walk ins." No appointment needed. We don't know whether the suspected gunman was a patient or what his motive may have been.

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Springfield, Va.: How soon before we have any details on the victims?

Ernesto Londono: Information generally starts trickling out shortly after relatives are notified. I'm assuming that'll happen within the next 48 hours.

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Ernesto Londono: Folks, thanks for your questions. We'll keep you updated as we learn more about this case.

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An American soldier opened fire on comrades Monday on a large military base in Baghdad, killing five and wounding three, the U.S. military said. A U.S. military officer in Baghdad said the shooting occurred at the base's combat stress clinic. The Army is grappling with a growing incidence of suicide cases, which military leaders attribute to the stress inflicted by multiple deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan.

Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.

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