Soldier rampage hints at stress of repeated deployments

Sgt. John Russell was charged with murder Tuesday. He was finishing his third tour in Iraq.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Wilburn Russell wipes his eyes after talking to reporters on May 12, 2009. Russell's son is accused of killing five fellow troops at their base in Iraq.
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Military police on Tuesday charged Sgt. John Russell, a soldier on a 15-month tour to Iraq – his third deployment to the country – with murder in the shooting deaths of five soldiers at an American base.

Details about Sergeant Russell are beginning to emerge. In an interview with a local television station in Sherman, Texas, Russell's father said his son was facing financial difficulty and feared he was about to be discharged from the Army. The case has focused further attention on the effect that multiple, extended deployments are having on soldiers.

Fifteen-month tours and repeated deployments are increasing the rate of suicide, divorce, and psychological problems, according to Pentagon data. The shootings at Camp Liberty in Iraq speak to the need "to redouble our efforts ... in terms of dealing with the stress," said Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in a Pentagon press conference Monday.

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Defense Secretary Robert Gates is requesting to "institutionalize and properly fund" programs to help wounded troops, including those with psychological disorders. Roughly 300,000 veterans have been diagnosed with some form of post-traumatic stress disorder.

But a main source of the problem – the repeated, extended deployments – will probably continue. President Obama is drawing troops down in Iraq, but he is also sending more to Afghanistan, minimizing the impact that the drawdown from Iraq will have on the health of the force.

The US military command launched an investigation Tuesday into whether it offers adequate mental-health care to its soldiers. Russell's father said his son, who joined the Army in 1994, felt alienated at the stress center.

"They didn't tell him they were there for his benefit – [that] they were there as a friend to him to find out if he had any psychological problems as a result of his third tour of duty," the father, Wilburn Russell, told the local news station.

In Baghdad, Maj. Gen. David Perkins told reporters that Russell, a communications specialist assigned to the 54th Engineer Battalion from Bamberg, Germany, was sent to the mental-health clinic by his superiors, presumably because of concern over his emotional state.

He said the commander had prohibited Russell from carrying a weapon, but somehow he got a weapon, entered the clinic, and opened fire.

Experts and commanders say 15-month tours are too long because they compound mental-health problems and other issues at home. Secretary Gates agrees. He extended Army tours from 12 to 15 months only reluctantly, saying it was needed to help support the "surge" of troops to Iraq in 2007. He has since lifted the policy, but there remain two units in Iraq still finishing 15-month tours that won't return until this summer and fall.

Yet perhaps the more important factor in stress among soldiers is "dwell time" – the amount of time the military allows servicemembers to stay at home. The Army's current dwell time is about 12 months, meaning 12 months at home followed by a 12-month deployment. By 2012, the service hopes to double the amount of time spent at home for every 12-month tour to a war zone.

Compounding the problem is the fact that a soldier can spend weeks or even months away from home, even during dwell time.

"There are schools they have to attend, there are boxes they have to check off, in addition to checking off the boxes with their families, too," says Kathleen Moakler, director of government relations for the National Military Family Association, an advocacy group in Washington.

Army leaders recognize the problem, but when it comes to slowing the rate of deployments, their hands are largely tied until the wartime demand for forces begins to fall.

"It is a resilient force, it is an amazing force, but I've got to tell you, it's a tired and stressed force," said Gen. Peter Chiarelli, vice chief of staff for the Army, during a Senate hearing last month.

Meanwhile, the rate of those with post-traumatic stress disorder continues to climb. One in 5 veterans from Iraq or Afghanistan – about 300,000 individuals – have some form of the condition, according to a study by the RAND Corp., a security consultancy in Arlington, Va. A significant part of the problem is pushing vets to overcome the stigma of seeking treatment. Only slightly more than half of those 300,000 veterans have received any kind of treatment, says RAND.

Gates's proposal to expand mental-health services is a start, says Tom Tarantino, a former Army officer who now works as a legislative associate for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. The IAVA advocates expanding the corps of mental-health professionals, creating mandatory "face to face" counseling for each returning veteran, and increasing the amount of training within the military to help soldiers recognize mental-health issues among their colleagues.

With more and more veterans coming home, "this is a problem that is going to persist," says Mr. Tarantino.

-Wire material was used in this report.

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