A US Army sergeant on his third deployment in Iraq has been charged with killing five service people after opening fire at the mental health clinic where he was being treated for combat stress, US military officials said Tuesday.
Maj. Gen. David Perkins said Sgt. John M. Russell, a communications specialist with the 54th Engineering Battalion, had been taken into custody by military police after the shooting yesterday at Camp Liberty on the outskirts of Baghdad. Two staff officers from an Army reserve unit in Indianapolis working at the clinic and three other soldiers were killed.
The attack, the deadliest of its kind in this war, took place at a heavily fortified base camp complex near the airport that has essentially been sealed off from Iraqis to reduce threats to US soldiers.
General Perkins said investigations were ongoing but Sergeant Russell had been deemed to be enough of a threat to either himself or others that his superior officers had previously confiscated his weapon.
"Suffice to say by his actions or what he had said his chain of command was concerned enough that 1. he was in a formalized counseling process and going for mental health assistance and number 2. there was concern he should not have a weapon, so again the chain of command confiscated his weapon which is something that is not done routinely to average soldiers," Perkins told reporters.
Confiscating the weapon of a noncommissioned officer in charge of other soldiers would be an extremely serious step. Russell, from Sherman, Texas, has served previous deployments in Bosnia and Kosovo.
Perkins said Russell was charged with five counts of murder and one of aggravated assault. The sergeant was believed to have first gotten into a fight at the clinic where he was being treated and then returned with someone else's weapon.
Russell referred to counseling a week ago
The medical staff killed at the clinic were a Navy and an Army officer, both from the US Army Reserve's 55th medical company based in Indianapolis. It was not known whether the three enlisted soldiers who happened to be at the clinic when Russell is accused of having opened fire were there for treatment.
Russell had been near the end of his tour and due to redeploy back to Germany along with the 54th Engineer Battalion in August. The battalion, which has been in Iraq since May 2008, had been working under US forces in the south during its tour but Russell had been assigned to the headquarters company of the battalion on the base near Baghdad. He is currently being held in military police custody on the base.
Perkins said the sergeant, whom he said had been deployed to Iraq "at least two other times" had been referred to counseling about a week before the shooting. He was being treated as an outpatient and it was not known whether he had been prescribed medication. Perkins said he did not know at what point during the last week he had had his weapon taken away. Soldiers on US Army bases are generally required to carry their guns on the base. He said the military has launched its own investigation into how the attack might have been prevented.
The clinic has been closed and its services relocated while the staff who witnessed the attack are themselves given counseling.
"You can imagine that when something like this happens and you have five people murdered, you have a fairly chaotic situation," Perkins said.
Stigma attached to combat stress
Maj. Gen. Daniel Bolger, the US Army's commanding general for Baghdad, said the Army has been struggling to reduce the stigma of combat stress, or post-traumatic stress disorder, to encourage soldiers to seek treatment.
"That's one of the things we emphasize in our training [that] is particularly challenging for a fellow like Sergeant Russell – he's a noncommissioned officer ... so he's in a leadership capacity. So to make that trip down there is a tough decision for either him or his chain of command to make."
The military is also grappling with the effect of multiple deployments on soldiers' marriages and the strain on families back home. Transition counseling aimed at soldiers returning home has become mandatory after the military discovered a steep rise in domestic abuse and other problems among troops returning home.
"As we go to redeploy, we go through a lot of training looking for signs of mental distress, whether it's either anger management kind of stuff or suicidal, or things like that," said Perkins. "A commander has a tool kit – you can see in this case the tools [were] all being used."
This story was updated at 1:59 p.m. Eastern time.