The U.S. military said yesterday that it’s charged an American Army sergeant on his third tour in Iraq with murder in connection with Monday’s shooting spree that left five fellow soldiers dead in a mental health clinic at Camp Liberty in Baghdad.
Officials said Sergeant John M. Russell, a communications specialist with the 54th Engineering Battalion, was taken into custody by military police after the shooting.
In Baghdad, a Pentagon spokesperson told reporters military investigators are trying to determine Russell’s motive and whether he knew any of the victims.
But long-time observers of the U.S. military say the shooting shows all the signs of a soldier pushed to the brink of insanity by repeated and consistent exposure to war. The 44-year-old Russell had spent many years of his life at war when he allegedly opened fire and killed five of his fellow soldiers. Russell was drawing to the end of his third tour in Iraq and had also served deployments in Bosnia and Kosovo.
"It was tragic, but unfortunately it doesn’t surprise me given the way we’re recycling them in and out of war zones," said Shad Meshad, head of the National Veterans Foundation, which runs a toll free hotline for soldiers having difficulty adjusting to civilian life.
"We are not doing a good job of treating these people as they serve two, three, or four tours in a combat zone," he added.
Nearly 800,000 soldiers have served at least two tours in Iraq and Afghanistan — and the non-partisan Rand Corporation estimates more than 300,000 suffer from either Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or major depression.
At the Pentagon Monday, the head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, acknowledged that the strain of the long war could have been behind the killing.
The shooting spree "does speak to me about the need for us to redouble our efforts in terms of dealing with the stress [of war], dealing with those kinds of things," he said.
The military has yet to reveal if Russell was screened for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) before being sent on his third tour of duty in Iraq. Such screenings are legally required but often aren’t carried out.
Last May, USA Today reported the Pentagon had illegally deployed 43,000 deemed medically unfit soldiers during the first five years of the Iraq war.
Garrett Reppenhagen, a former U.S. Army Scout/Sniper who served tours in Kosovo and Iraq, traveled to U.S. military bases around the country as a researcher for Veterans for America. For example, Reppenhagen said: "We had a soldier where the military doctor at Fort Hood said he was non-deployable, who said he had a mental health condition. He recommended the soldier go to a wounded transition unit and when he got back to his battalion, the battalion commander was able to sign that off and say that he was not injured at all. So it came down to the commander’s ability to overrule what a mental health professional had said."
One problem, Reppenhagen said, is that commanders are evaluated based on what percentage of their companies are combat ready. If soldiers are deemed unfit for combat, the commander looks bad and can be relieved of his or her responsibility. The result is a model of military mental health care where PTSD is seen as condition that can be treated in combat.
Meshad of the National Veterans Foundation said the notion of a combat stress clinic located within the Iraqi war zone is problematic.
"If a soldier has PTSD he has no business going back to where his PTSD started," Meshad said. "Individuals who are having PTSD symptoms need to have those symptoms addressed. They do not need to be in a place where more catastrophic events are going to happen."
A British journalist’s report posted on the U.S. Army’s Web site describes the kind of emotional support offered to soldiers seeking psychiatric counseling at Camp Liberty. "This is mental health military-style," reporter Tim Albone wrote.
"Soldiers are referred to as warriors, not patients; PTSD is referred to as post-traumatic growth; and trauma is talked about as something to be learned from — something that will ‘help you grow.’"
Albone quoted Major Kevin Gormley, the center commander, saying: "Our job is to keep soldiers on the battlefield, not send them home."
"Giving a veteran with severe mental wounds some medications and a pep talk is like putting a band aid on a bullet hole," Iraq war veteran Reppenhagen explained. "You’re still sending him out into a situation where that injury is going to be compounded and worse."