Iraq shootings suspect, on 3rd tour, had had rifle taken away

McClatchy NewspapersMay 12, 2009 

BAGHDAD — The U.S. military on Tuesday charged a 44-year-old Army sergeant who's near the end of his third tour in Iraq with fatally shooting five American service members at a U.S. base here Monday.

Sgt. John M. Russell, who's from Sherman, Texas, and is assigned to the Army's 54th Engineer Battalion, was charged with five counts of premeditated murder and one count of aggravated assault, said Maj. Gen. David Perkins, the top U.S. military spokesman in Iraq.

The shootings took place at a combat stress clinic at Camp Liberty near Baghdad International Airport early Monday afternoon. Two of the victims, an Army officer and a Navy officer, worked at the clinic, Perkins said. The three other slain service members were enlisted soldiers. The victims weren't identified pending notification of their next of kin.

In the days before the shootings, Russell's superiors — worried about his behavior — took away his weapon and urged him to get counseling at the stress center. The gun Russell is accused of using Monday wasn't his own, and the military has yet to determine how he may have gotten it, Perkins said.

He said that military police had arrested Russell outside the clinic shortly after the shootings and were holding him at U.S. Camp Victory, adjacent to Camp Liberty. The military closed the stress clinic temporarily because it's considered a crime scene.

Perkins couldn't say whether Russell, a communications specialist, knew any of the victims. His unit has been here about a year and is scheduled to leave Iraq in August, Perkins said. Russell also has deployed previously to Bosnia and Kosovo, the military said.

"It's very dramatic and traumatic when we lose our own," Perkins said. "It impacts all of us who wear this uniform."

There have been several incidents since the start of the war in which American soldiers are alleged to have killed comrades, but Monday's appears to be the deadliest.

The U.S. military has recognized a growing number of stress-related mental illnesses among soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, and some military officers have suggested that repeated combat tours are to blame. The suicide rate among deployed service members has risen considerably in recent years.

Besides launching a criminal investigation into the shootings, Perkins said the military planned to conduct an internal review to determine whether it should change the system for providing mental health services to soldiers in Iraq.

All deployed service members have access to stress clinics, counselors and chaplains. Russell, who lived at Camp Liberty, had been referred to the stress clinic there about a week before the shootings, Perkins said, though he wasn't sure whether Russell had gone before Monday. A counselor in Russell's unit had seen him recently, Perkins said.

"We know that his chain of command had concerns about him," he said. "He had been undergoing counseling within the command, and they had taken the step of taking away his weapon."

Perkins said he couldn't elaborate on what had prompted Russell's superiors to fear that he might pose a threat. The military also wouldn't disclose whether he was taking any medications.

Maj. Gen. Dan Bolger, the U.S. commander who oversees Baghdad, said the military had increased its efforts in recent years to teach service members to recognize warning signs of mental illness in fellow soldiers and encourage comrades to seek treatment.

"We know that not all injuries are physical. We have to have that door open for our guys," he said.

Even though such steps didn't prevent Monday's deaths, Bolger said the incident showed that commanders weren't afraid to take action when they thought that a soldier might need help.

"(Russell) is a noncommissioned officer in a leadership capacity, and to make that trip down there, that's a tough decision for his superiors to make," Bolger said. "But we're willing to make it and we have that care available."

Military officials couldn't say how long Russell has been in the military or whether his family is aware of the charges against him. None of his relatives could be reached for comment Tuesday.

Russell's unit, based in Bamberg, Germany, is part of a division that works primarily in southern Iraq. Engineer battalions generally fix roads, clear routes for other soldiers and work on construction projects. The 54th Engineer Battalion's Web site says the unit also searched for roadside bombs.

Perkins said the military was still trying to sort out the chain of events that led to Monday's shootings. He said investigators had uncovered conflicting accounts and hadn't determined at what point Russell became separated from his so-called battle buddy. Service members in Iraq are never supposed to leave their living quarters alone.

Several news agencies have reported that Russell was disarmed after an argument at the stress clinic Monday morning and that he later grabbed another service member's weapon and returned to the clinic, allegedly to open fire. The military wouldn't confirm those reports.

President Barack Obama has said he was "shocked and deeply saddened" by the shootings. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has said that the killings highlight the need to find new ways to reduce the heavy toll of repeated deployments to war zones.

Deaths among U.S. soldiers in Iraq are rising. Eighteen were killed in Iraq last month, the highest monthly toll since September. With Monday's attacks, 10 American soldiers have died so far this month.

Also on Tuesday, a suicide car bomber targeted an Iraqi police patrol near the northern city of Kirkuk at about 10.30 a.m. Six police officers were killed and 12 people were wounded, police officials said.

(Reilly reports for the Merced (Calif.) Sun-Star. Jack Dolan of The Miami Herald contributed to this article from Baghdad.)

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McClatchy Newspapers 2009

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