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Monday, May 11, 2009

5 Dead After U.S. Soldier in Iraq Opens Fire at Camp Liberty Stress Clinic [UPDATE #2]

UPDATE #2 May 12, 10:37 pm -- Added official statements to this tragedy by Steve Robinson, a veteran and advocate, Paul Sullivan, Exec Director of Veterans for Common Sense, and IAVA's Paul Rieckhoff.

UPDATE #1 May 11, 2009 12:12 pm -- The New York Times is reporting that the shooter is in custody, and was not among those killed in the incident as early news reports suggested.

CBS Evening News [video at link]:

Tuesday the army identified the American soldier who went on a deadly rampage at an Army base in Iraq and charged him with the murder of five other U.S. service members.

Sgt. John Russell, a 44-year-old Texan, has been in the military 20 years. Russell was on his third tour of duty in Iraq and, as CBS News correspondent Bob Orr reports, there were signs he was in trouble.

His commanders feared Russell was on the edge. So, they took away his weapon and ordered him to counseling at a combat stress clinic in Baghdad.

And it was there Monday, officials say, that Russell opened fire, killing five fellow service members. Among his victims: Navy Commander Charles Springle, a licensed clinical social worker.

Today at their home in Sherman, Tex., Russell's 20-year-old son struggled to understand how his dad, a decorated electronics expert, now faces five counts of murder.

"He's got medals. He was doing good for the country," John Russell II said. "For him to do something like that, he couldn't of been in his right state of mind. They had to have put him to a breaking point. Because he just had to have lost it lost all train of thought to do anything like that."

Sgt. Russell's father said he may have snapped out of fear that his military career could be ended by a stress diagnosis.

Resources and updates in extended.

In educational interest, article(s) quoted from extensively.

UPDATE #2 --- CBS Reports, May 11, 2009:

James Dao and Lizette Alvarez, NYT:

He was a career Army man who joined up because it was a steady job, but he had fallen into debt paying off a $1,500-a-month mortgage, his father said. Now, just weeks from finishing his third tour in Iraq, Sgt. John M. Russell was in trouble with his commanding officer, who ordered him to turn in his gun and receive psychological counseling.

On Monday, after a confrontation with the staff at a clinic at Camp Liberty, a sprawling base on the outskirts of Baghdad, Sergeant Russell returned with a weapon, possibly wrestled away from his armed escort, and killed five people, Army officials said. It appeared to be the worst case of soldier-on-soldier violence among American forces in the six-year Iraq war.

Sergeant Russell, 44, of the 54th Engineering Battalion, based in Bamberg, Germany, has been charged with five counts of murder and one count of aggravated assault in the shooting, said Maj. Gen. David Perkins, a spokesman for the military in Iraq.

The dead included an Army officer and a Navy officer on the clinic staff, and three enlisted soldiers who were at the clinic. ... General Perkins said the Army had handled the case appropriately.

“The tools were all being used,” General Perkins said. “They thought that he needed a higher level of care than the unit could provide, so they sent him to the clinic. I mean, you see, all the kind of things that we’re taught to do were in place.”

The Navy identified its dead officer as Cmdr. Charles Keith Springle, 52, of Wilmington, N.C., a licensed clinical social worker. The Army on Tuesday night had not released the names of the other shooting victims pending notification of their families.

The shooting has renewed debate over the stresses placed on troops that have deployed multiple times to Iraq and Afghanistan. Last year, the Army had about 140 confirmed suicides, a record since the service began tracking the statistic in 1980. Many experts say that repeat deployments to combat zones are a factor behind the higher rate, along with financial and marital problems.

Steve Robinson, a veterans' advocate that I greatly admire and trust, emailed his impressions and I asked if I could share them with you here:

From: steve robinson
Sent: Monday, May 11, 2009 5:10 PM
To: 'Ilona Meagher'
Subject: RE: official stmt on stress clinic shooting?

We don’t know what happened in this particular case but we do know what is happening in our military surrounding STIGMA, mental health in the Military and the needs of returning veterans.

We must deconstruct the sequence of events that lead to this tragic incident and find out what went right and what went wrong. As a military we must begin to talk about the needs of our service members and families before, during and after war.

Why it is so hard after so many negative stories and reports to get the DoD with so many gatekeepers to change course in the middle of the fight. We must address the OPTEMPO and stress on our military as a National Security issue.

We must have training based on the consequences of long multiple deployments. We must shift from a mental behavioral defective soldier model to a performance enhancement and optimization model targeted also at combat stress mitigation: this includes being open and frank about the realities of combat and the impact on the brain and nervous system. Soldiers appreciate this because it allows them to view their brain and nervous system as part of their weapons' systems, just like understanding their M-4.

Why do we fight? What are we owed? Can the Nation deliver what we need?

The military teaches us through doing. The act of training and repetition create a conditioned response to almost every situation. This is the fundamental reason soldiers are able to set aside the fear of bullets, bombs and the trauma of war while conducting the mission. The military teaches us to dis-identify with the brains normal response to war and pursue the military objective, sometimes for the greater good or national policy but most service members find themselves simple fighting to survive and protect the men and women to the right and left on the battlefield.

But is it that simple? Soldiers can be easily trained to dis-identify with what their mind is telling them and press on with the collective task at hand but being trained to set aside who we are and what we believe or feel to accomplish a military objective does not mean that the mind wont revisit these issues before, during or after the battle is over or the war is done. The military focuses on the training to get things done but often ignores the consequences of doing and participating.

Who we are and what we think is always more powerful than what someone wants us to believe and ultimately when war is over we are left with ourselves to process the wartime experience and give it meaning. The military has long ignored this fact and consequence of war.

Warriors of old were philosophers, poets and artist they had an arsenal of traditions to help them during and returning from the war and back to their society. Today we have no such traditions, soldiers and families are left to figure it out on their own.

Leadership prevents suicides and tragedies like this from occurring but leadership alone wont solve the problem. Individuals and Leaders must be trained to recognize and treat the signs of distress.

For some, war is a positive event and a defining moment in time, for others it is devastating, confusing event that requires a great deal of introspection, processing and debate in ones own mind on what you did, was it right and was it worth the cost. People often talk about the good wars where public opinion was not divided but no matter the public perception, war is ultimately a test of will using weapons that cause death, destruction and trauma. Our military must training that teaches and understanding of this occupational fact.

This is why in this war, like other long wars, the toll on the mind and body has become self evident in daily accounts of soldiers and families falling through the cracks. The military and the Nation now seem concerned about the long term cost of caring for those with mental illness but the military has created this problem because they ignore the last part of the mission, “What happens when you break down in theater or when you come home?”.

In my testimony before the Mental Health Task Force I talked about Operationalizing battlefield experience the same way we care for military equipment. There must be a discussion about what happened and way for the soldier to normalize their feelings rather than suppressing them only to explode later.

This concept if employed would allow the soldier to process all the emotions of war and become more resilient but it requires a serious shift in military doctrine and philosophy.

When faced with soldiers who are having problems with their wartime experience the military has two standard paths they usually choose. The first choice for many commanders is to ignore it. Opting rather to believe the soldiers has a lack of moral character or intestinal fortitude therefore is a discipline problem because they can no longer cope in the military structure. The second path the military chooses is to label the problem with a diagnosis and medicalize the issue ignoring the basic fundamental fact that war stress is part of the problem and ownership of the experience is the cure.

Paul Sullivan, Veterans for Common Sense, sent the following statement via email:

Our heart goes out to the families of the fallen soldiers. This is tragic incident.

Now the situation is getting worse, with nearly two million deployed to combat, and 4-in-10 deployed twice or more, according to DMDC data obtained by VCS using FOIA. We can only deploy humans into war so many times before the structural integrity of either the soldiers and/or the system has a catastrophic failure. Even a notice of impending deployment triggers suicide and homicide. Veterans for Common Sense identified several cases where veterans completed suicide after getting notified of their imminent return to combat.

If the Army and the President want to get to the bottom of the latest spike in the murder - suicide epidemic caused by the war, then the best place to start is the failure of the military to examine our soldiers thoroughly during initial enlistment as well as before and after deployment.

Here are salient questions about the Army's newest war-induced crisis.

1. Press reports indicate the suspect soldier was deployed twice before, and that this was his third combat deployment. Was the suspect soldier given his three pre-deployment medical exams, as required by PL 105-85, enacted in 1997? If yes, was he found fit? If yes, and he was found unfit, why was he re-deployed? If no exam was performed, then why was he not given the required pre-deployment medical exam?

2. Was he given his two post-deployment medical exams, as required by law? If yes, was he found fit? If yes, and he was found unfit, why was he re-deployed? If he was not examined, why was he not given the required post-deployment medical exam?

3. Was the chain of command provided training on mental health issues and the requirement for pre- and post-deployment exams? If so, describe the training materials and dates? If not, why not?

If the military failed to perform both the pre- and post-deployment exams required by law, then the military bears some responsibility for the suicides and murders by failing to identify and treat symptoms before they became fatal. As we repeatedly tell reporters, the Army's intentional deployment of soldiers without medical exams plus deployment of unfit soldiers into combat are tantamount to sending a broken plane on a long-range mission without checking or providing enough fuel and ammunition, thus undermining the safety of the crew and success of the mission. In the end, our military and Nation are weaker because of the failure to take care of our most important asset - our troops. If the military needed more doctors, it failed to demand them. If the military could not send people back for multiple tours, it failed to demand more troops.

Paul Sullivan
Executive Director
Veterans for Common Sense

Paul Rieckhoff, IAVA:

The events at Camp Liberty today are a great tragedy. The friends and families of those killed have suffered a terrible loss, and our thoughts are with them during this difficult time.

Unlike during the Vietnam War, today’s military is a professional, all-volunteer force. There have been only five cases of intentional fratricide by U.S. service members in Iraq. But these incidents, however rare, draw public attention to an important issue: the enormous stress on our armed forces. Many troops are under great psychological strain and are not receiving the treatment they need. Over 600,000 troops have served more than one combat tour since 9/11. Military suicide rates have hit record highs every year since 2003. Much more must be done to address troops’ psychological injuries before they reach a crisis point.

Rieckhoff discussing the issue on CNN:

UPDATE #1 --- As the military aggressively works to calm its escalating suicide rate, horrible news from Iraq. Details are only now trickling in, but -- clearly -- this is a devastating incident.

Timothy Williams, New York Times:

The United States military said Monday that five American soldiers had been shot to death by a fellow soldier who opened fire on them at one of the biggest American bases in Baghdad, and that the suspected shooter was in custody.

The killings appeared to be the worst case of lethal non-combat casualties for the American forces in Iraq since the invasion more than six years ago.

The shooting took place at around 2 p.m. local time at Camp Liberty, a sprawling base next to Baghdad airport, the military said in a statement. The names of the dead soldiers were being withheld pending family notification, the statement said.

“Anytime we lose one of our own, it affects us all,” Col. John Robinson, a spokesman for the U.S. military in Iraq, said in the statement.

CNN, citing unnamed officials, said that at least three others were wounded in the attack, which it said had taken place at a clinic for soldiers suffering from war stress.

The killing of American troops by their fellow soldiers is infrequent, but not unheard of. The latest incident in Iraq occurred in September, when an American soldier was arrested following the shooting deaths of two American soldiers at their patrol base near Iskandariya.

All three soldiers were assigned to the Third Battalion, Seventh Infantry Regiment, Fourth Brigade Combat Team, Third Infantry Division, based in Fort Stewart, Ga.

[See article for more related incidents.] ...

The death toll from the Monday shooting was the highest for American personnel in a single attack since April 10, when a suicide truck driver killed five American soldiers with a blast near a police headquarters in Mosul, news agencies reported.

Violence has dropped sharply in Iraq, but a rash of major bombings by insurgents has raised questions about security less than two months before American forces are due to withdraw combat troops from urban bases.

Earlier this month, two American soldiers were killed by a man wearing an Iraqi Army uniform at an Iraqi military training center south of Mosul. In April, 18 American military personnel members were killed in Iraq — double the number in March and the highest since September 2008, when 25 were killed.

Peter S. Green, Bloomberg News:

“It’s going to take a few days to figure this out,” Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman told reporters in the U.S.

The shootings took place at a stress clinic for troops, the Associated Press reported. It’s unclear whether those killed worked at the clinic or were there for counseling, and whether all the dead were members of the military, AP said, citing a senior U.S. military official in Washington who wasn’t identified by name.

President Barack Obama “was shocked by the news of this incident,” Robert Gibbs, a White House spokesman, said today. The president has a meeting later today with Defense Secretary Robert Gates and will raise the matter in their discussion, Gibbs said.

Robert H. Reid, AP:

Separately, the military announced Monday that a U.S. soldier was also killed a day earlier when a roadside bomb exploded near his vehicle in Basra province of southern Baghdad.

FOX News has a page on Camp Liberty, the scene of the incident:

Camp Liberty can hold about 14,000 troops. Camp Liberty has a chapel, Moral Recreation and Welfare building, PX shoppette, barber shop, Internet cafe, gym and more. Camp Liberty lies northeast of Baghdad International Airport.

The land near the camp is a former hunting reserve for Saddam Hussein. 1st Cavalry Division Headquarters is stationed at Camp Liberty. The Multi-national Corp in Iraq is headquartered at Camp Liberty. The Multi-national Corp coordinates the day to day operations of the military units in Iraq.

Camp Liberty is of the largest overseas posts built since the Vietnam War.

Pentagon Channel news broadcast, May 11, 2009:


The first news to arrive, from MSNBC, reported erroneously that the shooter had killed himself. Those early details:

MSNBC reported:

A U.S. service member opened fire on fellow members of the military, killing four and wounding several others, at the main U.S. base in Baghdad, officials told NBC News on Monday.

NBC's Jim Miklaszewski reported the assailant took his own life after the violent outburst. The attacker was described as a "stressed out" U.S. soldier.

The military said in a statement that the shooting occurred about 2 p.m. at Camp Liberty near Baghdad International Airport.

The toll was the highest for U.S. personnel in a single attack since April 10, when a suicide truck driver killed five American soldiers with a blast near a police headquarters in the northern city of Mosul.

While it's obvious a difficult journey is in store for those personally affected by the situation, I can't help but think that this news must also be hard on those families who've previously had to hoe the same military suicide row. Every tragedy like this must bring some of the sting back, I'm afraid.

Sending my thoughts and prayers out to all of those who are involved and/or especially affected by this devastating news.

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