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U.S. Soldier Kills 5 at ‘Stress Clinic’ in Iraq

May 11, 2009

BAGHDAD — An American Army sergeant shot and killed five fellow soldiers following an altercation at a counseling center on a military base in Iraq Monday, officials said. The attack drew attention to the issues of combat stress and morale among soldiers serving multiple combat tours over six years of war.

The suspect had been disarmed after an earlier incident at the center but returned with another weapon, according to a senior military official in Washington, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation into the shootings was ongoing.

Attacks on fellow soldiers, known as fraggings, were not uncommon during the Vietnam war but are believed to be rare in Iraq and Afghanistan.

A brief U.S. statement said the assailant was taken into custody following the 2 p.m. shooting at Camp Liberty, a sprawling U.S. base on the western edge of Baghdad near the city’s international airport. …

Stress cases growing among soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan

Pentagon officials said the shooting happened at a stress clinic, where troops can go for help with the stresses of combat or personal issues. Soldiers routinely carry weapons on Camp Liberty and other bases, but they are supposed to be unloaded.

The military official told The Associated Press that the sergeant had been involved in a verbal altercation at the center. His service weapon was taken from him for his own protection and he was driven back to the center later in the day.

The official said that when the sergeant returned he had another weapon. It was unclear whether he was returning under orders or of his own volition.

Another senior military official said the shooter was a patient at the clinic. The official, who also spoke on condition of anonymity because of the probe, did not know what relationship the shooter had to those he killed. It was unclear whether the victims were workers at the clinic or were there for counseling. …

The U.S. military is coping with a growing number of stress cases among soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan — many of whom are on their third or fourth combat tours. Some studies suggest that about 15 percent of soldiers returning from Iraq suffer from some sort of emotional problems. …

Adding to the stress, there have been several incidents recently when men dressed as Iraqi soldiers have opened fire on American troops, including an attack in the northern city of Mosul on May 2 when two soldiers and the gunman were killed. …

“Many troops are under great psychological strain and are not receiving the treatment they need,” said Paul Rieckhoff, founder and head of Iraq & Afghanistan Veterans of America. “Much more must be done to address troops’ psychological injuries before they reach a crisis point.”

‘Fragging’ incidents in Iraq war

The death toll from the shooting at the counseling center 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 Mosul. …

There have been several previous fragging incidents in the Iraq war.

  • Last September, Sgt. Joseph Bozicevich, 39, of Minneapolis was detained after allegedly killing two members of his unit south of Baghdad. The case remains under investigation.
  • In April 2005, Army Sgt. Hasan Akbar was sentenced to death for killing two officers in Kuwait just before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.
  • In June 2005, an Army captain and lieutenant were killed when an anti-personnel mine detonated in the window of their room at the U.S. base in Tikrit. National Guard Staff Sgt. Alberto Martinez was acquitted in the blast.
  • Spc. Chris Rolan, an Army medic, was sentenced to 33 years in prison in 2007 for killing a fellow soldier after a night of heavy drinking in Iraq.
  • In 2008, Army Cpl. Timothy Ayers was sentenced to two years and four months in prison after pleading guilty to involuntary manslaughter in the fatal 2007 shooting of his platoon sergeant in Iraq.

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

In the northern city of Kirkuk, a car bombing killed two people Monday, including a 10-year-old boy, and wounded 10 others, police Brig. Gen. Sarhat Qadir said.

In Baghdad, a senior Iraqi traffic officer was assassinated on his way to work. It was the second attack on a high-ranking traffic police officer in the capital in as many days.


CNN reports Monday’s attack marks the fifth incident in which a service member was killed by a fellow service member during Operation Iraqi Freedom, according to the U.S. military.

  • In March 2003, Capt. Christopher Seifert and Maj. Gregory Stone were killed at Camp Pennsylvania, Kuwait, in a grenade attack by another soldier.
  • Sgt. Joseph Tackett was fatally shot in June 2005 by a fellow soldier in Baghdad.
  • Seaman Anamarie Camacho and Seaman Genesia Gresham were killed in a non-combat incident in Bahrain in October 2007.
  • A 39-year-old soldier was charged with killing Staff Sgt. Darris Dawson and Sgt. Wesley Durbin in Tunnis, Iraq, in September.

Remember Their Sacrifice

Remember Their Sacrifice

Related links

Iraq Casualties

Afghanistan Casualties

Honor the Fallen


Late update: NBC News reports that the U.S. military has identified the assailant in the shooting spree as Sgt. John M. Russell of the 54th Engineering Battalion based in Bamberg, Germany. He faces five counts of murder and one count of aggravated assault. The dead reportedly include a Navy doctor, and Army doctor, and three enlisted personnel.


5/13/09 Update

Army ‘Broke’ Soldier Held in Killings, Dad Says

APTOPIX US Iraq Shooting
Wilburn C. Russell, 73, wipes his eyes after talking to reporters in front of the house his son U.S. Army Sgt. John Russell purchased in Sherman, Texas. (Photo credit: Lm Otero / AP)

May 13, 2009

SHERMAN, Texas — The father of a U.S. soldier accused of killing five fellow troops in Iraq said his son “forfeited his life” but the military bears some responsibility for the rampage.

Wilburn Russell said Tuesday that 44-year-old Army Sgt. John M. Russell wasn’t typically a violent person, but counselors “broke” him before gunfire erupted in a military stress center Monday in Baghdad.

“John has forfeited his life. Apparently, he said (to his wife), ‘My life is over. To hell with it. I’m going to get even with ’em,'” said the elder Russell, 73.

His father said the younger Russell, an electronics technician, was at the stress center to transfer out of active duty. He said his son was undergoing stressful mental tests that he didn’t understand were merely tests, “so they broke him.” …

Excerpts of his military record, obtained by The Associated Press, show Sgt. Russell previously did two one-year tours of duty in Iraq, one starting in April 2003 and another in November 2005. The stress of repeat and extended tours is considered a main contributor to mental health problems among troops serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. …


5/14/09 Update

Winding Paths Led Victims to Iraq Stress Clinic

May 13, 2009

WILMINGTON, N.C. — Keith Springle, who grew up swimming and fishing off the North Carolina coast and seemed destined as a boy to join the Navy, was in Iraq because it was his duty as a military psychologist. Dr. Matthew Houseal, a 54-year-old Army reservist and psychiatrist, was there because he felt he needed to be.

Image: Charles Keith Springle
Cmdr. Charles Keith Springle, assigned to the 55th Medical Company, poses with his colleagues at the Community Counseling Center in Camp Lejeune, N.C. Springle died Monday after a U.S. soldier allegedly opened fire at a clinic in Baghdad. (Photo credit: U.S. Marine Corps / AP)

Regardless of how they came to be there, both made it their mission to help their fellow service members cope with the stress of life in the combat zone. Soldiers like the Maryland rebel who liked tinkering with guns and despised “pencil pushers”; or the Peru native who, whether he was walking the streets of New Jersey or the dirt roads of Iraq, was a magnet for candy-seeking kids; or the shy video gamer from Missouri whose refusal to back down probably cost him his life.

Stress brought the five together earlier this week at a Baghdad clinic, the emotionally wounded and the healers. And stress is what killed them.

Authorities say Sgt. John M. Russell, who was nearing the end of his third tour in Iraq, was deeply angry at the military when he walked into the combat stress clinic at Camp Liberty on Monday and opened fire.

Killed were Springle, 52, a Navy commander from Beaufort, N.C.; Houseal of Amarillo, Texas; Army Sgt. Christian E. Bueno-Galdos, 25, of Paterson, N.J.; Spc. Jacob D. Barton, 20, of Lenox, Mo.; and Pfc. Michael E. Yates Jr., 19, of Federalsburg, Md., who had met Russell shortly before the shootings.

Traced a grid across the globe

The paths that brought these six men together traced a grid across the globe, from South America to rural Missouri, from the islands of Alaska to deepest Antarctica, before intersecting so tragically in an Army clinic.

Family and teachers said Jacob Barton was a quiet student who loved graphic novels and science fiction. Growing up with his grandmother in the house, he sometimes had trouble relating to kids his own age. …

[Reportedly] the Army told the family that Barton died trying to shield another man from the shooting. …

‘Preventive maintenance’

Springle grew up in the little fishing village of Lewiston, N.C., just east of Beaufort. …

All who knew him talked about Springle’s sense of humor and upbeat attitude. But Springle — whose son and son-in-law have each done a tour in Iraq — took the issue of combat stress very seriously. Although deploying to Iraq was his duty, his work on the homefront with the Citizen-Soldier Support Program was a labor of love. …

Always wore an Army jacket

Houseal, a major in the Army Reserves, was under no obligation to go to Iraq, but he was already something of an adventurer.

For 11 months in 1991, the University of Michigan graduate was physician for about 20 people working at the Amundsen-Scott Station near the South Pole in a climate research project funded by the National Science Foundation, said Mike O’Neill who was the group’s electronics technician. …

He also was the only person who didn’t don the large, bulky red parkas the others relied on to stay warm. Houseal always wore an Army green jacket — with many layers beneath, O’Neill said.

The Amarillo man had worked for a dozen years at the Texas Panhandle Mental Health and Mental Retardation clinic, said executive director Bud Schertler. He left Texas for Iraq in late January and was assigned to the 55th Medical Company in Indianapolis, which ran the clinic where the shootings occurred.

Family emigrated from Peru

Bueno-Galdos couldn’t wait to serve his adopted country and did so exceptionally, earning three Army Commendation Medals.

He was 7 when his family emigrated from Mollendo, Peru, for better economic opportunities. The youngest of four children, “Chinito” — a term of endearment that literally means “little Chinaman” — became a U.S. citizen in high school and joined the Army as soon as he graduated. …

Image: Pfc. Michael Edward Yates Jr. and son Kamren
AP photo
Pfc. Michael Edward Yates Jr. and his son Kamren in a family photograph.

Yates displayed zeal for serving in the Army, but perhaps not his locale, as evidenced by his MySpace page.

His profile lists his location as “(expletive), Iraq.” For his education, he listed his major as “KILLING F…ERS” and his minor as “SHOOTING THEM IN THE FACE.” Under clubs, he declared himself a member of “THE US ARMY THE BEST ORGINIZATION.”

‘Didn’t like book work’

Yates’ mother, Shawna Machlinski, said her son joined the Army, not out of a sense of duty, but because he didn’t see many other options. Besides, his stepfather and two stepbrothers were military men.

“Michael was a hands-on person who didn’t like book work,” she said. “He liked putting guns together … He just wanted to do something that he thought he would be good at, and he always liked guns and that kind of stuff.”

So two years ago, he got his GED and signed up.

Yates liked the military, especially going out on what he called “stealth missions.” His problems started when he went back after spending nearly the entire month of April at home. His son, Kamren Mister, celebrated his first birthday on April 7.

The visit left him anxious. He wasn’t home long enough, but he’d still been away from “my military family” too long. Once back in Iraq, his mother said he began to think about things he wished he’d done while visiting Maryland.

When the strong emotions began surfacing, she said, he was transferred to headquarters company “so he could stay out of combat.”

“He didn’t like headquarters at all,” said Machlinski. “He said they’re stupid pencil pushers.”

Despite the stigma, Yates volunteered to go to the stress clinic.

“I need help dealing with this,” he told his mom.

Yates had been at the clinic nearly a week when he called home for Mother’s Day. He said he bumped into Russell.

Yates told his mother that Russell seemed like a nice enough guy. But after three tours, he clearly hated the Army.

“Man, this guy’s got issues,” she remembers him telling her.

Hurting more than helping

Russell, 44, who was a little more than a month shy of finishing his third tour, told his family that the clinic was hurting more than helping. Now, he is facing charges of murder and aggravated assault.

As angry as Machlinski is at Russell for taking her boy, she’s angrier at the military.

“My heart goes out to him, too,” she said of Russell. “Someone should have helped this sergeant way before he got this bad. I would rather have my son doing his job in combat, I would rather him have been blown up by a bomb … than be shot by friendly fire.”


10/20/09 Update

Iraq Clinic Deaths Probe Depicts Troubled Soldier

By Chelsea J. Carter and Rebecca Santana

Oct. 20, 2009

BAGHDAD — An American soldier who barged into a counseling center and killed five fellow troops with an assault rifle had been unraveling for nearly two weeks but the U.S. military lacked clear procedures to monitor him or deal with his deadly shooting spree once it began to unfold, a report found.

Sgt. John M. Russell is accused of shooting and killing five soldiers at a military counseling center at a U.S. base last May in the deadliest case of U.S. soldier-on-soldier violence of the six-year Iraq war.

The shooting deaths drew attention to the issues of combat stress and morale as troops have to increasingly serve multiple combat tours because the nation’s volunteer army is stretched thin by two long-running wars.

The extensive 325-page report [PDF], issued Friday and obtained by The Associated Press Tuesday, included detailed witness statements describing the events leading up to the shootings. It paints a picture of soldier less than two months from the end of his third deployment who began to show obvious signs of unraveling weeks before the clinic shootings.

The report offered a detailed step-by-step accounting of Russell’s behavior and actions at Baghdad’s Camp Liberty on May 11 in the hours leading up to the shootings.

But even as the report laid bare many facts in the case, it also seemed to raise more questions as dozens of pages were redacted including key materials such as the criminal investigation report, the military police report, and the report’s recommendations.

The report describes a man whose problems were known and who received some counseling, yet at critical times did not appear to get the help he needed.

Russell, who faces charges of murder and aggravated assault, was on his fourth visit to a mental health clinic in Iraq when the appointment was cut short because he became “verbally noncompliant,” the report stated. Clinic personnel then called the military police, who declined to arrest him and just ordered him returned to his unit.

Less than an hour later, Russell managed to grab a loaded M-16 rifle from a fellow soldier and steal a white Ford Explorer SUV. He then went back into the counseling facility and shot and killed four soldiers and one sailor.

The report describes how soldiers in other rooms in the building dropped to the floor when they heard the loud “pop” of repeated gunshots, and then scrambled out the window to safety.

In the days leading up to the incident, many of Russell’s fellow soldiers had noticed that his behavior appeared to be “deteriorating,” the report stated.

His fellow soldiers described him as “unpredictable and prone to anger” and sometimes evidencing “paranoia.” According to one statement, Russell, who spent one of his tours in the western city of Ramadi during the height of the conflict there, said he was “sick and tired of life and believed everyone hated him.”

On the morning of May 11, Russell was taken by a member of his worried unit to the clinic after being “irritable” and telling other members of his unit to “get away from me,” according to the report.

The report said although the unit knew of Russell’s suicidal thoughts at least 3-4 days prior to the incident, little appeared to have been done to effectively monitor him.

“There is no clear procedure or established training guidelines in any of the references for managing soldiers identified as ‘at risk’ for suicide or the proper way to conduct suicide watch,” the report stated.

According to the statement of one of the military police officers involved in the incident, he asked Russell’s company commander whether the sergeant had been on “unit watch” and what that meant.

The company commander said Russell’s roommate would keep an eye on him when he was around, but that they didn’t have a 24-hour watch on him until the morning of the shootings.

“I asked him why he had not been on 24 hour a day watch since he first communicated his suicidal thoughts and he replied: ‘I know this sounds bad but we don’t have the personnel available,'” the statement read.

A breakdown in communication also contributed to the deadly series of events. One section of the report describes how units responding after Russell stole the weapon, instead of reacting immediately, had to meet up in person to coordinate their actions because radio communication was poor.

Additionally, nobody alerted the counseling clinic that Russell had stolen a weapon and a vehicle, the report said.

Although Russell told several people he was contemplating suicide including a chaplain, and a worker at the counseling clinic, others appeared to have doubts about the seriousness of the situation.

The report also was critical of the military police who responded to the incident, saying that their policies and procedures were not sufficient.

Military police did not have enough policies to “warn and protect possible victims when informed of a credible threat,” the report stated.

The U.S. military in Iraq said the “candid review” is one of the tools used by the military to prevent such incidents in the future.

“Multi-National Corps-Iraq has already implemented several of the investigation’s recommendations to include a command-wide review of behavioral health care services, updates to all suicide-prevention programs, training and appointing two behavioral health advocates per battalion, and executing new procedures for dealing with servicemembers attempting and/or threatening suicide,” said Lt. Col. David Patterson said in a statement e-mailed to the AP.

The U.S. military has become increasingly concerned about mental health in the ranks following a steady rise in suicides — which the Army says have increased worldwide from at least 102 in 2006 to 140 last year. As of April, the Army had reported at least 48 suicides.

Thousands of other veterans are believed to suffer flashbacks, nightmares or fits of anger as they attempt to readjust to civilian life.


Related report

Key Findings in Iraq Clinic Shooting Investigation

Oct. 20, 2009

Key findings from a U.S. military investigation into a shooting spree last May at mental health clinic in Iraq that left five American service members dead:

  • There were no clear procedures or established training guidelines for the military in Iraq to deal with soldiers identified as “at risk” for suicide.
  • No Army publication has offered step-by-step instruction to a unit on how to implement a suicide watch.
  • A suicide prevention plan that outlines steps to be taken by commanders in Iraq once a soldier has been identified as at risk is advisory rather than mandatory.
  • The security at the Combat Stress Clinic at Camp Liberty was inadequate. “Minor physical security improvements would have made the facility safer for the staff members and patients alike,” the report found.
  • Military police did not have a policy of warning potential victims at the base of a credible threat.
  • Radio communication on the base was poor, forcing military police to meet in person to share information about the suspect.

Source: Report on “Behavioral Health Facilities Investigation Concerning 11 May Stress Center Shooting[PDF] released by Multi-National Corps-Iraq.


Security Developments in Iraq

Following are security developments in Iraq on Monday, May 11, 2009 as reported by Reuters.

KIRKUK – Two people were killed and eight were wounded when a bomb exploded near a mosque in southern Kirkuk, 155 miles north of Baghdad, the city’s deputy police chief said.

MOSUL – Gunmen shot dead a former Iraqi Army brigadier general in northeastern Mosul, police said.

BASRA – A U.S. soldier died in a roadside bomb attack in southern Basra province, the U.S military said.

BAGHDAD – A U.S. soldier killed five fellow soldiers in a shooting at Camp Liberty in Baghdad, the U.S military said.

MOSUL – Police said they found the body of a 5-year-old boy from a Christian family who had been kidnapped 10 days before in northern Mosul, 240 miles north of Baghdad, police said. The kidnappers had initially demanded a ranson, they said.

BAGHDAD – Gunmen shot dead Brigadier General Abd al-Hussein al-Kadhimi, head of the Iraqi police vehicles department, near his home in central Baghdad, police said.

MOSUL – Gunmen shot dead an off-duty policeman and wounded another at a market in central Mosul, police said.

Following are security developments in Iraq on Sunday, May 10, 2009 as reported by Reuters.

BAGHDAD – A bomb attack narrowly missed Major General Jaafar al-Khefaji, the chief of the Iraqi traffic police, near al-Hurriya Square in central Baghdad, police said. Three civilians were wounded in the blast.

MOSUL – A roadside bomb targeting a police patrol wounded one policeman in northern Mosul, police said.

MOSUL – A roadside bomb targeting a U.S. patrol wounded one civilian in western Mosul, police said.

Following are security developments in Iraq on Saturday, May 9, 2009 as reported by Reuters.

BAGHDAD – On Thursday, U.S. forces detained a person in Baghdad believed to be linked to the downing of a helicopter in 2007 and suspected to be active in al Qaeda, the U.S. military said in a statement.

MOSUL – Gunmen shot dead an off-duty policeman and wounded three civilians at a market in central Mosul, 240 miles north of Baghdad, police said.

MOSUL – A roadside bomb targeting an Iraqi police patrol wounded one civilian in eastern Mosul, police said.

ZUBAIR – Gunmen shot dead an off-duty high-ranking police officer in a shop in the town of Zubair, about 290 miles southeast of Baghdad, police said.

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