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Accused soldier's family searches for answers

Sgt. John Russell is awaiting a hearing on the slaying of five fellow troops. Conviction could carry a death sentence. His anguished relatives say he hadn't been himself, and snapped under stress.

July 26, 2009|Tony Perry

SHERMAN, TEXAS — Tears come to Elizabeth Russell's eyes when she thinks of the five Americans her son is accused of gunning down in a moment of rage in Iraq.

She prays for them at St. Patrick Catholic Church in nearby Denison: the Navy officer, the Army psychiatrist and the three Army enlisted men; their widows, their parents and their children.

She also prays for her son, Army Sgt. John Russell, who faces five counts of premeditated murder for what happened the morning of May 11 at a combat stress center on the outskirts of Baghdad.

Russell, 44, is in custody in Kuwait, awaiting an Article 32 hearing, the military equivalent of a preliminary hearing. Under military law, a conviction can carry a death sentence; the minimum is life in prison.

In more than seven years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq, there have been a handful of cases of alleged attacks between U.S. troops -- but never one in which a soldier stands accused of killing five colleagues.

The Russell case also brings up issues of how well the Army is evaluating the mental health of troops in the combat zones, many of whom, like Russell, have endured repeated deployments. The Army is now studying the psychological services available to soldiers in Iraq.

Elizabeth and Wilburn Russell live in the two-story house on Swan Ridge Drive in this tidy, middle-class community that was meant to be the dream home for their son and his German-born wife, Mandy, when he retired from the Army.

Russell had been a competent soldier -- a communications technician -- but hardly a stellar performer. Diagnosed as a boy with a learning disorder, he struggled through school, and in the military he found an economic stability that might have eluded him in civilian life.

After 16 years, he was still a sergeant. He had lost a stripe earlier in his career for unauthorized absence.

Russell planned, after retirement, to return to Texas and maybe to get a maintenance job at the Texas Instruments plant where his parents worked until their retirements.

The Russells, their three daughters, and John Russell's 20-year-old son, John Michael II, are confused and obsessed about what they gingerly call "the event."

"Every day, it's all I think about," said John Michael II, who inherited his father's love of fishing and now works in a local bait shop. He had thought of joining the military but has changed his mind.

'This wasn't John'

All the Russells can think of is that Russell snapped under stress, a full year into his third combat tour in Iraq. His first tour had lasted 15 months, his second tour 12.

"This wasn't John, not John," Elizabeth Russell, 72, said quietly as she set the table for lunch.

E-mails and phone calls by Russell to family members suggested that he had been on a downward spiral emotionally for months.

After his second tour in Iraq, Russell had complained of sleeplessness and nightmares and sought help at the medical center at the U.S. base in Bamberg, Germany, where he was stationed. His wife said he saw a therapist three or four times and was given pills to help him sleep.

When his unit was set to redeploy to Iraq early last year, Russell got a delay because of a death in his wife's family. In May 2008, he deployed to Iraq with a different unit. The new unit was not a good fit.

In February, Russell complained to his sister Lisa Russell Wilson, 48, about being ostracized and picked on. "He asked me to pray for him," Wilson said. "He said: 'I'm not going to make it. These people are after me.' "

On April 15, he e-mailed his mother: "I am not feeling good, I have something and I can't get rid of it. Love John."

Five days later, he described how he complained about mold in an air-conditioning system at his base.

"Hey mom, good I was not very nice on the phone to the people at the office, so I hope that they fixed it. I thank that the mold in my air con is making me sick, I turned it off and I feel better. Love John."

To Mandy, his sister and mother, Russell made references to officers who singled him out for criticism and tough duty, like a three-day stint at a forward sentry post without relief.

At 6 feet 4 and in good physical shape, Russell could be an imposing presence, but the complaining and angry behavior were out of character, family members say. Wilburn Russell, 73, a blunt-talking former boxer and retired Department of Defense civilian employee, said that the changes in his son were alarming but that the family was helpless.

"Whether these things happened or not, they were real to John," said his father.

On May 6, John Russell sent an e-mail to his wife:

"Hey, baby, for the last two days I have been in hell. I was threatened buy a soldier. I didn't know what to do. All it is all said and done, I am left feeling so terrible you could just never know. These people are not good people and I think that I am going a little crazy.

"I really need to get out of the Army soon. I came close to losing everything that I have worked for."

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