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U.S. soldier charged with murder in shootings at Iraq base

The Army sergeant, accused of killing five fellow troops, had been relieved of his weapon days before, the military says.

May 13, 2009|Liz Sly

BAGHDAD — A U.S. soldier who is accused of gunning down five fellow troops at a combat stress clinic in Baghdad had recently had his weapon taken away because of concerns about his behavior, a senior U.S. military official said Tuesday.

The military identified the suspect as Sgt. John M. Russell, 44, of Sherman, Texas, a communications specialist with the 54th Engineer Battalion based in Bamberg, Germany. Russell was due to complete his third tour of duty in Iraq in August; he also had served in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo.

The military has charged Russell with five counts of murder and one count of aggravated assault. The shooting Monday is the deadliest case of soldier-on-soldier violence among U.S. personnel since the war began and has drawn attention to the growing strain on troops from repeated long deployments to Iraq.

Though it was not known whether Russell, a 21-year Army veteran, had any history of mental problems, something about his recent behavior had concerned his superiors to the point that they had taken his weapon and referred him to counseling about a week before the shooting, spokesman Maj. Gen. David Perkins said at a news briefing at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.

"Either by his actions or things he had said there was a concern that he should not have a weapon," he said. "And so the chain of command had confiscated his weapon, which is not something done routinely with average soldiers."

Russell had been receiving counseling within his unit and possibly at the clinic for at least a week, Perkins said. The military is still investigating how he allegedly managed to get his hands on a gun.

In Texas, Russell's father, Wilburn Russell, said his son thought that he had been poorly treated at the stress center and that counselors "broke him," according to the Associated Press. He said his son "wasn't a mean person."

Wilburn Russell, 73, said his son had e-mailed his wife, calling two recent days the worst in his life.

"I hate what that boy did," the elder Russell said. "He thought it was justified. That's never a solution."

He said his son was at the stress center to make the transition out of active duty.

"His life was over as far as he was concerned. He lived for the military," the father said. "We're sorry for the families too. It shouldn't have happened."

The five victims included two members of the clinic's medical staff, one Army and one Navy, who were serving with the 55th Medical Company. In addition, three enlisted soldiers were killed.

Navy Cmdr. Charles Springle, 52, of Wilmington, N.C.; Pfc. Michael Edward Yates Jr., 19, of Federalsburg, Md.; and Dr. Matthew Houseal, of Amarillo, Texas, have been identified by officials and relatives as three of the victims, the Associated Press reported. The names of the two others have not been released.

Other details of the incident are still being investigated, Perkins said, declining to confirm accounts out of Washington that the suspect had visited the clinic earlier in the day, had an altercation there, then returned later and managed to wrest a weapon from his escort before opening fire.

As a matter of policy, Perkins said, soldiers do not walk alone on the base, and Russell "was not traveling alone." All soldiers normally carry weapons and a small amount of ammunition in case of emergencies.

The shootings took place inside the clinic, and Russell was apprehended outside by military police, Perkins said.

The Army has also opened an inquiry into the availability of behavioral health services and counseling to see whether there were steps that could have been taken to prevent the killings.

The shootings concerned the military, which is preparing to withdraw troops from Iraq's cities by the end of June under the terms of the security agreement reached with the Iraqi government. Camp Liberty, part of the sprawling complex of bases that make up Camp Victory, will not close because both countries have decided that it is not part of Baghdad.

"It's tremendously sad to lose soldiers, and to lose them under these circumstances," said Maj. Gen. Dan Bolger, commander of U.S. forces in Baghdad. "It's going to be tough and it's going to take a lot to get through this."

The killings come as concern is rising about the stress of repeated tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. Many servicemen and women are on their third or fourth tours.

Commanders say they have become increasingly aware of the mental health pressures placed on their troops by the long rotations, which typically last 12 to 15 months. Bolger said they are encouraged to seek counseling, but because of the stigma, doing so is often difficult.

"If we've learned anything from this war, or relearned . . . it is that not all injuries are physical," he said.

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liz.sly@latimes.com

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