Camp Liberty Killings Expose Mental Health Woes
Army seeks death penalty for Sgt John Russell, 44, who was on 5th combat tour and ‘under obvious duress’ on May 11, 2009, when witnesses say Camp Liberty psychiatrist, LtCol Michael Jones, dismissed the suicidal soldier’s desperate pleas for help minutes before deadly shooting rampage
by Elliot Blair Smith
Bloomberg, Aug 1, 2012
Sergeant John Russell lay awake, wondering what his wife would do if he killed himself.
He was so messed up that his first lieutenant removed the firing pin from his M16 assault rifle.
Six weeks from the end of his fifth combat-zone tour, and five years from retiring on a 20-year Army pension, he suspected he wouldn’t see any of it.
Before dawn, shaking and stuttering, Russell walked through the still desert outside Baghdad to the quarters of Captain Peter Keough, the 54th Engineer Battalion’s chaplain. Keough listened, and hastily made the sergeant’s fourth appointment in four days at an Army mental-health clinic.
“I believe he is deteriorating,” Keough e-mailed an Army psychiatrist. “He doesn’t trust anyone.” Russell, the chaplain wrote, “believes he is better off dead.”
It was 10:07 a.m. on May 11, 2009.
I believe he is deteriorating. He doesn’t trust anyone; believes he is better off dead — Army Chaplain Capt Peter Keough’s email to Army psychiatrist
The battalion, military police and combat stress specialists had three hours and 34 minutes to avert tragedy.
Instead, after lost opportunities and miscalculations, the blue-eyed sergeant from Texas used a stolen gun to kill three enlisted men and two officers in the deadliest case of soldier-on-soldier violence in the war zone.
His victims’ bodies are buried across the U.S., from Arlington National Cemetery to the Texas panhandle.
Russell slipped through the safety net constructed to catch troubled soldiers. More and more are falling. The armed services’ mental-health epidemic has deepened since the Camp Liberty killings. In June, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta ordered a Pentagon review of every diagnosis from 2001 on.
“The military and the nation were not prepared for the mental-health needs from being in combat for more than a decade,” said retired Colonel Elspeth Ritchie, the top psychiatric official in the Army’s Office of the Surgeon General from 2005 to 2010, in an interview. “We now confront ourselves with a mental-health crisis that is a legacy of war.”
Prosecutors paint the 6-foot, 4-inch Russell as a cold-blooded killer, cunning enough to slip through a back door into a mental-health clinic where he mowed down unarmed men. His lawyers contend that he’s not guilty by reason of insanity, undone by repeat deployments and misdiagnosed in that same clinic.
His hands and feet shackled, Russell said in an interview that he doesn’t remember much about that day three years ago. He’s awaiting court martial at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in the shadow of Mount Rainier in Washington.
The Army decided May 15 to seek the death penalty on five counts of premeditated murder, overruling the recommendation at a pre-trial hearing that Russell’s “undisputed mental disease or defect” made that punishment inappropriate.
“It scares me,” Russell said.
Prosecutors declined to comment. This account is based on thousands of pages of Army records, civilian documents obtained with public records requests and more than two dozen interviews.
For more than 15 years, Russell had a home in the Army. Born premature, diagnosed with the learning disability dyslexia, he didn’t graduate from high school until he was 20. He married, had a son and divorced, working in restaurants, a grocery store and in property management in his hometown of Sherman, north of Dallas. He was 29 when he enlisted.
“I didn’t fit in a tank,” he said, recounting his decision to train as a radio mechanic. “I seen the little toolboxes and I picked that. I had a knack for that.”
Russell had a career and, within a few years, a happy second marriage to a German he met in Bamberg, a Bavarian city on the Regnitz River where the 54th was headquartered. The couple shared an apartment with two dogs, a Toy West Highland called Queenie and a Corgi named Louie, and owned a house in Texas that they planned to move into after Russell retired.
Thirteen months into his third Iraq tour, on May 1, 2009, he saw it all threatened.
The 54th was at Camp Stryker on Victory Base Complex, a mass of low-slung buildings at the southwest corner of Baghdad International Airport bounded by blast barriers and razor wire. With less than two months to go in the battalion’s deployment, First Lieutenant Mark Natale named Russell team leader in the radio- and computer-repair shop.
Natale said the promotion was meant to motivate the 44- year-old, whose peers were mostly two decades younger. It went badly almost from the start.
One of Russell’s first acts that Friday was to write up a female subordinate for being 13 minutes late. He’d been needling the woman, who struggled with tardiness. Natale and another officer overruled him. And Russell erupted.
“Sir, I will take all three of you down,” he shouted at Natale, threatening the two officers and the woman. It was an extraordinary display for someone a co-worker described as “one of the mellowest guys I have ever known.”
After a 30-minute rant, Russell apologized, saying he felt “broken.” Natale, who could have disciplined him, gave him a chance instead. He referred the sergeant to one of the stress clinics the military had set up to help soldiers cope.
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Filed under: Resources Tagged: | 54th Engineer Battalion, Army Chaplain Capt Peter Keough, Camp Liberty Iraq, Colonel Elspeth Ritchie, Death Penalty, Deployment, First Lieutenant Mark Natale, Iraq, Joint Base Lewis-McChord JBLM, Lt Col Michael Jones, Mental Health, Military Suicide, PTSD, Sgt John Russell, Stress, Suicide prevention, Victory Base Complex