JBLM SPOKESMAN: “We Take Suicide Very Seriously”


At least 12 JBLM soldiers died from suicide in 2011, an all-time high. An internal Army investigation, prompted by senator Patty Murray, into the ‘un-diagnosing’ of PTSD in as many as 400 JBLM soldiers found that at least half had their PTSD diagnosis reversed to reduce disability compensation costs to DoD. Suicide statistics for 2012 are mostly unknown and unreported. The Army is expected to publish its annual suicide report for 2012 sometime next month. Meanwhile, senior Pentagon leaders continue a campaign to minimize the connection between PTSD, war duty and suicide in the military. According to a Nov. 18 USA Today news report, DoD continues its PR effort to link the ongoing military suicide epidemic to a struggling U.S. economy, failed relationships and suicide increases in the general population. “This is not just a military issue or an Army issue,” said Gen. Lloyd Austin III, Army vice chief of staff. “Across the military, we’re a microcosm of what’s in the nation,” said Navy Vice Adm. Martha Herb, director personnel readiness. Above, JBLM soldiers assigned to the “The Ranger Battalion” conduct ceremonies Nov. 7, 2012, at Fort Lewis to mark the end of its 15th combat deployment in the post-9/11 era. According to recently published statistics on a JBLM photo website, the Rangers spent a total of 59 months deployed to combat zones overseas in Iraq and Afghanistan. (DoD)

For Tacoma Military Base, a Grim Milestone in Soldier Suicides

JBLM passed an unwelcome milestone in 2011, recording more soldier suicides than in any previous year. At least 12 soldiers took their own lives in 2011, up from nine in 2010 and nine in 2009, said Lt. Col. Gary Dangerfield, a Fort Lewis PR officer assigned to the Army’s ‘Most Troubled Post.’ Suicide death totals will likely grow as the Army completes investigations ahead of expected release of its annual suicide report next month. In June, a news report cited Fort Lewis claims that no JBLM soldiers had died from suicide in the first six months of 2012.

by Adam Ashton
Tacoma News Tribune, Nov. 27, 2012

Joint Base Lewis-McChord passed an unwelcome milestone in 2011, recording more soldier suicides than in any previous year.


JBLM spokesman LtCol Gary Dangerfield.

Twelve soldiers took their own lives in 2011, up from nine in 2010 and nine in 2009, Army I Corps spokesman Lt. Col. Gary Dangerfield said. The total could grow as the Army completes investigations ahead of its annual suicide report next month.

The toll at Lewis-McChord rose despite new efforts to counsel soldiers when they come home from war, including the creation of a suicide-prevention office.

Lewis-McChord leaders plan to apply what they learned from those programs to help soldiers cope with stress at home and in their work.

“We take suicide very seriously,” Dangerfield said. “We’re going to continue to push the envelope to make sure soldiers get the resiliency training they need.”

Lewis-McChord’s surge in suicides followed its busiest year of combat deployments. More than 18,000 soldiers from the base served in Iraq and Afghanistan in 2009-10.

The base is also larger than ever, with some 34,000 soldiers stationed there, up from 19,000 before the war in Iraq started.

Leaders at the base established plans to help soldiers readjust to stateside life as major homecomings took place in the summer of 2010. In early 2011, Madigan Army Medical Center reported a rising number of soldiers and military family members seeking behavioral health services, a trend officers interpreted as a sign that people were becoming more open about asking for help.

This is not just a military issue or an Army issue.

— Gen. Lloyd Austin III, Army vice chief of staff

Across the military, we’re a microcosm of what’s in the nation.

— Navy Vice Adm. Martha Herb, director personnel readiness

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BROKEN SOLDIER: “I Don’t Think They’re Trying to Help Me”

The Army wants to put Sgt John Russell to death for killing five soldiers inside a military psychiatric clinic in Iraq in 2011. Russell had served five previous combat tours during 15 years on active duty, including a 2005 tour in violent Ramadi where he had to clean radio equipment of body parts after his friend had been blown up in an IED attack. At Camp Liberty in 2009, on his fifth tour, Russell broke down mentally and became suicidal. Bunkmates even video taped his night terrors as entertainment. After seeking help from a chaplain, doctors prescribed him drugs, including an SSRI, and sent him back to work. (DoD)

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.

Capt Peter Keough

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.

Court Martial

“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.

Military Life

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.”

Being Overruled

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.

Feeling ‘Broken’

“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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“Blood Makes the Green Grass Grow”

Inside his house shortly before taking his own life, Noah Pierce hung a defaced Iraq flag he took from an Iraq military base in 2003. While training for the war at Fort Stewart Georgia in 2002, Noah wrote home, “The drill sergeant would ask, ‘What makes the green grass grow?’ We would yell, ‘blood, blood, blood makes the green grass grow.’” From Iraq in 2003, Noah wrote home, “a stray bullet caught this kid in the head. Oh well one less motherfucker that won’t grow up and continue this shit.” Redeployed to Iraq in 2005 he wrote, “I hate life. If I died here, I would be young and it would be an honorable way to go. Let’s face it, I have no future when I get back.”

The Life & Lonely Death of Noah Pierce

by Ashley Gilbertson
Virginia Quarterly Review, Fall 2008

Noah Pierce’s headstone gives his date of death as July 26, 2007, though his family feels certain he died the night before, when, at age 23, he took a handgun and shot himself in the head.

No one is sure what pushed him to it. He said in his suicide note it was impotence—a common side effect of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It was “the snowflake that toppled the iceberg,” he wrote.

But it could have been the memory of the Iraqi child he crushed under his Bradley. “It must have been a dog,” he told his commanders.

Noah Pierce, Dec. 23, 1982 — July 26, 2007 (family photo)

It could have been the unarmed man he shot point-blank in the forehead during a house-to-house raid, or the friend he tried madly to gather into a plastic bag after he had been blown to bits by a roadside bomb, or—as the fragments of Noah’s poetry might lead you to believe—it could have been the doctor he killed at a checkpoint.

Noah Pierce grew up in Sparta, Minnesota, a town of fewer than one thousand on the outskirts of the Quad Cities—Mountain Iron, Virginia, Eveleth, and Gilbert—on the Mesabi Iron Range. Discovered on the heels of the Civil War, the range’s ore deposit is the largest in the United States. These were the mines that made the Second Industrial Revolution.

It’s a stigma.

It’s not like if Noah had of come home with his arm blown off. They would have fixed it with an artificial arm, and he would have gone through therapy to learn how to use it and therapy to accept the loss of the arm. And nobody would have looked down on him for that. They would have patted him on the back and told him how proud they were.

But once people hear he has PTSD, then he’s a person with leprosy. He’s got a disease and he’s looked down upon and frowned on, and not trustworthy. It’s just not right — Cheryl Softich, Noah’s mother

Range steel became the tracks of railroads, the wires of suspension bridges, the girders of skyscrapers. It became the weapons and artillery of the World Wars. welcome to mountain iron, the taconite capital of the world reads a sign greeting visitors along the highway. There are so many open pit mines that the cities seem perched on tiny outcrops, overlooking gaping holes ready to engulf them.

Around the clock, deep metallic groans come out of the ground, and freight trains barrel through, horns screeching. Blasting takes place so close to people’s houses, residents open their front doors so the pressure doesn’t blow out their windows.

Locals are proud of their hardworking, hard-drinking heritage. There are more than twenty bars on Eveleth’s half-mile-long main street. On a typical night last May, when I was there, loudspeakers affixed to lampposts blared John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” and Harleys thundered through town.

One bar closed early, when a drunk got thrown through the front window.

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