Noncombat Deaths: Another Casualty of War

The mass shooting at Fort Hood was just one of a growing number of troubling military deaths, murders and suicides.

In Sgt. John M. Russell's chaotic Army world the morning of May 11, the enemy was closing in. For the previous several days at sprawling Camp Liberty outside Baghdad, the big Texan had talked of conspiracies, woken up from constant nightmares and broken down in tears, wishing someone would put a bullet in his head.

"The three of us sat on my front stoop and talked. He was visibly upset and very shaken," an Army chaplain recalls of the conversation he and a commander had that morning with the frustrated Sgt. Russell, 44, whose Germany-based 54th Engineering Battalion operated in Iraq under Fort Lewis command. "He explained that his appointments at mental-health [clinics] went very bad," the chaplain added, according to a newly released 325-page Army report on Russell's case, from which names are redacted. "He just did not want to live anymore."

Russell's condition had so destabilized that two days earlier his commander confiscated his rifle and put him on unit watch, with a soldier-buddy to keep him company. The bespectacled, 6'4", crew-cut Russell, on his third tour in Iraq, was not directly involved in combat outside Camp Liberty, where Fort Lewis's 4th Stryker Brigade is headquartered. But as an electronics engineer, he operated in the war zone, dismantling and rebuilding robots used to set off roadside bombs.

Sgt. John Russell
Sgt. John Russell

"He said he did not trust anyone," the chaplain recalled to investigators, "and said no one believed he had a problem." The chaplain was able to secure Russell an appointment later that day at the camp's 55th Medical Company's Combat Stress Clinic, where some war-weary visitors are considered potentially violent. It would be Russell's fourth visit to a clinic in recent days. After just a few minutes — apparently agitated that, in his opinion, he once again wasn't being helped — Russell walked out of the counseling session. He was angry enough that military police officers were called to handle an "unruly soldier."

A member of the clinic told investigators that Russell came outside, dropped a pocket knife he was carrying and said, "Arrest me, just arrest me." But military police had no probable cause, and, with clinic approval, prepared to escort him back to his engineering unit. Russell "stated that he had [recently] been to several doctors and that they had all made him angry," according to the Army's report. "He said that one of them made fun of him, one of them mocked him and that this doctor had just made him angry."

A witness said a clinic doctor repeatedly told the MPs that Russell wasn't "a risk to himself or others and didn't seem to be suicidal or homicidal. So the MPs just needed to give him a ride back to his unit and turn him over to his command to continue unit watch."

Before he was escorted away sometime after 1 p.m., Russell said to those around him, "If you can't help me, then I will just kill myself." A witness recalled Russell, sounding compliant, telling a doctor, "That's okay, sir, you've made your decision." It was, said the witness, "almost creepy the way he said it." The doctor reportedly responded: "No, soldier, you have already made your decision."

Apparently he had. Within minutes of leaving the clinic, Russell jumped the soldier escorting him, grabbed his M-16 and commandeered his vehicle at gunpoint. Learning of the incident, officers at the MP post thought Russell intended to kill himself, and put out an alert — but did not contact the clinic. It was a deadly mistake.

Around 1:35 p.m., the enraged sergeant drove back to the clinic and burst through the front door. An unnamed officer at another unit, who'd heard of the alert for Russell and decided to call the clinic on his own, was just relating the warning when over the phone he heard Russell begin firing.

The sergeant moved swiftly through the unsecured building, a single-level plywood structure of about 20 rooms, isolated in a mostly treeless expanse off a busy base highway. He mercilessly sprayed his unsuspecting victims, some of them pleading for him to put down his weapon. He encountered no return fire as he picked off unarmed personnel with the assault rifle. (It's the clinic's policy that everyone checks any guns at the door, which are then locked in a storage room.)

When the smoke cleared, two officers and three soldiers were dead on the clinic floor, and Russell was in custody, accused of the worst U.S. soldier-on-soldier violence ever in the Iraq war. The sergeant, whose unit was under the command of Fort Lewis's 555th Engineer Brigade, known as the Triple Nickel, is now charged with five counts of murder and awaits court-martial, tentatively set for early next year at the Army base south of Tacoma, Washington. His mental condition will determine whether or not he will stand trial, possibly to face the death penalty.

In many respects, Sgt. Russell's case mirrors the subsequent slaughter of 13 officers and soldiers on November 5 by another suicidal Army shooter, Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, at another Army clinic, in Fort Hood, Texas. Hasan's alleged crime is the worst mass shooting ever at a U.S. military base. Both shooters were stereotypical loners, according to the Army: failing at their jobs, growing angrier and more suicidal, and eventually choosing unsuspecting troops at Army clinics as their victims. The Army apparently missed warning signs at Fort Hood, where the investigation is ongoing. It now admits it missed warning signs at Camp Liberty, where an investigation is complete.

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