Noncombat Deaths: Another Casualty of War
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.
"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.
Those looking for answers to Hasan's Texas massacre might find some in Russell's Iraq bloodbath. Like psychiatrist Hasan, psychiatric patient Russell was apparently breaking down in plain sight with no one noticing. Their cases have also thrown a fresh spotlight on the issues of murder and mental health in the military.
Some observers hope the shootings will also raise interest in the investigations of other service and veteran deaths, including lesser-known cases at Fort Lewis and elsewhere that seem curious. Among the current mysteries: Who shot a female sergeant in the back of the head, and why?
"The Army," says a reassuring Pentagon spokesperson, Wayne Hall, "thoroughly investigates the death of every soldier, under any circumstance."
But can the Pentagon be trusted to tell all when it probes noncombat deaths in its ranks? No, says Georgia-bred military critic and author Cilla McCain (no relation to the senator from Arizona), who writes about military homicides.
"The Army tends to choose the lesser of two evils," she says, alluding to the Army's tendency to focus on individual acts at the expense of examining systemic failures. "Otherwise, you're going to have to come up with the more difficult task of explaining why people in the military are killing each other, which happens more often than you think."
Similarly, Dr. Fred Baughman, a civilian San Diego neurologist who has been researching military deaths involving psychoactive drugs — particularly antidepressants doled out to troops and veterans — says there are too many unanswered questions about medications triggering deadly reactions. Russell, for one, was taking unidentified meds at the time of his attacks.
"The Army is not being honest about many of these deaths," claims Baughman, who has testified at a Food and Drug Administration hearing on the topic.
McCain, a military brat whose book, Murder in Baker Company (Chicago Review Press), is due out in February, says the Army's report on Russell is an encouraging sign, and she hopes investigators follow through on their promises of a complete investigation in the Hasan case as well. Still, she says she's skeptical after researching other Army murders. Most recently, she delved into the gang slaying of Army Spc. Richard T. Davis, who survived Iraq but was stabbed and killed in 2003 by four fellow soldiers after his return to Fort Benning, Georgia. In her book, McCain challenges the Army's handling of the case, claiming they might have prevented his death. She uses Davis's murder as a springboard to question military practices in probing other soldier deaths, including some that may be misclassified as suicides, accidents and illnesses.
"I've discovered a subculture of families — patriotic military families — who are dealing with the murders of their loved one, who are really being mistreated in their search for the truth," McCain says. "Military investigations seem to follow a template on how to mistreat these families. They can't get answers, and they can't find anyone to help them get answers."
The Pentagon officially lists 837 noncombat deaths in Iraq since 2003. There's no breakdown of the figures, but they include accidents, illnesses, suicides and murders. Suicides, in particular, have been rising in recent years. The Army alone reports 133 active-duty troop suicides from January through October 2009, compared to 115 suicides for the same period last year.
Furthermore, according to a 2008 Rand Corporation study, about 20 percent of service members returned from Iraq or Afghanistan with symptoms of post-traumatic stress or major depression. Some also suffer from brain injuries, the product of wars in which the enemy's weapon of choice is the roadside bomb. The military has strengthened its mental-health programs in recent years, and tried to break down the taboos surrounding suicide that prevent some soldiers from admitting they're vulnerable. Yet even today the White House does not send its usual letter of condolence to families if their loved one took his or her own life, even in combat.
In the Army, where troops are trained — if not indoctrinated — to kill and guns and trauma are plentiful, murder statistics are difficult to come by. But among the headline slayings in recent years are the four Army wives killed in a six-week span by their soldier husbands in separate 2002 incidents at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and five Colorado Springs, Colorado, killings in 2007 and 2008 involving members of nearby Fort Carson's Iron Eagles combat team. Last year, The New York Times reported that more than 120 murders in the U.S., including nine in western Washington, were committed by veterans of the Iraq or Afghanistan wars.
Seattle Weekly found even more homicides — 13 — involving local soldiers in western Washington ("Murders on the Home Front," The Daily Weekly, January 14, 2008). Most were Fort Lewis troops, including Kenneth Baginski, who fired a shot through the wall of his Tacoma home, killing a neighbor; Brandon Bare, who stabbed his Tacoma wife to death after suspecting her of cheating on him; Godfrey Hurley, who stabbed to death a fellow soldier's wife on the Fort Lewis base; Michael Antonio Jordan, convicted in the kidnapping that led to the Fort Lewis death of his former Army roommate; Jamaal A. Lewis, who killed two people outside a Lakewood tavern; and James Kevin Pitts, who drowned his wife in a bathtub at their Lakewood home. All were sent to prison.
The NYT and SW did their own compilations because the government doesn't provide such figures. To McCain, who scours Web sites such as non-combat-death.org looking for meager details, that's another reason to suspect the military is not being up-front in its probes and disclosures.
"The government would rather say they have a problem with suicide than admit they have a problem with homicides," she says. In some cases, McCain adds, deaths might have been avoided had warnings filtered through the military systems. "I've talked to families who knew their loved ones were going to be killed [by another soldier]. The soldier had informed them of the threat, and they made the military aware of it. But a few weeks later, the soldier was dead."
The Army says it had no real clue that Sgt. Russell was about to violently erupt. Officials figured Russell, like others suffering from wartime stress, was suicidal — but not necessarily homicidal.
"Combat deployments are inherently stressful," the Army's chief of staff, Gen. George Casey, said at a Pentagon press briefing following the Camp Liberty slaughter. "I can't believe that the stress of [Russell's] three combat deployments, added to personal and family situations and stresses, is not some type of a contributing factor."
After 15 years, Russell was opting out of the service, and doing so while having financial and family problems. (They are indicated but not detailed in the Army report; he may have been behind in mortgage payments on a Texas home, and he told an officer his wife in Germany had recently "grounded" him.) Investigators note that Russell had been moved from job to job because his commanders and co-workers "lacked faith in his competence." He is described as "extremely introverted, a loner, quiet, reserved, antisocial and not able to keep up with junior soldiers regarding computers and digital communications."
Though the Army expunged some findings and removed complete pages of copy from the Camp Liberty report before publicly releasing it October 16 — three weeks before the Fort Hood shootings — officials conceded numerous mistakes. Among the breakdowns: Clinic physical security was inadequate, MPs failed to alert those in danger, Army guidelines to deal with mentally ailing personnel were flawed and procedures for implementing a proper suicide watch were not followed.
It's possible some of the same mistakes were made at Fort Hood, though the probe there is just beginning and being filtered through news reports and political interpretations. At the moment, Hasan is thought to be a radical, possibly insane Muslim who undertook a suicidal terrorist act. The FBI knew of his e-mails to Yemeni cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, an Al Qaeda follower linked to three of the September 11 hijackers, but didn't inform the military. Facing deployment to Afghanistan for a war he reputedly opposed, Hasan was said to have shouted "God is great" in Arabic as he mowed down his 13 victims and wounded 29 others inside the fort's Soldier Readiness Center, where medical checkups are given to troops deploying to Iraq and Afghanistan.
Pat Brown, an expert criminal profiler, told CNN he thought Hasan's deeper motivations were psychological. "He was simply a lone guy who had issues, problems, psychopathic behaviors that escalated to the point where he wanted to get back at society, and he took it out on his workmates like most of them do," said Brown. Hasan's attorney now says his client is likely to use an insanity defense to avoid the death penalty.
Like Russell, Hasan had gotten poor ratings for job performance, and though suicidal, neither man was necessarily hell-bent on killing himself. Just as the first stories about Fort Hood erroneously stated that Hasan was dead (he was shot by others several times and is now paralyzed from the chest down), the first bulletins about Camp Liberty stated that Russell took his own life. As FOX News reported: "A U.S. soldier gunned down four of his fellow troops and then killed himself at a stress clinic at the Camp Liberty military base in Baghdad." In fact, Russell ran out the clinic's back door and was subdued by MPs.
Bad as the carnage was that day, the report indicates Russell's body count could have approached the tragic toll Hasan left behind had the incident not occurred during the slow lunch hour at Camp Liberty, where those not trapped found ways out.
"I heard 'pop, pop, pop, pop,' multiple gunshots," recalled one unidentified doctor. "I hit the deck under the window and told my soldier [patient] to get down. I saw what I thought was wood coming at me, and holes in the wall. I think that rounds were coming through my wall and door. I kept telling my soldier to 'stay down, stay down, stay down.' I then crawled, combat-crawled, to the door because I wanted to lock it. I locked the door and noticed holes and thought, 'This is not going to hold him.'"
Doctor and patient then bailed out a window and dashed to safety. "I am not sure how many shots I heard," the doctor added. Initially, he thought it was five to ten. "I now believe I heard many more than that, as I look back on the incident."
Left dead or dying on the clinic floor were Army Maj. Matthew Houseal, 54, a psychiatrist from Amarillo, Texas; Navy Cmdr. Charles Springle, 52, of Wilmington, North Carolina; Sgt. Christian E. Bueno-Galdos, 25, of Paterson, New Jersey; Spc. Jacob D. Barton, 20, of Lenox, Missouri; and Pfc. Michael Edward Yates Jr., 19, of Federalsburg, Maryland. According to military and press reports, Dr. Springle, married with two children, served 21 years and began his military career with the Navy in the Aleutian Islands. Dr. Houseal, who earlier had worked at Amarillo's Texas Panhandle Mental Health Mental Retardation clinic, northwest of Russell's hometown of Sherman, was married and had seven children.
One of the three soldiers, Bueno-Galdos, was born in Peru, and also left a widow behind. "If my son had died in war, we would be able to handle that," his father, Carlos Bueno, told a reporter. Another of the soldiers, Barton, followed his older sister into the Army; he died trying to shield another man from the shooting as he attempted to talk Russell into putting down his gun, officials said. The third dead soldier, Yates, had been struggling to adjust to service in Iraq.
"He went through a lot of emotions," said his stepfather, Richard Van Blargan. "He went to the program to help him not be so stressed out."
Today, accused shooter Russell is receiving unspecified drugs, likely antipsychotics used to stabilize mental patients, in anticipation of standing trial on charges of murder and aggravated assault. Like Hasan, he could employ an insanity defense.
"He's being held in the federal prison in Butler [North Carolina]," says Pentagon spokesperson Hall. "He has currently been determined not fit to stand trial. As of now, a date for the Fort Lewis hearing won't be set until he's found to be fit."
Among the more recent questionable non-combat deaths involving Fort Lewis personnel was that of Staff Sgt. Amy Tirador, 29, an Arabic-speaking interrogator with the 209th Military Intelligence Company. Tirador, who hailed from Albany, New York, and whose husband Mickey is also serving in Iraq, was killed November 4 by a "nonhostile" shot to the back of the head in Diyala Province, Iraq.
"Nonhostile" is a military term similar to "friendly fire"; the latter indicates a death caused by fellow troops in combat, the former a death caused by a fellow troop or troops in a noncombat situation. One of the more notorious friendly-fire deaths was that of ex-football star and Fort Lewis Ranger Pat Tillman, whose case cast doubt on the Army's commitment to getting to the bottom of questionable deaths. The Bush administration and the Pentagon were accused of lying about the facts, at first saying Tillman's 2004 death was from enemy fire. Subsequent probes still have not cleared up his family's concerns about how he was shot by his own soldiers, and whether he might have been murdered on the battlefield.
Staff Sgt. Tirador's mother, Colleen Murphy, is apparently now experiencing those kinds of doubts. She thinks her daughter's death was a murder. From what she has learned, she told the Albany Times Union, Tirador was shot "execution-style" in the head. She feared it might have to do with Tirador being "a female soldier in a man's world," she said. At the sergeant's funeral, the paper reports, her grandfather, Thomas Murphy, said: "Whoever did this crime, I hope they rot in hell."
The Army says it does not yet know if Tirador's death was accidental, a suicide or a homicide, but that it is investigating. "Every suicide is investigated as a homicide first," says Pentagon spokesperson Hall.
Last year, Fort Lewis–based Cpl. Timothy Ayers, 21, was sentenced to 28 months in prison for the 2007 involuntary manslaughter of his platoon sergeant in Baghdad. Originally charged with murder, Ayers agreed to a plea deal, claiming the shot was an accident. But he was never able to fully explain exactly why he pointed his gun at his sergeant and pulled the trigger. "I don't know," he told a judge.
Awaiting court-martial for murder is another Fort Lewis soldier, Spc. Ivette Gonzalez Davila, 23, accused of a double Tacoma homicide last year. After shooting Timothy Miller, 27, and Randi Miller, 25, a military couple stationed at the fort, Davila allegedly poured acid on their faces and kidnapped their child.
Davila, according to court papers, thought Randi Miller was in a relationship with a fourth soldier, Davila's ex-boyfriend, and supposedly killed the Millers in a jealous rage. But a friend, Lisa Howell, told SW that the only thing Davila was jealous of was the Millers' loving, successful life together ("Dial M for Mistaken," SW, Aug. 6, 2008).
"It was everything [Davila] didn't have," said Howell. Fort Lewis spokesperson Joe Kubistek says Davila's Article 32 hearing — similar to a pretrial hearing — has finally been scheduled for this week at the fort, running Monday through Wednesday. After completion, the fort's commander will determine whether she'll face the death penalty at her later court-martial.
Baughman, the San Diego neurologist, says military death probes are often complicated by drugs given to soldiers. Medications are increasingly used to keep soldiers battle-ready, in part because of troop shortages. A 2006 report by the Hartford Courant found more mentally troubled service members were being treated with potent psychotropic medications to retain them in the service. There was little monitoring, and sometimes minimal counseling, of drugged soldiers, the paper reported, and doctors treating combat-stress symptoms were sending some soldiers back to the front lines after brief rests and three-day drug regimens.
"The rate at which they are drugging soldiers in battle is amazing," says Baughman in a phone interview. "When they come home, the drugs may be continued. There's a lot of coercion in the VA to keep them on their drugs as well. Keeping them medicated isn't treatment, and it's dangerous."
Author, psychiatrist and Huffington Post blogger Peter Breggin agrees, noting that the military's rising suicide rate seems to correspond with a record use of antidepressants — such as Prozac, Zoloft and Paxil — in the military. "First, there is no evidence that antidepressants prevent suicide and a great deal of evidence that they cause it," he blogs. "Second, antidepressants almost never cure depression and instead they frequently worsen depression."
In addition to the psychological ramifications, Baughman suspects some psychoactive drugs are killing soldiers whose deaths are misclassified as suicide. He cites an unscientific study by himself and the parents of some dead soldiers, reviewing a list of 100 active troops and veterans whose deaths were listed as suicides but, in his view, may have been the result of "an epidemic" of cardiac arrests. They include 16 unexplained deaths over the past two years at Fort Hood. More data is needed to reach firm conclusions, he concedes, but "unless there is full acknowledgement of all of these deaths for what they are, they cannot know the number of actual suicides."
Pentagon spokesperson Hall says he's not aware of any such epidemic. A civilian employee whose son is in the military, Hall says he'd want to know the facts, not only from a personal standpoint but as a citizen. But he insists the Army is sincere when it says it wants to get to the bottom of every death, be it mass murder or suspicious suicide.
"There's no grumbling, no complaining about this. We eagerly investigate every death with the intention of determining the truthful cause," he says. "If we make mistakes, we try to learn from them."
Wilburn Russell, 73, Sgt. Russell's father, lives in the north Texas town of Sherman, about three hours north of Fort Hood. He recently disconnected his phone, but earlier told his hometown newspaper, the Herald Democrat, that the younger Russell had e-mailed his wife about five days before the shootings and told her: "I have been threatened by two officers."
The dispute with higher-ups was gnawing at his son, Russell felt. "I guess John couldn't handle it and he decided this is worth dying for," he told the Herald Democrat. 'They are killing me so I'm going to kill them,' you can quote me on that. He didn't have the maturity to be able to talk these problems out and go and ask for help."
But based on the Army's report, that's incorrect: Russell asked for help, and got it. Unfortunately, he and the system broke down at the same critical moment. In the Army report, officials concluded that "Under the circumstances, the proper response was for the MPs to warn the [clinic] and to dispatch an MP patrol unit" to the facility. "At minimum, calling the [clinic] would have taken very little time and resources and would have helped guard against a potentially catastrophic event."
They also found that while "Buddy Watch" and "Unit Watch" are common terms and practices, there are no written guidelines for undertaking such monitoring. Furthermore, investigators suggested it might be a good idea to put a lock on the clinic door.
The Army says it's fixing all that, just as it also must fix things at Fort Hood. But Cilla McCain doubts there will be full disclosure and resolution.
"I'm not holding my breath," she says. "If history's our guide, I guarantee the true picture behind the shootings will not surface."
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