Horror and Stresses of Iraq Duty led US Sergeant to Kill Comrades

Published on
by
The Guardian/UK

Horror and Stresses of Iraq Duty led US Sergeant to Kill Comrades

Soldier's killing spree left five dead – adding to the grim total of murders by US veterans as the military is accused of failing its battle-scarred personnel

by
Chris McGreal

Everyone - the father, the son, the army - agrees that three tours of Iraq drove ­Sergeant John Russell to the edge.

But
what pushed him over, into shooting dead five of his comrades in an
army that was his life for 16 years, is a matter of bitter dispute.

The
military has suggested that ­Russell's work cannibalising and
rebuilding robots used to set off roadside bombs brought him into
regular contact with gruesome casualties, and that took a toll that
exploded at Camp Liberty in ­Baghdad this week.

The army says it
recognised signs of trauma in the 44-year-old sergeant, who was just a
few weeks from leaving Iraq, and dispatched him for psychological
assessment at a military stress centre in Baghdad. Russell got into a
fight there, grabbed a gun and shot two doctors and three other
soldiers dead.

That version of events has some of the familiar
ring of accounts of traumatised soldiers driven to violence by
violence. Ever since the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan began, soldiers
have been returning to the US and killing.

Veterans from the two
wars have committed at least 120 murders beginning with a spate of
killings of wives at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, in 2002 and continuing
with five murders at a military base in Colorado last year.

Alongside
the killings has come a surge in domestic violence, drug and alcohol
addiction. Meanwhile suicides run at twice the rate of people outside
the military. But back at his home in Sherman, Texas, Russell's family
say it was not the combat but the army that drove the sergeant in an
engineering unit over the edge. His father, Wilburn, 73, said the
military was Russell's life and that amid the stresses of combat he had
fallen out with his officers.

"I doubt very seriously if the
truth is going to come out because of the circumstances. You see he
faxed his wife the 6th of this month saying that he'd been threatened
by a couple of officers, and it was the worst two days of his life," he
said.

On Monday, Russell's commanding officer ordered the
sergeant to turn in his gun and receive psychological ­counselling.
Wilburn Russell says the order to give up his weapon would have been
deeply humiliating for his son and that after his long service to the
army, just when the sergeant needed it most, he was under the
impression it was going to dump him.

"I believe the officers
decided they wanted him out. At the stress centre they sit you down and
tell you you're not the kind of person they want in the service. You're
not worthy of being here. How dare you get those stripes. You're too
stupid to be in the army. That kind of thing. Well, they broke him," he
said.

"If the army turns against him, he doesn't have a life as
far as he is concerned. He's ruined. He's done for. He's going to lose
his house and probably his wife. He's going to lose everything."

There
were other stresses in John Russell's life. He was paying $1,500
(£1,000) for the house his parents and son live in, and had fallen into
debt. There were questions around the state of his marriage with his
wife back in Germany. The US commander in Baghdad responded to the
deadliest act of soldier-on-soldier killings in the war by ordering a
comprehensive review of mental health services in Iraq.

But the
challenge will be to understand Russell, and how the stresses of long
tours in Iraq, the personal problems, the growing difficulties with his
superiors fed into each other.

Veterans' groups say the army has
been there before and that while the military is more attuned to the
effects of combat and the stresses of serving in a war zone, it still
falls far short of dealing with the problem.

A US army study of
the mental health and morale of soldiers deployed in Afghanistan and
Iraq last year found that nearly one in five suffered from acute
stress, depression or anxiety.

Soldiers, like Russell, on their
third or fourth deployment were at significantly higher risk than those
who spent less time in combat zones. Perhaps most shockingly, one in 10
soldiers had traumatic brain injury and only half were treated at the
time it was sustained.

Another report, by Iraq and Afghanistan
Veterans of America (IAVA), said less than half of those suffering from
psychological and neurological injuries were receiving sufficient
treatment.

"Multiple tours and inadequate time at home between deployments are increasing combat stress," it said.

The
army took little notice of the impact of 21st-century wars on its
soldiers until a spate of murders in mid-2002 at the base in North
Carolina by members of special forces recently returned from
Afghanistan.

A month after returning from combat, Master Sergeant
William Wright strangled his wife, buried her in a shallow grave and
reported her missing.

Sergeant Rigoberto Nieves had been back for
just two days when he shot his wife and himself. Sergeant Cedric
Griffin stabbed his estranged wife at least 50 times before setting the
house on fire.

Altogether four soldiers killed their wives. Two
then killed themselves. In a fifth case a woman killed her husband, a
special forces major.

Support groups for wives at Fort Bragg also
reported a surge in domestic violence. The army study said that suicide
rates among those recently returned from combat had risen sharply.

Private
Joseph Dwyer caught attention across the US as an army medic
photographed rescuing a wounded child during the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
The picture made front pages across the country and buttressed the
popular US view of the invasion as a liberation and a good war. Dwyer
returned home a national hero.

But the attention soon faded; he
left the army and sank into addiction to alcohol and solvents between
periodic bouts of treatment for post-traumatic stress. His wife left
him, taking their young daughter.

The police found the 31-year-old former soldier's body after he died from an overdose of pills alone in a flat.

The military's instinct had been to cover up the scale of suicides.

Dr
Ira Katz, head of mental health services for the Veterans
Administration, denied there was a suicide epidemic when he told a
congressional committee there had been 790 suicide attempts in all of
2007.

But then an email, written in February 2008 from Katz to a
colleague, came to light. "Shh! Our suicide prevention co-ordinators
are identifying about 1,000 suicide attempts per month among the
veterans we see in our medical facilities. Is this something we should
(carefully) address ourselves in some sort of release before someone
stumbles on it?" Katz wrote.

IAVA says it is particularly
concerned about discharged soldiers "who can lose their bearings
outside the camaraderie and structure of the military".

Late last
year the military launched an advertising campaign to try to persuade
traumatised veterans to come forward using a young army sniper, Bryan
Adams, who was shot in the hand and leg during a battle in Iraq.

After he returned, Adams sank into depression, drinking more, alienating friends, smashing up the furniture.

"Each
day I felt myself getting more and more out of control, I would push
the limits of what was legal and appropriate behaviour just for fun. I
behaved as if no laws applied to me," he has written. That continued
until his mother, a nurse, recognised her son's problems for what they
were.

Adams got himself into college with the help of a grant and
is now one of the faces of IAVA when it launched an advertising
campaign on the one word slogan - Alone - to encourage veterans to
share their experiences.

The army says it greatly increased
awareness about combat stress in recent years. Ward Casscells,
assistant secretary of defence for health affairs, earlier this year
said that there was also a lessening of the stigma associated with some
psychological diagnoses.

"Guys are telling us they would still
much rather be diagnosed with traumatic brain injury than
post-traumatic stress disorder," he said. "But we're getting at some of
that stigma. We've reduced it a bit."

The military also launched a suicide watch programme earlier this year.

But
veterans groups say that the military continues to fail service
personnel, with less than one in four of those who show signs of being
at risk from post-traumatic stress disorder, based on screening
questions, referred for evaluation and treatment.

No one disputes that many of those in danger continue to slip through the net.

Recently
there has been an escalation in crimes committed by soldiers based at
Fort Carson, Colorado, where nine soldiers have been responsible for
killings after returning from Iraq. Five of the killings have taken
place in the last year alone.

Share This Article

More in: