Army had taken weapon from suspect

McClatchy NewspapersMay 13, 2009 

— The U.S. military on Tuesday charged a 44-year-old Army sergeant who is near the end of his third tour in Iraq with fatally shooting five American service members at a U.S. base here Monday.

Sgt. John M. Russell, who's from Sherman, Texas, and is assigned to the Army's 54th Engineer Battalion, was charged with five counts of premeditated murder and one count of aggravated assault, said Maj. Gen. David Perkins, the top U.S. military spokesman in Iraq.

The shootings took place at a combat stress clinic at Camp Liberty near Baghdad International Airport early Monday afternoon. Two of the victims, an Army officer and a Navy officer, worked at the clinic, Perkins said. The three other slain service members were enlisted soldiers. The Pentagon identified Navy Cmdr. Charles Springle, 52, of Wilmington, N.C., as one of the victims. His family, in Beaufort, declined to comment.

While the identities of other victims have not been released, the mother of 19-year-old soldier Michael Edward Yates Jr. said Army representatives told her Tuesday her son was killed.

Shawna Machlinski said Yates had been at the clinic for about five days when the shooting happened.

Machlinski, who last spoke to her son on Mother's Day, said he had talked about Russell. She said her son got along with him, but she recalled him saying, "this guy's got issues."

In the days before the shootings, Russell's superiors -- worried about his behavior -- took away his weapon and urged him to get counseling at the stress center. The gun Russell is accused of using Monday wasn't his own, and the military has yet to determine how he got it, Perkins said.

He said military police arrested Russell outside the clinic shortly after the shootings and were holding him at U.S. Camp Victory, adjacent to Camp Liberty.

Perkins couldn't say whether Russell, a communications specialist, knew any of the victims. His unit has been here about a year and is scheduled to leave Iraq in August, Perkins said. Russell has deployed previously to Bosnia and Kosovo, the military said.

"It's very dramatic and traumatic when we lose our own," Perkins said. "It impacts all of us who wear this uniform."

The U.S. military has recognized a growing number of stress-related mental illnesses among soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, and some military officers have suggested that repeated combat tours are to blame. The suicide rate among deployed service members has risen considerably in recent years.

Besides launching a criminal investigation into the shootings, Perkins said the military planned to conduct an internal review to determine whether it should change the system for providing mental health services to soldiers in Iraq.

All deployed service members have access to stress clinics, counselors and chaplains. Russell, who lived at Camp Liberty, had been referred to the stress clinic there about a week before the shootings, Perkins said, though he wasn't sure whether Russell had gone before Monday.

A counselor in Russell's unit had seen him recently, Perkins said.

"We know that his chain of command had concerns about him," he said. "He had been undergoing counseling within the command, and they had taken the step of taking away his weapon."

Perkins said he couldn't elaborate on what had prompted Russell's superiors to fear that he might pose a threat. The military also wouldn't disclose whether he was taking any medications.

Maj. Gen. Dan Bolger, the U.S. commander who oversees Baghdad, said the military had increased its efforts in recent years to teach service members to recognize warning signs of mental illness in fellow soldiers and encourage comrades to seek treatment.

"We know that not all injuries are physical. We have to have that door open for our guys," he said.

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