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Army 'broke' soldier held in killings, dad says

APTOPIX US Iraq Shooting
Wilburn C. Russell, 73, wipes his eyes after talking to reporters in front of the house his son U.S. Army Sgt. John Russell purchased in Sherman, Texas. Lm Otero / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

The father of a U.S. soldier accused of killing five fellow troops in Iraq said his son "forfeited his life" but the military bears some responsibility for the rampage.

Wilburn Russell said Tuesday that 44-year-old Army Sgt. John M. Russell wasn't typically a violent person, but counselors "broke" him before gunfire erupted in a military stress center Monday in Baghdad.

"John has forfeited his life. Apparently, he said (to his wife), 'My life is over. To hell with it. I'm going to get even with 'em,'" said the elder Russell, 73.

His father said the younger Russell, an electronics technician, was at the stress center to transfer out of active duty. He said his son was undergoing stressful mental tests that he didn't understand were merely tests, "so they broke him."

"I hate what that boy did," said the elder Russell, speaking in front of the two-story house his son was buying with his German wife in a new subdivision. "We're sorry for the families, too. It shouldn't have happened."

Excerpts of his military record, obtained by The Associated Press, show Sgt. Russell previously did two one-year tours of duty in Iraq, one starting in April 2003 and another in November 2005. The stress of repeat and extended tours is considered a main contributor to mental health problems among troops serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Sgt. Russell, who is facing charges of murder and aggravated assault, was about six weeks from the end of his third tour of duty in Iraq, his father said. Wilburn Russell said his son e-mailed his wife in Germany early this month, telling her officers threatened him during what he called the two worst days of his life.

"His life was over as far as he was concerned," said the elder Russell, who didn't know whether his son was being disciplined or facing a discharge. "He loved the military."

'Not a violent person'
The soldier's son, John M. Russell II, said he has communicated with his father by e-mail regularly. In the last message he received — April 25, the day after his 20th birthday — the younger Russell said his father sounded normal and planned to be back in Texas to visit in July.

"He's not a violent person," the son said. "He's just a loving, caring guy. He doesn't like to see anyone get hurt. For this to happen, it had to be something going on that the Army's not telling us about."

Sgt. Russell grew up in a rural, unincorporated area of Grayson County and graduated from Tom Bean High School in 1985. Records show he entered the Army National Guard in 1988 and served in the Guard until 1994, when he became an active duty soldier. His military record shows Russell served in Serbia through the last half of 1996 and Bosnia and Herzegovina in the last half of 1998.

He lives with his wife in Germany, where he's been for most of the past 10 to 15 years, but comes home a couple times a year, his father said.

The elder Russell said his son went active-duty after working various maintenance jobs around Sherman, a town of about 35,000 located about 60 miles north of Dallas. He'd also had a divorce and a few minor criminal scrapes in his hometown before enlisting.

When Russell's ex-wife sued for divorce in 1991, she obtained a temporary restraining order against him and an order withholding earnings for child support.

In an affidavit attached to the divorce petition, Denise Russell said her husband had committed "acts of family violence" and should be barred from coming within 200 yards of her or their son, then 2 years old. The document specifically cited an incident in which John Russell allegedly took the child after a confrontation with Denise Russell's mother.

"During this time, respondent physically attacked my mother, age 58, hitting her on the shoulders and about the head," the affidavit stated.

A call and visit to Russell's ex-wife weren't answered Tuesday.

In 1993, a month after the divorce decree was issued, Russell was charged with misdemeanor assault by threats, Grayson County online records show. The matter was later dropped.

Jack McGowen, listed as Russell's attorney for the divorce as well as the threat case, said Tuesday he couldn't recall either matter.

Soldiers routinely carry weapons on Camp Liberty and other bases, but they are supposed to be unloaded.

At the Pentagon, Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the shooting occurred "in a place where individuals were seeking help."

"It does speak to me about the need for us to redouble our efforts in terms of dealing with the stress," Mullen said.

The U.S. military is coping with a growing number of stress cases among soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan — many of whom are on their third or fourth combat tours. Some studies suggest that about 15 percent of soldiers returning from Iraq suffer from some sort of emotional problems.

With violence declining, many soldiers face new challenges trying to shift from fighting a war to supporting the Iraqis — tasks that often require skills in which they have not been trained.

Troops under fire
Adding to the stress, there have been several incidents recently when men dressed as Iraqi soldiers have opened fire on American troops, including an attack in the northern city of Mosul on May 2 when two soldiers and the gunman were killed.

Rep. Harry Mitchell, a member of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee, said the Camp Liberty shooting underscores the "critical need" to reach out to soldiers suffering from "the effects of combat stress and post-traumatic stress disorder."

"Many troops are under great psychological strain and are not receiving the treatment they need," said Paul Rieckhoff, founder and head of Iraq & Afghanistan Veterans of America. "Much more must be done to address troops' psychological injuries before they reach a crisis point."

There have been several similar incidents in the Iraq war.

  • Last September, Sgt. Joseph Bozicevich, 39, of Minneapolis was detained after allegedly killing two members of his unit south of Baghdad. The case remains under investigation.
  • In April 2005, Army Sgt. Hasan Akbar was sentenced to death for killing two officers in Kuwait just before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.
  • In June 2005, an Army captain and lieutenant were killed when an anti-personnel mine detonated in the window of their room at the U.S. base in Tikrit. National Guard Staff Sgt. Alberto Martinez was acquitted in the blast.
  • Spc. Chris Rolan, an Army medic, was sentenced to 33 years in prison in 2007 for killing a fellow soldier after a night of heavy drinking in Iraq.
  • In 2008, Army Cpl. Timothy Ayers was sentenced to two years and four months in prison after pleading guilty to involuntary manslaughter in the fatal 2007 shooting of his platoon sergeant in Iraq.

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