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Report on Iraq deaths depicts troubled soldier

An American soldier accused of killing five fellow troops at a counseling center in Iraq had been unraveling for nearly two weeks but the military lacked clear procedures to monitor him, a military report found.
Iraq US Shooting
Army Sgt. John M. Russell, in a photo provided by his family, told several people he was contemplating suicide.AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

An American soldier accused of killing five fellow troops at a counseling center in Iraq had been unraveling for nearly two weeks but the U.S. military lacked clear procedures to monitor him or deal with the deadly shooting spree once it began to unfold, a military report found.

The shooting at a U.S. base in Baghdad in May was the deadliest case of U.S. soldier-on-soldier violence of the six-year Iraq war. Sgt. John M. Russell, 44, was arrested and is the only person charged in the incident.

The shooting deaths drew attention to the issues of combat stress and morale as troops have to increasingly serve multiple combat tours because the nation's volunteer army is stretched thin by two long-running wars.

Witness statements
The 325-page report, released Friday and obtained by The Associated Press Tuesday, included detailed witness statements and describes a soldier less than two months from ending his third deployment who began to show obvious signs of unraveling before the shootings.

While all the names, including Russell's have been removed from the report, it refers to the person taken into custody as well as his unit, the 54th Engineer Battalion.

The internal investigation was ordered by Lt. Gen. Charles Jacoby, the No. 2 commander in Iraq, who appointed an investigating officer to determine if policies regarding "service members who are believed to be at risk of harming themselves or others were followed and adequate," said military spokesman Lt. Col. David Patterson.

A criminal investigation by the military is ongoing.

Elizabeth Ann Russell, the mother of the accused, told The AP she had no comment. In previous interviews, Russell's father also wondered whether his son snapped under questioning by counselors or feared that his career was over.

Russell is in pretrail confinement at the Butner Federal Medical Center in Butner, N.C., said Maj. Mike Garcia, spokesman at Fort Lewis, Wash., where Russell's unit is based. He was assessed by a panel of doctors, found to be incapable of assisting in his own defense and is being treated so he can eventually participate in a court martial, Garcia said. No determination as to Russell's mental state at the time of the incident has been made, Garcia said.

Known problems
Dozens of pages were redacted from the report, which was posted on the Web site of the U.S. military headquarters in Iraq.

The U.S. military in Iraq said the "candid review" is one of the tools intended to prevent such incidents in the future, and Patterson said the military in Iraq had already implemented some of the investigation's recommendations.

The report describes a man whose problems were known and who received some counseling, yet at critical times did not appear to get the help he needed.

Russell, who faces charges of murder and aggravated assault, was on his fourth visit to a mental health clinic in Iraq when the appointment was cut short because he became "verbally noncompliant," the report stated. Clinic personnel then called the military police, who declined to arrest him and ordered him returned to his unit.

Less than an hour later, the report said, he managed to grab a loaded M-16 rifle from a fellow soldier and steal a white Ford Explorer SUV, before going back to the counseling facility.

In the days leading up to the incident, many of Russell's fellow soldiers had noticed that his behavior appeared to be "deteriorating," the report stated.

Tour in Ramadi
According to one statement, Russell, who spent one of his tours in the western city of Ramadi during the height of the conflict there, said he was "sick and tired of life and believed everyone hated him."

On the morning of May 11, the day of the shooting, Russell was taken by a member of his worried unit to the Camp Liberty Combat Stress Control Clinic, according to the report.

The report said that although the unit knew of Russell's suicidal thoughts at least three to four days prior to the incident, little appeared to have been done to effectively monitor him.

'No clear procedure'
"There is no clear procedure or established training guidelines in any of the references for managing soldiers identified as 'at risk' for suicide or the proper way to conduct suicide watch," the report stated.

According to the statement of one of the military police officers involved in the incident, he asked Russell's company commander whether the sergeant had been on "unit watch" and what that meant.

The company commander said his roommate would try to keep an eye on him but that they didn't have a 24-hour watch on him until the morning of the shootings.

"I asked him why he had not been on 24-hour-a-day watch since he first communicated his suicidal thoughts and he replied: 'I know this sounds bad but we don't have the personnel available,'" the statement read.

A breakdown in communication also contributed to the deadly series of events. One section of the report describes how units responding, instead of reacting immediately, had to meet up in person to coordinate their actions because radio communication was poor.

Additionally, nobody alerted the counseling clinic that Russell had stolen a weapon and a vehicle, the report said.

Suicidal thoughts
Although Russell told several people — including a chaplain and a worker at the counseling clinic — that he was contemplating suicide, others appeared to have doubts about the seriousness of the situation.

The report was also critical of the military police who responded to the incident, saying they did not have enough policies to "warn and protect possible victims when informed of a credible threat."

The military has already implemented some of the report's recommendations, such as a review of behavioral health care services, updating suicide-prevention programs and executing new procedures for dealing with service members threatening suicide, Patterson said.