WASHINGTON — Sgt. John Russell lay awake, wondering what his wife would do if he killed himself.
He was so messed up that his first lieutenant removed the firing pin from his M16 assault rifle. Six weeks from the end of his fifth combat-zone tour, and five years from retiring on a 20-year Army pension, he suspected he wouldn’t see any of it.
Before dawn, shaking and stuttering, Russell walked through the still desert outside Baghdad to the quarters of Capt. Peter Keough, the 54th Engineer Battalion’s chaplain. Keough listened, and hastily made the sergeant’s fourth appointment in four days at an Army mental-health clinic.
“I believe he is deteriorating,” Keough emailed an Army psychiatrist. “He doesn’t trust anyone.” Russell, the chaplain wrote, “believes he is better off dead.”
It was 10:07 a.m. on May 11, 2009. The battalion, military police and combat stress specialists had three hours and 34 minutes to avert tragedy. Instead, after lost opportunities and miscalculations, the blue-eyed sergeant from Texas used a stolen gun to kill three enlisted men and two officers in the deadliest case of soldier-on-soldier violence in the war zone. His victims’ bodies are buried across the United States, from Arlington National Cemetery to the Texas Panhandle.
Russell slipped through the safety net constructed to catch troubled soldiers. More and more are falling. The armed services’ mental-health epidemic has deepened since the Camp Liberty killings. In June, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta ordered a Pentagon review of every diagnosis from 2001 on.
“The military and the nation were not prepared for the mental-health needs from being in combat for more than a decade,” said retired Col. Elspeth Ritchie, the top psychiatric official in the Army’s Office of the Surgeon General from 2005 to 2010, in an interview. “We now confront ourselves with a mental-health crisis that is a legacy of war.”
Prosecutors paint the 6-foot-4 Russell as a cold-blooded killer, cunning enough to slip through a back door into a mental-health clinic where he mowed down unarmed men. His lawyers contend that he’s not guilty by reason of insanity, undone by repeat deployments and misdiagnosed in that same clinic.
His hands and feet shackled, Russell said in an interview that he doesn’t remember much about that day three years ago. He’s awaiting court martial at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state.
The Army decided May 15 to seek the death penalty on five counts of premeditated murder, overruling the recommendation at a pre-trial hearing that Russell’s “undisputed mental disease or defect” made that punishment inappropriate.
“It scares me,” Russell said.
Prosecutors declined to comment. This account is based on thousands of pages of Army records, civilian documents obtained with public records requests and more than two dozen interviews.
— — —
For more than 15 years, Russell had a home in the Army. Born premature, diagnosed with the learning disability dyslexia, he didn’t graduate from high school until he was 20. He married; had a son and divorced; worked in restaurants, a grocery store and in property management in his home town of Sherman, north of Dallas. At 29, he enlisted.
“I didn’t fit in a tank,” he said, recounting his decision to train as a radio mechanic. “I seen the little toolboxes and I picked that. I had a knack for that.”
Russell had a career and, within a few years, a happy second marriage to a German he met in Bamberg, a Bavarian city on the Regnitz River where the 54th was headquartered. The couple shared an apartment with two dogs, a Toy West Highland called Queenie and a Corgi named Louie, and owned a house in Texas that they planned to move into after Russell retired.
Thirteen months into his third Iraq tour, on May 1, 2009, he saw it all threatened.
The 54th was at Camp Stryker on Victory Base Complex, a mass of low-slung buildings at the southwest corner of Baghdad International Airport bounded by blast barriers and razor wire. With less than two months to go in the battalion’s deployment, Lt. Mark Natale named Russell team leader in the radio- and computer-repair shop.
Natale said the promotion was meant to motivate the 44- year-old, whose peers were mostly two decades younger. It went badly almost from the start.
One of Russell’s first acts that Friday was to write up a female subordinate for being 13 minutes late. He’d been needling the woman, who struggled with tardiness. Natale and another officer overruled him. And Russell erupted.
“Sir, I will take all three of you down,” he shouted at Natale, threatening the two officers and the woman. It was an extraordinary display for someone a co-worker described as “one of the mellowest guys I have ever known.”
After a 30-minute rant, Russell apologized, saying he felt “broken.” Natale, who could have disciplined him, gave him a chance instead. He referred the sergeant to one of the stress clinics the military had set up to help soldiers cope.
The Pentagon knew mental health was a casualty of long tours, frequent deployments and combat. Military teams had been surveying troops’ emotional states since 2003. The Department of Defense’s Task Force on Mental Health in 2007 called the psychological health needs of service members, and their families, a “daunting and growing challenge.”
Russell spent almost five years in war zones. With an armored-cavalry unit in Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s, he told military doctors, he was in firefights and inventoried a truckload of mutilated bodies.
On his second Iraq tour, in Ramadi in 2005 and 2006, he said he saw “pieces of people everywhere” inside a tent hit by mortar, and described “scraping my friend” off radio equipment after an improvised-explosive device detonated. He said his nightmares were so intense a barracks mate videotaped him.
At Victory Base Complex, Russell waited a week for his appointment at the Camp Stryker Combat Stress Clinic. As the days passed, the indignity of having rank pulled on him didn’t fade. It was a black mark, he told friends, that might follow him into the civilian world.
“He was worried about his career and seemed to think the shop was out to get him,” said Sgt. Henry Hollenbeck, who worked with Russell. “He was distraught.”
Russell kept the appointment on May 8, the Friday before Mother’s Day. Blaine Ropson, the clinic’s psychiatric nurse, told investigators that when he saw Russell “it was obvious he was under duress.” The reason, Robson said, just wasn’t clear.
— — —
Other tensions were playing out. Before Russell arrived, Ropson said, the clinic psychologist, Maj. Hrysso Fernbach, took him aside to say he should be “a little sterner” with patients. Ropson, who sat in on the session with Russell, said later that the patient was uncomfortable with the major’s “hostile,” “demeaning” and “antagonistic” attitude. Russell kept looking to Ropson for reassurance.
Fernbach, a New Jersey National Guard member and a former psychologist at a maximum security prison, had a different opinion. She told military investigators her demeanor was neutral, and described Russell as “odd, angry and fragile.”
Russell rushed out of the clinic when they were done — he said he went outside to throw up — and came back 10 minutes later. By then, Ropson said, the sergeant was “even more stressed and uncomfortable than when he arrived.”
“Look,” he told Russell, “we can do better than this.”
Ropson made an appointment for him at another clinic. This one was at Camp Liberty, on the northeast side of the airport, about three miles away.
At around 3:15 p.m., Russell had his second encounter with the military’s mental-health system in Iraq. This time, it was with Navy Cmdr. Charles “Keith” Springle, a 52-year-old with a Ph.D. in social work from Wilmington, N.C. Springle wore a peace sign on a chain around his neck, and had another tattooed on his shoulder.
A 21-year veteran, he’d treated troops for combat stress at bases in Spain and Germany — commanders described him as “uniquely concerned, caring and empathetic” — and had asked to be sent to Iraq. He’d been there for three months.
After spending about 30 minutes with Russell, Springle decided he needed to see someone who could prescribe medication, and made an appointment for him with Lt. Col. Michael Jones, a Camp Liberty psychiatric, for two days later.
Spc. Hector Lara, Russell’s military escort, drove him back home across Victory Base Complex, which was dotted with the remains of palaces, lakes, islands and a zoo built by Saddam Hussein. Lara asked how it went. “I don’t think they’re trying to help me,” Russell replied.
At the battalion, Russell griped about being shuffled from “the bitch” at Camp Stryker to the comedian Robin Williams at Camp Liberty, a derisive reference to the good-natured Springle. He complained he was being trifled with.
By Saturday, Natale, the first lieutenant, had heard enough. He told investigators that he talked to Russell in the privacy of his room and had a “gut feeling” he might hurt himself, that “the vibe was not right” when the sergeant told him he had no intention of doing so.
Natale removed the firing pin from Russell’s rifle. “Thank you for looking after me, sir,” Natale said Russell told him. Later, another officer, not knowing what the first lieutenant had done, took the gun away.
That evening, Russell tracked down a friend, Pvt. Marquise Drake, at a cookout on the base. Drake told investigators that Russell had stopped him from killing himself 10 months earlier when he was beset by difficulties in his marriage and with an Army boss. He admired Russell, he said, and now the sergeant needed his help.
Russell shared his troubles, telling Drake about Fernbach “raising her voice at him.” Drake said he suggested they go to church. “You know I don’t believe in that,” Russell replied. Drake said Russell told him that when he saw dead children in the Balkans, “that’s when he stopped believing.”
— — —
Russell had someplace else to be Sunday anyway. It was May 11, and he had the appointment at the Camp Liberty Combat Stress Clinic with Col. Jones. One of 14 Army psychiatrists in Iraq, he was Russell’s last line of defense.
Jones was 59, a widower and an Army reservist, unemployed in civilian life. Six months before, he’d pledged to enter a substance-abuse counseling and monitoring program in the U.S. after his second arrest in three years on charges of driving while under the influence of alcohol. Now he was in Iraq.
At 4:10 a.m. on Aug. 29, 2008, Jones had been pulled over by a Dickinson County, Kansas, sheriff’s deputy, who said the doctor was “all over the road” and had a bottle of vodka stashed under the front seat of his car, according to law enforcement records and an interview with the deputy.
With his medical license due for renewal in November, the month he was scheduled to be tried on the DUI charge, Jones told the local court and the Michigan Bureau of Health Professionals that he would enroll in a Michigan-sponsored program to help doctors and other health-care providers overcome chemical dependencies and substance abuse, records show.
Kansas district court Judge John Barker, now retired, said in an interview that the alcohol-monitoring agreement Jones signed influenced his decision to sentence the doctor to a minimum two-day jail term.
Michigan officials renewed Jones’ medical license and didn’t take disciplinary action because he committed to the program, according to state-licensing director Joe Campbell. If he didn’t complete it, the state wouldn’t renew his license again when it expired at the end of 2011, Campbell said.
On Mother’s Day, May 10, Russell had his appointment with Jones at Camp Liberty. After 60 minutes, Jones typed up his notes: While Russell had anxiety “greatly amplified by the chronic and recurrent” deployments, he wrote, “he is not a danger to himself or others.”
Jones prescribed “a mixture of psychoeducation, brief supportive psychotherapy” and an antidepressant that would take effect in two to six weeks.
Russell’s despair seemed to lift. “Maybe I am not as messed up as I thought I was,” he told Lt. David Vazquez, who escorted him to the clinic. They stopped at the dispensary to fill the prescription. The pharmacist poured the pills into a plastic bag.
Russell’s colleagues in the repair shop planned a pizza party and invited him. It took them two hours to locate a vehicle. Russell didn’t wait around for the food to arrive.
After dark that night, Russell said later, he thought about killing himself, and about his wife, wondering if he had been a disappointment to her.
It was 5 a.m. when he got out of bed, and walked the few paces to where Vasquez was sleeping.
“He was crying and shaking,” Vasquez told investigators. “He was stuttering his words and was very despondent.”
The two men went together to the chaplain’s quarters and talked on the front steps before the sun rose, as Russell smoked cigarettes. “He said he just wished someone would put a bullet in his head,” Keough, the chaplain, told investigators.
Keough called Jones, the psychiatrist at Camp Liberty, at 7:50 a.m. He followed up with the email about Russell. “His condition is so volatile right now that we do not have the capability or resources to get him the help he needs,” Keough wrote. “He needs round-the-clock care/supervision to see exactly what is wrong.”
Russell’s appointment was for noon, seven hours after he rousted his company officer from his bed.
— — —
The Camp Liberty clinic was a haven of bare plywood walls on a cement slab under a corrugated tin roof. It was surrounded by seven-foot blast walls. By the time Russell arrived it was close to lunchtime, and there weren’t many people inside. One room was set up for a sleep-therapy class, with couches in a circle. A few soldiers stationed at bases in other parts of the country were bunking in the overnight quarters.
Springle, who had irritated Russell with his humor, was on duty. So was Maj. Matthew Houseal, 54, a physician and former Navy pilot from Amarillo, Texas, who had once worked in an emergency room by night and as a crop duster by day. Spc. Domonic Morales, 21, manned the front desk, checking firearms into a locked room behind him. Patients weren’t allowed beyond the lobby with weapons of any kind.
Spct. Jake Barton of Lenox, Mo., 20, had booked a grief-counseling session, struggling after his mom’s death the year before. Pvt. Michael Yates Jr., 19, a combat infantryman, was registered for a course in anger management. His escort was Sgt. Christian Bueno-Galdos, 25, from Paterson, N.J., who pestered his parents for school supplies to hand out to Iraqi children.
Yates had recently been stuck in Kuwait for eight days on his way back from visiting his family and year-old son, Kam, whose name was tattooed on his forearm. The day before, he’d called home to Federalsburg, Md., and mentioned having met Russell. “He told me point-blank, ‘This man is so far out on a branch I’m surprised he hasn’t fallen and broken his neck,” ‘ his stepfather, Richard Van Blargan Jr., said. “My words to him were, ‘If he’s that bad, stay the hell away from him.’ ”
Russell signed in with Morales at the front desk at 11:20 a.m. Two minutes after his appointment with Jones started, the sergeant stormed out of the doctor’s office.
“Let’s go get him,” Jones said to Russell’s escort, Staff Sgt. Enos Richard. Jones told Morales to call the military police. In the gravel parking lot, witnesses said, Jones and Russell got into a shouting match.
“If you can’t help me then I will just kill myself,” Russell said, according to Staff Sgt. Kathryn Pollock, the noncommissioned officer in charge. Guidelines for an unruly patient called for the staff to “de-escalate the situation in a verbal, non-threatening manner,” according to a post-incident investigation into security. Tensions were rising instead.
The sergeant sat down and lit a cigarette. Military policemen Bryan Benz and Andrew Short arrived. Russell tossed a knife out of his pocket, held his wrists together and asked to be arrested. “I’m done, take me in,” he said. “Nobody in there cares about people.”
According to Jones, Russell was the problem. Jones said he didn’t believe Russell would kill himself and that he had been “verbally noncompliant” during the session. The MPs conferred, and decided to turn Russell over to his escort.
That was a policy breach, according to the investigation. Base rules held that someone who was suicidal should be released only to a commander or to a first sergeant.
Russell was still sitting when Jones asked him for a telephone number for his battalion, according to Staff Sgt. Leah Gates, an occupational therapy assistant.
“It’s all right, sir. You already made your decision,” Russell said, looking up.
“No, soldier. You have already made your decision,” the psychiatrist replied.
Russell’s escort drove him back from the clinic in a white Ford Explorer. The passenger didn’t say a word.
Arriving at the battalion, the escort, Richard, parked and stepped out of the SUV, and turned to see Russell reach into the back seat for the MI16-A2 rifle Richard had left there.
“Give me the keys or I will shoot you,” Russell said.
Richard watched Russell move the lock from safe to semiautomatic. At the wheel of the SUV, Russell peeled out. Richard burst into the battalion offices, sweating and out of breath, shouting, “He’s got my gun, he’s got my weapon.” The men in the office were pulling on battle gear and preparing to mount a search party just as Ropson, the psychiatric nurse who had seen Russell three days earlier, rang to ask about him.
Learning Russell had a firearm and a vehicle, Ropson said he posted armed sentries in the hallways and evacuated a sick woman. The Camp Stryker clinic was ready for the worst.
The Camp Liberty clinic wasn’t.
— — —
In the sleep-therapy room, about 10 uniformed men and women, including Spc. Richard Tran, were taking the relaxation course. Looking out a window, Tran said, he saw a man with a rifle at the low-ready position signaling an imminent engagement. “He looked cold,” Tran said, “like he was picking out a target.”
The report of shots fired came at 1:41 p.m. Two MPs at an automated teller machine said they thought they heard a hammer striking a nail, or wooden pallets crashing. At the front desk, Morales said, it sounded like a door slamming.
Barton, the grieving son, had signed in at 1:40 p.m. and was checking his unloaded rifle when Yates, the infantryman, grabbed it. “Please have ammo. Please have ammo,” Yates cried.
Jones answered a telephone in another staff member’s office. It was a warning call from battalion’s physician assistant, Capt. Larry Ake. Horrified, Ake listened through the receiver to what he said “sounded like a whole firefight.”
Houseal, the psychiatrist and onetime crop duster from Amarillo, was the first to die. Just inside the unguarded back door, Russell put a bullet into the doctor’s right nostril.
The next office belonged to Jones, but it was Springle who was standing in the doorway. Russell fired twice into the social worker’s back, and once into his head. Bullets splintered the plywood. “The wall lit up,” said Pvt. Michael Franklin, who’d taken cover in an adjacent room.
Jones leaped out one window, and Franklin another. Soldiers in the sleep-therapy class poured from doors and windows and hid under beds. Russell saw Yates holding the unloaded rifle. He stalked him out the front door and shot him through the chin.
Russell turned to Bueno-Galdos, Yates’ escort. The soldier crouched by a filing cabinet, screaming, “Oh God.” Russell fired a bullet into his left eye.
Morales and Barton were hiding under the front desk. Russell stood on his toes, his boots stained with blood, and reached over the desk with the rifle.
“It was like slow motion,” Morales said. “I see the bullet come through the desk. As it comes through the desk, it hits Barton right in his head.” Morales said the dead soldier’s body pushed up over his own on impact. Russell walked away.
“One Mississippi, two Mississippi, three Mississippi,” Morales counted. Then he ran out the back door. Two bullets zipped past him.
As military police converged at the front and back entrances, Russell set the weapon down and surrendered. “I think I’ve just killed some people,” he said, according to Special Agent Abass Golfrey, who arrested him.
A lone ambulance drove up about 40 minutes later. People who had fled the building were sweating in the sun, and MPs splashed bottled water on paper towels to make cold compresses. A man sat at a picnic table, struggling to breathe, and a woman nearby wailed and wept. Another woman rocked back and forth, fists clenched. The ambulance took the three of them away.
Four hours after the bloodshed, Jones couldn’t remember Russell’s first name, and said it was “difficult to reconstruct” what happened, he wrote in a statement for military police. That August, the psychiatrist went home to Missouri, resigned his commission in the Army Reserves and let his medical license lapse. “I’m getting along,” he said by telephone, before declining to be interviewed.
— — —
The 72 hours between Russell’s first and last trips to combat-stress clinics on Victory Base Complex framed an abrupt transition. The day the sergeant bolted out of the Camp Stryker facility, the Army Surgeon General issued a report celebrating “significantly lower” mental-health problems in Iraq than at any time since 2004. The day of the Camp Liberty tragedy, Adm. Mike Mullen, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the killings underscored “the need for us to redouble our efforts in terms of dealing with the stress” of the long war.
In 2010, mental disorders surpassed pregnancy as the leading cause of hospitalization in the armed services. This year, service members are killing themselves at the pace of almost one a day. Defense Secretary Panetta told Congress June 13 that there are “huge gaps” in the system for caring for psychological wounds.
“The years of denial and pushing things under the rug are things we know about firsthand,” said Susan Springle, the Camp Liberty social worker’s widow, who asked the Army to return the peace symbol that hung around his neck. “My husband was not a warrior. He was there to help people like Russell. He had dedicated the rest of his career to doing that.”
Fernbach, the Camp Stryker psychologist, declined to be interviewed. “We all did the best we could regarding this case,” she said in a voice-mail message. The military investigation into security procedures at Camp Liberty found Russell’s “access to professionally care was undeniably good.”
In early 2011, a Walter Reed Army Medical Center team diagnosed Russell with chronic post-traumatic stress and a major depressive disorder with psychotic features. While he “did have a severe mental disease or defect” the day of the killings, he “was not unable to appreciate the nature and quality or wrongfulness of his conduct,” team members said in a report. They found him competent to be court-martialed.
Russell’s mother visited him at the psychiatric hospital in Butner, N.C,, where he spent 20 months before his transfer to the military prison in Washington state. “He just cried and cried and cried,” Beth Russell, 74, said in an interview. “I said, ‘Well John, for 16 years, they taught you how to kill the enemy and then they became the enemy, you know.’ He just wouldn’t hardly talk. He just mainly cried.”
Wearing an Army combat uniform, Russell was expressionless as he sat a table in a conference room at Lewis-McChord. He said he couldn’t recall what happened between the time he stepped out of the SUV and put the rifle down. He combined past and present as he talked about the morning of May 11, 2009.
“I feel horrible. I feel like I want to commit suicide,” he said. “I was hoping there was hope.”
With assistance from Anita Kumar, Michael Novatkoski, Nick Tamasi and Michael Weiss.