BAGHDAD — The U.S. military command launched an investigation Tuesday into whether it offers adequate mental health care to its soldiers, a day after a sergeant finishing up his third tour of Iraq allegedly shot and killed five comrades at a clinic on a U.S. base.
Sgt. John M. Russell, 44, of Sherman, Texas, was taken into custody outside a mental health clinic at Camp Liberty following Monday's shooting and charged with five counts of murder and one of aggravated assault, Maj. Gen. David Perkins said.
The case, the deadliest of the war involving soldier-on-soldier violence, has cast a spotlight on combat stress and emotional problems resulting from frequent deployments to battle zones in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Up to one-fifth of the more than 1.7 million who have served in the two conflicts are believed to have symptoms of anxiety, depression and other emotional problems. Some studies show that about half of those who need help do not seek it.
Russell's father said his son, who joined the Army in 1994 after a divorce and minor scrapes with the law, felt poorly treated at the stress center. He said he hopes "we find he snapped because of the pressure. He wasn't a mean person."
In Baghdad, Perkins told reporters that Russell, a communications specialist assigned to the 54th Engineer Battalion from Bamberg, Germany, was sent to the mental health clinic by his superiors, presumably because of concern over his emotional state.
He said the commander had ordered Russell's weapon taken away from him but somehow he got a new weapon, entered the clinic and opened fire.
Perkins declined to give a detailed account of the shooting, saying the matter was under investigation.
However, a Pentagon official said in Washington that Russell had been escorted to the clinic, but once inside argued with the staff and was asked to leave.
After he drove away, Russell apparently seized his escort's weapon and returned to the clinic, the official said on condition of anonymity because the investigation was ongoing.
The clinic was operated by the 55th Medical Company, a Reserve unit headquartered in Indianapolis. Two of the victims were officers assigned to the clinic and the three others were enlisted soldiers, Perkins said.
The Pentagon identified Cmdr. Charles Springle, 52, of Wilmington, North Carolina, as one of the victims of the shooting. The mother of Michael Edward Yates Jr. said two men from the Army came to her Federalsburg, Maryland, home early Tuesday to tell say her 19-year-old son was killed.
A psychiatrist from Amarillo, Texas, Dr. Matthew Houseal, also was confirmed among the dead, according to the director of a Texas mental health clinic where Houseal worked. Bud Schertler said Houseal's wife told him Tuesday that her husband was among the dead.
In addition to the ongoing criminal investigation, Perkins said the U.S. command had opened a formal inquiry into the "general availability" of health care for American service personnel in Iraq, "specifically the policies and procedures surrounding behavioral health services."
He gave no further details and did not say how the investigation was being conducted.
The U.S. military has become increasingly concerned about mental health in the ranks following a steady rise in suicides _ which the Army says have increased worldwide from at least 102 in 2006 to 140 last year. As of April, the Army had reported at least 48 suicides.
Thousands of other veterans are believed to suffer flashbacks, nightmares or fits of anger as they attempt to readjust to civilian life.
"One thing if we've learned from this war, we learned from World War II, Korea, Vietnam, the previous wars, is not all injuries are physical," said Maj. Gen. Daniel P. Bolger, commander of Multi-National Division-Baghdad.
In Sherman, Wilburn Russell, 73, said he believes counselors in the military stress center "broke" his son before the shootings.
The younger Russell was six weeks away from completing his third tour in Iraq before Monday's shootings, the father told reporters Tuesday in front of the two-story suburban home his son is buying with his wife.
Wilburn Russell said his son was treated poorly at the military stress center. He said his son had e-mailed his wife, calling two recent days the worst in his life.
"I hate what that boy did," the elder Russell said. "He thought it was justified. That's never a solution."
He said his son felt like "his life was over as far as he was concerned. He lived for the military."
John Russell began his active military service after a divorce and a series of minor criminal scrapes in his hometown, according to records in Grayson County, Texas.
His ex-wife obtained a temporary restraining order against him and an order withholding earnings for child support. In February 1993, a month after the divorce decree was issued, Russell was charged with misdemeanor assault but the matter was dropped, the records show.
A Pentagon official said Russell previously served two one-year tours of duty in Iraq, one from April 2003 and another beginning November 2005. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak on the record.
Russell, who had also served in the Balkans, was due to leave Iraq within weeks, he confirmed. During his current tour, Russell was assigned to a command in charge of security south of Baghdad.
To cope with the stress, the Army has set up clinics on most major bases in Iraq, staffing them with psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers and other specialists.
Commanders, chaplains and others in leadership positions are also trained to watch for signs of stress and refer soldiers to mental health professionals if needed.
However, some officials believe soldiers are reluctant to take advantage of the facilities because of the stigma attached to counseling in a military culture that promotes mental and physical toughness.
Last November, Army Secretary Pete Geren said combating the stigma "is a challenge" throughout American society, especially in the Army "where we have a premium on strength, physically, mentally, emotionally."
However, Bolger said the command was encouraging soldiers to take advantage of clinics if they feel under stress.
"We've encouraged people to do self-referral," Bolger said. "We've actually encouraged them to say, `hey, we're not going to hold this against you, we'd rather have you self-refer ... than have an incident that would be tragic."
Officials noted, however, that procedures had been followed in the Russell case, with the commander removing his weapon and referring him to mental health professionals.
Associated Press Writers Paul Schemm in Baghdad, Pauline Jelinek in Washington, Schuyler Dixon in Sherman, Texas, and Danny Robbins in Dallas contributed to this report.