BAGHDAD — On May 11th, four American soldiers and a sailor were shot to death at the U.S. Army's sprawling Camp Liberty base next to Baghdad International Airport. Army Sgt. John Russell of Sherman, Texas, was arrested at the scene.
It all happened at Camp Liberty's Combat Stress Center. The sergeant had been sent there for treatment. He was nearly finished with his third tour in Iraq.
The nature of the crime — and especially whether the stress of being deployed had caused the suspect to crack — led to President Obama himself weighing in on the issue. The president said he would "press to ensure that we fully understand" what led to the killings.
The U.S military has now released the details of its investigation into some of the circumstances surrounding the incident. The report, which is posted online here, is incredibly detailed. It's 325 pages long and hard to read both for the nature of the subject being discussed and because the military uses acronyms to identify some persons; other names are blanked out completely. Entire sections are missing in some cases.
With evidence based on considerable testimony, the report illustrates the stress and pressure that multiple combat tours in Iraq (and Afghanistan) are putting on military personnel, and how that is also straining the staff of the Army's Combat Stress Clinics.
The findings of the report (pg. 302 onwards) are critical of the operational tools and training aimed at preventing such tragedies as occurred at Camp Liberty. The findings show that policies were unclear; those that existed are improperly implemented; and soldiers were unsure of how to deal with fellow soldiers who have behavioral health problems. The findings highlight lapses in dealing with the situation, on or before the day of the incident, right from the soldier's unit, to the Combat Stress Clinic, to the Military Police.
Stars and Stripes summarizes the findings this way: "Despite years of emphasis on mental health issues, commanders in Iraq lack the necessary tools, training and guidance to deal with at-risk soldiers, according to an Army investigation into mental health services."
The recommendations of the report are blanked out.
There are some signs of what's been suggested, though. In an online press release, the U.S. military says that:
Multinational Corps Iraq already has implemented several of the investigation's recommendations, officials said, including a commandwide review of behavioral health care services, updates to all suicide-prevention programs, the training and appointment of two behavioral health advocates per battalion, and new procedures for dealing with servicemembers attempting or threatening suicide.
While homicides like the one on May 11 are rare, suicides in the U.S. Army have spiked as the Afghanistan and Iraq missions head into their 7th and 9th years respectively. At least 128 soldiers killed themselves last year. And, according to the Army, the suicide rate in the military surpassed that for civilians for the first time since the Vietnam War. The number of suicides has seen an upward trend for four years running now. In 2007, 115 soldiers killed themselves; 106 in 2006. Numbers for 2009 will only be available at the end of the year.
The criminal investigation into the case against Russell continues.
(Nishant Dahiya is an NPR producer currently on assignment in Iraq.)