U.S. Soldier Held In Iraq 10-Year Veteran

U.S. military authorities in Baghdad have issued murder charges against a U.S. soldier who killed five servicemen on a U.S. base in Baghdad Monday.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

The deadly shooting yesterday at an American base in Iraq is focusing attention yet again on combat stress. Five U.S. soldiers were killed by one of their comrades. The shooting occurred at a mental health clinic on the base.

There are new details today about the incident and NPR's Quil Lawrence has the latest from Baghdad. He joins us now. Hello, Quil.

QUIL LAWRENCE: Hi, Michele.

NORRIS: Quil, first of all, can you tell us more about the shooting?

LAWRENCE: Yes, they've identified the shooter and charged the shooter with five counts of murder. His name's John M. Russell. He's an army sergeant from Sherman, Texas, and he's a 10-year veteran of the army with two previous tours here in Iraq. This is his third tour. And his commanding officer had shown some concern about him, as we were told this afternoon by Major General Dave Perkins. And we can listen in to what he said.

Major General DAVE PERKINS (U.S. Army): The commander of the suspect, that being Sergeant Russell, had taken his weapon away. He had been referred to counseling approximately the week beforehand. And through that process, his commander had determined that it would be best for him not to have a weapon.

LAWRENCE: It's still not clear exactly how Russell managed to get a gun, but of course, everyone on these bases is armed. And he apparently went into the clinic and killed five people, two of them staff and three of them are presumed to have been patients there.

NORRIS: Now, there are reports that there were conflicting accounts of what actually happened during the shooting. What are you hearing? What more are you hearing about that?

LAWRENCE: We're hearing that it's possible that he disarmed a military policeman who was outside the clinic, that there was an argument inside. He was asked to leave, and that he encountered someone. Again, anyone could have been armed outside and then came back in and carried out these murders.

NORRIS: Quil, this - the fact that his gun was taken away from him, how common is that kind of thing in the armed forces?

LAWRENCE: Well, it's not very common that a soldier's gun should be taken away. Of course, all of these people are armed walking on the bases. We've had five prominent cases of soldiers killing their own since the beginning of operations here in Iraq, including one last year when a soldier killed two members of his own unit south of Baghdad.

But we don't really know. There have been these cases we know of that have been prosecuted, but we also hear about non-combat deaths, and they aren't always identified whether they were accidents. Sometimes, they were suicides.

NORRIS: You spent some time - you were actually embedded in one of these large military bases. What kind of stress are the soldiers under in these circumstances? Do they talk openly about this?

LAWRENCE: Well, sure. And I should add, years ago, on these bases, during the height of the violence, the stress was more obvious. There were mortars landing, rockets were falling everywhere, and you could see why people would be stressed.

Now, with the violence at a much lower level, the stresses can be more mundane. After three deployments, it's hard to imagine how a young man or woman in the armed services can keep together a marriage or maintain any sort of normal life back home.

And then, there's just the boredom for many of these people inside these big bases. They never go out and see much of the country. At an embed I was at just over the weekend, I watched a couple of enlisted men figuring out how to rig a mousetrap so that it would catapult a mouse across the room, and they spent hours doing this, just trying to kill time.

NORRIS: Is there any evidence that the military is dealing with combat stress differently?

LAWRENCE: Well, we've heard from high-level Pentagon officials today that they are going to redouble their efforts. And personally, I've seen a brigadier general give a speech to different groups of departing troops all over his area of command and admitting to them that after the First Gulf War in 1991, his wife told him that he was acting differently, and he eventually went to get help. And he was clearly telling them this as an example that they shouldn't be ashamed. He even said, you know, even a piece of manhood like me can go and ask for help.

But that said, there's a real macho culture in the military. And on a recent embed, I saw a joke that was circulating around the base. It was a fake medical form that said incident of hurt feelings report. And it went on to say, when were your feelings hurt? Explain in your own sissy language how your feelings were hurt, that sort of thing. So definitely, there's a lot of macho culture that conflicts with this sort of sensitivity training.

NORRIS: That's NPR's Quil Lawrence speaking to us in Baghdad. Quil, thank you very much.

LAWRENCE: Thank you.

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