Last week, fatal shooting of five service members at a U.S. military stress clinic in Iraq has prompted a military investigation into how mental health within the armed forces is handled. The alleged gunman, Sgt. John M. Russell, has been charged with five counts of murder and one count of aggravated assault.

Five killed in base shooting

Russell, a communications specialist in the 54th Engineer Battalion, was serving his third tour in Iraq at the Camp Liberty military base and was scheduled to depart the country in August with the rest of his battalion. He had previously served in Bosnia and Kosovo.

Prior to Monday’s shootings, Russell’s superiors, concerned about his mental state, confiscated his weapon and referred him to the camp’s combat stress clinic for psychological counseling. Anonymous witnesses from Camp Liberty reported that Russell argued with a soldier at the clinic, returned later, and used another service member’s weapon to shoot his alleged victims. The five victims killed were all military service members: two clinic staff members and three soldiers at the clinic. Their names were released once their family members were notified. Three additional service members were wounded. Military officials are unclear if Russell knew the victims and are investigating all possible motives.

Immediate reactions

Maj. Gen. David Perkins, the U.S. military spokesman in Iraq, revealed that in addition to a criminal investigation of the shooting, the military will be conducting a probe of existing mental health resources in battle zones and their efficacy. However, Perkins also expressed his confidence that sufficient stress resources were in place at Camp Liberty, and that the proper steps were taken to help Russell. General Perkins said, “The tools were all being used. They thought that he needed a higher level of care than the unit could provide, so they sent him to the clinic. I mean, you see, all the kind of things that we’re taught to do were in place.”

In the days following his son’s arrest, Wilburn Russell vocalized his belief that the military had contributed to John Russell’s apparent breakdown. In an interview with the Associated Press, Russell claimed that Camp Liberty stress clinic counselors ‘broke’ his son, and had forced him to endure upsetting mental health tests. Mr. Russell also attributed his son’s alleged crime to the carnage he saw during his multiple tours of duty.

Consequences of combat stress

The shooting at Camp Liberty is the worst incident of soldier-on-soldier violence since the start of the Iraq war six years ago. It also coincides with a steady rise in U.S. military suicides, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder among soldiers deployed in battle zones, particularly among those sent repeatedly to Iraq and Afghanistan. The U.S. Army reported 140 suicides in 2008, the highest number on record. Military suicide rates for this year are on track to surpass the 2008 figure.

Although campaigns to de-stigmatize combat stress are in place, and most military bases have stress clinics and counseling services, many soldiers remain wary of seeking help due to the stigma that still surrounds it.