BAGHDAD -- The U.S. military said Tuesday that a 44-year-old Army sergeant near the end of his third tour in Iraq has been charged with fatally shooting five American service members at a U.S. base here Monday.
Sgt. John M. Russell, who is from Sherman, Texas and assigned to the Army’s 54th Engineer Battalion, was charged Tuesday with five counts of premeditated murder and one count of aggravated assault, said Maj. Gen. David Perkins, the top U.S. military spokesman in Iraq.
The shootings took place at a combat stress clinic at Camp Liberty near Baghdad International Airport at about 2 p.m. Monday. Two of the victims worked at the clinic, Perkins said. Both were officers, one in the Army and one in the Navy. The three other slain service members were enlisted soldiers. Some of the victims' relatives still had not been notified by Tuesday afternoon, Perkins said.
He said that in the days before the shootings Russell had behaved in a way that had prompted his superiors to take away his weapon and recommend he attend counseling at the stress center. The gun Russell is thought to have used Monday wasn't his own, and the military has yet to determine how he may have gotten it, Perkins said.
He said Russell was arrested by military police outside the clinic shortly after the shootings and that he remains in custody at Camp Victory, a U.S. base adjacent to the one where the killings took place. The military said the stress clinic has been closed temporarily because it is considered a crime scene.
Perkins couldn't say whether Russell, a communications specialist, knew any of the victims. His unit is scheduled to leave Iraq in August and has been here about a year, Perkins said. Russell has previously deployed to Bosnia and Kosovo, the military said.
Officials couldn’t say how many people witnessed the attack. No one was shot besides the five victims who died.
"It's very dramatic and traumatic when we lose our own," Perkins said. "It impacts all of us who wear this uniform."
There have been several incidents since the start of the war in which American soldiers are alleged to have killed comrades, but Monday's appears to be the deadliest. The U.S. military has recognized a growing number of stress-related mental illnesses among soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, and many have suggested that repeated combat tours are to blame. Suicide rates among deployed service members have risen considerably in recent years.
Besides a criminal investigation into what happened Monday, Perkins said the military plans to launch an internal review to determine whether it should make changes to its system for providing mental health services to soldiers in Iraq.
"We're looking to see if we can take any steps to reduce the risk of this happening again," he said.
Stress clinics, counselors and chaplains are accessible to all deployed service members in Iraq and soldiers can seek help themselves or on the recommendation of a superior. Russell, who lived at Camp Liberty, had been referred to the stress clinic there about a week before the shootings, Perkins said, though he wasn’t sure whether Russell had gone before Monday. He had recently been seen by a counselor in his unit, Perkins said.
"We know that his chain of command had concerns about him,” he said. “He had been undergoing counseling within the command and they had taken the step of taking away his weapon."
Perkins said he couldn’t elaborate on what had prompted Russell’s superiors to fear he might pose a threat. The military also wouldn’t disclose whether he was taking any medications.