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Archive for Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Defense begins for soldier charged in Iraq health clinic shootings

August 10, 2011, 2:58 p.m. Updated August 10, 2011, 5:12 p.m.

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— Conflicting opinions emerged Wednesday about the mental state of an Army soldier charged with the 2009 shooting deaths of five service members at a combat stress clinic in Iraq.

Witnesses called at a hearing at Fort Leavenworth by defense attorneys for Sgt. John Russell said he had difficulty learning new technology in an increasingly advanced Army, adding to the stress he experienced after repeated deployments to Iraq.

Attorneys for the government countered that Russell was lazy and more interested in surfing the Internet than studying how to do his job.

Russell, 46, is accused of carrying out the deadliest act of soldier-on-soldier violence in the war in Iraq as he was nearing the end of his third tour. He sat with his defense team during the hearing, but it was unclear whether he would testify during the proceedings, which are scheduled to last several days.

Killed in the shooting were Navy Cmdr. Charles Springle, 52, of Wilmington, N.C., and four Army service members: Pfc. Michael Edward Yates Jr., 19, of Federalsburg, Md.; Dr. Matthew Houseal, of Amarillo, Texas; Sgt. Christian E. Bueno-Galdos, 25, of Paterson, N.J.; and Spc. Jacob D. Barton, 20, of Lenox, Mo.

Sgt. Ben Thomas Jr. served with Russell in the 54th Engineer Battalion in Iraq in the communications shop. Thomas, who testified via telephone from Afghanistan, said Russell was a quiet soldier who seemed to have trouble with new computer systems and learning how to make repairs.

Thomas said Russell was "very good" with traditional radio devices, but his lack of new skills affected his performance and relationship with other soldiers.

Thomas said Russell became more distant and visibly disturbed in the days leading to the shooting. Though they weren't friends, Thomas tried to help and later went to others to speak about Russell.

"I told the first sergeant that the soldier was crying out for help and we needed to get him some help," Thomas said.

The sergeant said he was unaware of Russell's diagnosis of depression and dyslexia, among other issues.

Under cross examination, attorneys for the government attempted to paint Russell as more interested in playing video games and surfing the Internet than learning the new skills for his job. They suggested Russell was frustrated with his inability to advance or keep up with other soldiers.

According to documents in the case, Russell in 2009 told Lt. Col. Michael Jones that the psychiatrist could either help him get better or he would take his life. Russell stormed out of the appointment after Jones didn't reply to the statement, setting off a confrontation outside the clinic.

Andrew Short, a former military police officer who responded to the clinic when Jones asked for assistance, testified Wednesday that he was met by Russell in the parking lot asking to be arrested.

Short, who now lives in Montana, said he told Russell he couldn't arrest him until he knew what was happening. He spoke with Jones and learned of their counseling session.

Short contradicted sworn statements he made in 2009 that said Jones told him Russell was threatening to harm himself if he wasn't treated. He testified that Jones said Russell was unruly and was trying to bully him in the counseling session, but not threatening.

"I didn't know how to make that more clearly," Short said, adding that Russell seemed "reasonable" when he spoke with him at the clinic.

Jones testified Monday he tried to get Russell to return to the clinic and denied he was outside yelling at the soldier, conflicting with testimony of others present that day.

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