FORT LEAVENWORTH, Kan. – A psychiatric nurse testified Wednesday he was worried about the mental condition of a U.S. soldier charged with the 2009 shooting deaths of five service members at a combat stress clinic in Iraq after his "hostile" encounter with an Army psychologist.
Capt. Blaine Ropson testified that he was concerned about Sgt. John Russell's mental state after he received treatment at the clinic.
Ropson said Russell was visibly agitated and under duress when he visited Maj. Hrysso Fernbach at Camp Striker near Baghdad on May 8, 2009. Ropson said he even called Russell's unit just after the soldier stole a rifle and vehicle and was on the loose.
"In my opinion, I didn't feel comfortable with (Russell's treatment)," Ropson said. "I felt it was hostile. I hate to criticize a fellow officer, but it felt hostile. I don't feel comfortable saying that."
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. The hearing is expected to conclude Thursday.
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.
During testimony, Fernbach described her treatment of Russell as "neutral" and said his issues were related to anger over how he was being treated by his unit leaders.
Fernbach, a state psychologist in New Jersey, said she couldn't recall any of Russell's other mental health issues, including his diagnosis for chronic depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. But she acknowledged that perceived hostile comments could trigger a dangerous response by an individual with such symptoms.
"I guess it could," she said.
Other witnesses described trying to reach out to Russell during the four days leading up to the shooting after he became quiet and distant and began having suicidal thoughts.
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. He said Russell became increasingly distant and visibly disturbed.
"I told the first sergeant that the soldier was crying out for help and we needed to get him some help," Thomas said, adding that he was unaware of Russell's diagnosis of depression and dyslexia, among other issues.
Under cross examination, government attorneys attempted to paint Russell, who grew up in a small town north of Dallas, as more interested in playing video games and surfing the Internet than learning the new job skills. 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, 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 Russell met him in the parking lot and asked 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.
Beth Russell, John Russell's mother, said her son began having nightmares before deploying to Iraq in 2008, his third tour. She said those dreams caused him to lose sleep and affected his eating, adding that her son also had been deployed to Bosnia and Kosovo, both traumatic deployments where he was exposed to numerous bodies and death.
"I'm still half in shock that it happened at all," Beth Russell said after the hearing. "This is not our John. It was like they didn't expect anything to happen, though lots of people tried to help."
James Culp, Russell's civilian attorney working with three Army attorneys, said the testimony of Jones and Fernbach showed how their treatment pushed "a man on the edge over the cliff."
"The mental health mistreatment of Fernbach and Jones that we have demonstrated through people who have no incentive to lie was borderline criminal," Culp said. "It was a significant causal factor in what happened."
Russell's attorneys will ask the investigating judge on Thursday to consider his mental evaluations as part of the evidence and deciding if the case goes to court martial and if the charges are modified.