He was, in his family’s eyes, the most stable guy in the world.
The kind of man who remembers to send his mom flowers on Mother’s Day, even while fighting a war. A man who practiced tai chi to better himself, and fished for trout with his dad. A man who took in a little pup when his owner – a soldier, too – was called away.
He was, they say, a man who so loved his country that he joined the National Guard three years out of high school, then went active duty and made the Army his life, serving in Kosovo and Bosnia and, finally, Iraq – not once but three times.
This is the John Russell his father and mother, son and three sisters know and still love.
He is far different from the man who authorities say overpowered a comrade and took his weapon, then stalked into a military mental health clinic in Baghdad, opened fire and gunned down five of his brothers in uniform.
That John Russell stands accused now of the deadliest act of soldier-on-soldier violence in the six-year war in Iraq.
There are, for Russell’s family and those of the slain, many more questions than answers about the slaughter at Camp Liberty, a sprawling military base at the northeast edge of Baghdad International Airport.
Was the rampage a tragic consequence of a prolonged and poorly managed war, where redeployments are the norm, combat stress a growing concern and suicides in the ranks more common? Did Russell just snap somehow, or did someone – or something – push him over the edge? Was he, as his father has said, broken in some way?
The military has released few details as its investigation continues, leaving little to help explain how a 44-year-old career military man could go from “stable” to homicidal just weeks before he was to head back home. The only clues as to what happened, and why, are fragmented pieces of a life now in ruins.
“I love my brother,” Russell’s sister, Jennifer Young, told The Associated Press this week. “He is a loving, wonderful person and he would never hurt anyone when he was in his right mind. They train them to kill. And when they get in that mental state, we can only imagine.”
Said his father, Wilburn: “We thought he had his feet firmly on the ground.”
He grew up in the Red River Valley of Texas near a tiny town called Tom Bean, 60 miles north of Dallas near the Oklahoma border. In the late ’80s, when Russell attended Tom Bean High, all of 926 souls lived in the hamlet, studded with modest farm houses, lakes and prairies where folks hunt for quail and wild boar. On the high school Web site, stock show results are listed alongside the all-district basketball selections.
Russell’s dad worked for Texas Instruments as a government contractor; his mom was a secretary there. The two celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary just last month with a trout fishing trip to Broken Bow Lake, where Wilburn used to take his son.
When Russell was a kid, the family was like any other. They went camping and boating. He enjoyed playing cards and football. But high school wasn’t easy for the boy, who, according to his father, was dyslexic. He graduated, but couldn’t find a good paying job. He worked maintenance here and there, while serving part-time for seven years in the Army National Guard.
Then, in 1994, Russell decided to make the military his career and turned active duty.
“He matured,” his father said. “He didn’t talk much about details, but he talked about the countries, the people he met.”
First came a stint in Serbia, then Bosnia and Herzegovina. When the United States invaded Iraq in March 2003, Russell, a communications specialist with the 54th Engineer Battalion, was among the first wave of soldiers sent in.
He arrived for his first one-year tour of duty that April, according to excerpts of his military record. He did a second, one-year tour starting in November 2005, and was sent back a third time almost a year ago.
His father worried for him, but Russell tried to ease his fears.
“He said, ‘Dad, these people in Iraq are just like you and I. They want freedom. They want to be left alone. They want to be able to do their thing without suppression or getting hauled off … They’re human beings.'”
The elder Russell calls his son “the kind of guy you would be proud of. A chest full of ribbons.”
Indeed, Russell’s past reveals little that would hint at the onslaught of violence that erupted Monday in Baghdad.
In his 20s, Russell was charged with misdemeanor trespassing for entering an uninhabited structure, according to police records. He spent 17 days in jail and paid a $200 fine.
There was an ugly divorce from his first wife, Denise, who at one point accused Russell of hitting her mother on the shoulders in a confrontation over the couple’s son, then 2-years-old. In 1993, a month after the divorce decree was issued, Russell was charged with misdemeanor assault by threats, but the matter was later dropped, court records show.
All that was long past, though. In recent months, Russell seemed to be looking ahead to the future.
He was remarried to a German woman, and they lived together in Bamberg, Germany, where Russell was stationed for the last decade. She recently obtained her American citizenship, his family said, and the couple purchased a brand-new, two-story home in Sherman, not far from the farmhouse where Russell was raised.
Russell’s relatives said he planned on returning to Texas for good after he retired in a few years, to live in the house – furnished with Swedish imports – in a neighborhood called Country Ridge Estates.
And he had already planned a visit home in July, after his latest tour of duty was up.
The soldier’s son, John Russell II, received an e-mail from his dad on April 25, the day after his 20th birthday.
“He told me happy birthday and that he loved me and couldn’t wait to come down in July and see everybody and visit with the family,” the young man said. “Normal stuff.”
On Mother’s Day, came the flowers.
Then, the next day, five men were dead and Sgt. John M. Russell stood accused of killing them.__
Just what happened between his final e-mails to family and the incident at Camp Liberty remains unclear.
The one thing experts understand is that soldiers with repeated deployments are more susceptible to post-traumatic stress disorder and related mental health problems, such as depression.
“The more times you put someone in a situation where they will be traumatized, the greater likelihood that you create severe symptoms,” said Barbara Romberg, a clinical psychologist in Washington, D.C., who four years ago launched a nonprofit effort to provide counseling services to troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.
“They’ll talk about the first deployment as, ‘Whew. Made it through that.’ The next one is, ‘I can’t believe I made it through that one.’ By the third, they really feel they’re pushing their luck, that they’re not going to make it. That strain alone starts to eat away and create some dark and morbid thoughts.”
Russell’s sister, Jennifer, said her brother sought help in Germany after he began having nightmares following his second tour of duty. “They saw him four times, sent him home and sent him back to Iraq,” she said.
Shelley MacDermid Wadsworth directs the Military Family Research Institute at Purdue University and served as co-chair of the Department of Defense Task Force on Mental Health from 2006 to 2007. She agreed that mental health problems are more prevalent in soldiers with multiple deployments. Add to that concerns about family and money, the long work days, lack of sleep and having to be constantly vigilant – and “all of those things can be very troubling.”
Wilburn Russell, 73, said in an interview with Sherman television station KXII that he had major stomach surgery in February, that his grandson was recently diagnosed with cysts on his liver and his daughter-in-law’s father was dying of cancer.
“All these things weigh on you,” the elder Russell said, adding that his son was also deeply in debt, having to pay some $1,500 each month on the house in Texas. “You never know what is gonna trigger it.”
The family also points to something else. They said that earlier this month, Russell e-mailed his wife in Germany, telling her some officers had threatened him during what he called the two worst days of his life.
“His life was over as far as he was concerned,” said Wilburn Russell, who didn’t know whether his son was being disciplined or facing a discharge. “They steered him into this stress center, and they did the worst they could to him. They broke him.”
In Baghdad, Maj. Gen. David Perkins told reporters that Russell was ordered to the mental health clinic by his superiors, presumably because of concern over his emotional state. Russell’s weapon also was taken from him, a serious measure in a war zone.
A Pentagon official said that Russell had been escorted to the clinic, but once inside argued with the staff and was asked to leave. After he drove away, Russell apparently seized his escort’s weapon, returned to the clinic and opened fire, the official said on condition of anonymity because the investigation is ongoing.
Russell’s father wonders if his son snapped under questioning by counselors, or feared that his career was over.
“These guys in the stress center were probably younger than him … and here they are evaluating him and harassing him. You take that stuff personally. He couldn’t cope,” he said. “The military was his identity. The military turned against him.”
The stigma attached to getting psychiatric help is especially burdensome for soldiers who are trained to be tough, not to talk about feelings, MacDermid Wadsworth said. There is also a very real concern among the troops that seeking treatment could, in fact, derail careers in an organization where rank is everything.
The Army has taken steps to tell soldiers – from new privates to veteran sergeant majors – that it is OK to pursue counseling and that doing so is in no way a detriment to future promotions, said Lt. Gen. Kenneth W. Hunzeker, commanding general of V Corps in Heidelberg, Germany, which Russell’s unit is part of.
“Clearly,” Hunzeker said, “it is helping us to knock down this stigma.”
Still, MacDermid Wadsworth, soldiers “worry very much about anything that might be perceived as a blemish on their record.”
“If you get labeled or judged as someone who may be a security risk, then you’re not going to get promoted and you’re going to have to leave the career that you might love very much.
“It’ll take a lot more examination to try to understand why this particular person on this particular day did this thing,” she said. “The sad and ironic thing is that people did realize there was a risk, and they took action. But it wasn’t enough.”
Army Pfc. Michael Yates of Federalsburg, Md., met Russell shortly before the shootings. The 19-year-old soldier had gone to the stress clinic voluntarily after returning to Iraq from an April visit home. In a phone call, he told his mom about meeting a sergeant – Russell – who was clearly resentful of the Army after three tours.
“‘Man, this guy’s got issues,'” Yates’ mother, Shawna Machlinski, remembers him saying.
On Monday, fatefully, Yates was inside the clinic when Russell returned.
This week, as Machlinski got word of her son’s death, John Russell’s mother learned of her son’s arrest; a friend of her daughter-in-law called to tell the family what had happened.
“All day, I thought, ‘That’s the wrong John Russell,'” 71-year-old Elizabeth Russell said. “That’s not our John.”
Russell remains in the custody of military police at Camp Liberty, facing charges of murder and aggravated assault.