Tragedy Highlights Need for Mental Health Help, Casey Says
By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, May 14, 2009 This week’s tragedy at Camp Liberty in Iraq, in which a soldier undergoing treatment for stress is charged with killing five fellow servicemembers, highlights the need for the efforts the Army is making to deal with mental illness, the service’s top officer said here yesterday.
Army Sgt. John M. Russell, an engineer serving his third deployment to Iraq, allegedly opened fire in a combat stress facility at the main camp outside Baghdad. Two doctors and three enlisted soldiers were killed.
The May 11 tragedy shook all in the military. "Whenever we lose any fellow servicemembers, all among our military family grieves as well," Army Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, commander of Multinational Force Iraq, wrote in a statement he issued today. "The selfless service of our fallen comrades will not be forgotten. In this difficult time, I ask that all of our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines throughout Iraq continue to look to each other as a source of strength and caring."
In Russell's case, the command identified him as a stress casualty, took his weapon and referred him for treatment. Yet, the tragedy still occurred, Gen. George W. Casey Jr., Army chief of staff, said.
Casey did not comment directly on the case, but said all of these cases are fed by a lot of different factors, including repeated deployments.
"Combat deployments are, by their nature, stressful," the general said. "I can't say that the deployments contributed, but I can't believe that the stress of combat deployments, added to the stress of personal and family issues, is not some sort of a contributing factor."
The Army has beefed up its program to allay stress since going into Iraq in 2003. This summer, for example, the service will begin the Comprehensive Soldier Fitness program.
"The whole idea of this is to raise mental fitness to the level of physical fitness," Casey said. "The program is focused on building resilience and enhancing performance -- on giving more soldiers the skills they need to succeed."
Casey said Americans seem to think that all those who go into combat get post-traumatic stress. "That's not true," he said. "Everybody who goes to combat gets stresses - there's no doubt about it - but the vast amount of people have growth experiences, because they are challenged by something very, very difficult, and they succeed."
The Army program has several components. The service has had master fitness trainers for several years. These are soldiers who help other soldiers structure exercise and diet programs. "We are starting a master resilience training course at the University of Pennsylvania," Casey said.
Young sergeants are attending the course, which has been developed in cooperation with the American Psychiatric Association. "The idea is to put these folks at battalion and brigade level so they can help commanders structure programs to build resilience," Casey said.
The service also is putting in place an individual Web-based self-help program to be launched in the fall, Casey said. Soldiers will participate in this program at different times in their careers. The various questions will connect to online instructional modules.
The service also will continue "resilience training" that will take place before, during and after deployments and at every school that soldiers go to. The premise is that just as soldiers exercise their muscles, they also must exercise their minds.
Multinational Force Iraq, U.S. Central Command and the Army will study the shooting at Camp Victory to see what else needs to be done, Defense Department officials said.