Framing the Combat Stress Clinic Shooting

The deadliest soldier-on-soldier incident among U.S. servicemembers since the beginning of the Iraq war occurred yesterday. Sgt. John M. Russell has been charged with five counts of murder and one count of aggravated assault after opening fire upon staff at a combat stress clinic at Camp Liberty, Iraq.

A military spokesperson said Russell had been referred to counseling the week before the shootings and had been relieved of his weapon by his commander. While few details about Russell's mental health or treatment have emerged, the main frame that has been used to contextualize the event has been that of post-traumatic stress disorder.

A UPI analysis headlines the event as reflecting a "US Army Stress Crisis" and calls the event at least six years in the making. Other news sources are less pointed, but bring up as context the high percentage of returning veterans diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and Admiral Mike Mullen's words: "“It does speak to me for the need for us to redouble our efforts in terms of dealing with the stress [of combat],” Mullen said. “It also speaks to the issues of multiple deployments [and] increasing dwell time.”

As journalists work to uncover more of the facts of the story, some context on mental health in general and post-traumatic stress in particular will likely prove critical — for understanding the victims and witnesses as well as the perpetrator.

But it should also be emphasized that the newsworthiness of this event is its uniqueness; not only are homicides by soldiers against their fellows extremely rare, they correlate poorly both with PTSD and with depression, a more typical response to combat stress.

For more resources, see our Tips & Tools pages for PTSD and Veterans. For an overview of post-traumatic stress disorder, see Dr. Frank Ochberg's PTSD 101 and the National Center for PTSD's clearinghouse website.