Family of Solider Killed at Camp Liberty Talks About Stress in Iraq

Michael Edward Yates Jr. died at Camp Liberty when a fellow soldier opened fire.

May 13, 2009, 10:53 AM

May 13, 2009— -- The family of a soldier who died in Monday's shooting at an Iraq stress clinic said today it believes its son mentioned the alleged shooter on the phone last weekend.

"On the conversation with my wife on Mother's Day, he said that he had met a sergeant, that he was, in his words, he was a very nice guy, he could deal with him, but he had some major issues. He was out there on the branch hoping for somebody to help him," said Richard Van Blarga, Jr. today at a news conference at the family's Federalsburg, Md., home.

Van Blarga's stepson, 19-year-old Michael Edward Yates Jr., was killed at Camp Liberty when a fellow soldier opened fire on fellow soldiers.

Sgt. John M. Russell was charged Tuesday with five counts of murder and one count of aggravated assault in the shooting.

Today Van Blarga also remembered his stepson as "very honorable" and talked about the recent stress he was feeling serving in Iraq.

"Like quite a few other military people, they've all dealt with the stress the best way they could," Van Blarga said. "He was due to go back to his unit today until this unfortunate event."

Of Russell, Van Blarga added, "He was probably under a lot of stress as well."

In addition to the five who died, four others were injured in the shooting, including Russell. The troubled soldier had six weeks left in his third deployment. But he was reportedly having problems before the incident. He was taken against his will for treatment at the combat stress center because of concerns about his mental health.

Russell, 42, had sent his mother flowers for Mother's Day and was eager to return home. But he had informed his wife in early April that he was having a dispute with two superior officers and recently told her he was having the worst day of his life, the alleged shooter's father said Tuesday.

"When the military turned against him, he didn't have any recourse. I guess he thought his life was over," Wilburn Russell told ABC's WFAA. "He's going to lose his house, everything, his retirement. I guess he just broke. He didn't know how to ask for help."

Wilburn Russell added that he was "heartsick" and said, "I'm furious. I know he was set up and they ruined him."

The alleged shooter's 20-year-old son John also spoke to WFAA, adding, "We were as close as we could be. Ever since I was 2, he's been in the Army."

"He wasn't an absent father," he added. "He was doing something good for himself. He loved it, talked highly about the Army, enjoyed what he did. ,,, It's unbelievable."

ABC News visited the stress clinic where the shooting occurred just days before the tragedy. Lt. Col. Beth Salisbury, who runs the clinic and gave ABC News a glimpse inside, was not hurt in the shooting, but two members of her clinical staff were killed, along with three soldiers awaiting treatment.

One of the clinical staff members who died was commander Charles K. Springle, whom ABC News had met on its visit. Springle, a 52-year-old from North Carolina, treated soldiers for combat stress, anger management and suicidal tendencies. Springle was married 26 years and had a son and a daughter.

Dr. Matthew Houseal, a psychiatrist from Amarillo, Texas, also died at Camp Liberty. On Tuesday Jim Womack, the spokesperson for Texas Panhandle Mental Health and Mental Retardation, told ABC affiliate, KVII, that Houseal "was 100 percent committed to his clients and his first interest was helping people."

Weapons are routinely taken from people inside the Camp Liberty stress clinic, so those killed during the incident were not armed.

"Their weapons are taken for safety, and we secure those here for the safety of our staff and themselves," Salisbury recently told ABC News.

Timeline of the Camp Liberty Shooting

On Tuesday, a military official gave ABC News more details about the shooting, explaining that Russell was disarmed last week.

But on Monday he beat up a fellow soldier who took him for treatment and stole his weapon on their drive away from the clinic.

Russell then headed back to the stress center, the official said. The soldier who was forced from the car called military police to warn them to call the stress center, but the police arrived too late: They could hear the gunfire over the phone as they called ahead to warn others of the problem.

Centers like the stress clinic at Camp Liberty are part of a response to a dramatic spike in Army suicides, with a record 143 suicides last year alone.

Indeed, while demands on soldiers may be diminishing, mental stress remains. Salisbury said soldiers are encouraged to monitor their peers.

At a Senate hearing Tuesday, Army Secretary Pete Geren and chief of staff Gen. George Casey diverged from a discussion of the Army's budget to weigh in on what is being done for soldiers like Russell.

Geren said the Army was moving in the right direction, but acknowledged, "This is a very stressed force."

He cited increasing the amount of time in between overseas deployments as a major Army goal to help support families. Geren said trouble with relationships tops the list of problems that can lead to suicide, much as in the civilian world, and added that spending time with their families can be a crucial way for soldiers to relieve stress.

"When you have the kind of separation that our soldiers are experiencing from their families, some soldiers on their third, fourth and fifth deployment, it's obvious that that's going to put a relationship under strain and, in some cases, push a family to the breaking point," Geren said.

Casey said it isn't true most soldiers suffer from post traumatic stress disorder following combat, instead making the point that "the vast majority of people that go to combat have a growth experience because they are exposed to something very, very difficult and they succeed."

Casey said there is a program under way to train noncommissioned officers so they can share their skills for coping with combat with fellow soldiers. The goal, he said, is to stress mental fitness as much as the Army stresses physical fitness.

"Any time we lose one of our own, it affects us all," Col. John Robinson, spokesman for the Multi-National Corps Iraq, said Monday in a written statement. "Our hearts go out to the families and friends of all the service members involved in this terrible tragedy."

So far this month, 12 U.S. service members have been killed or died in Iraq, including the five who died in the shooting at the clinic.

ABC News' Mazin Faiq, Richard Coolidge, James Hill, WFAA, WJLA and KVII contributed to this report.

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