Sherman soldier's family sees lives unravel after man is held in slayings of five in Iraq


by By LEE HANCOCK / The Dallas Morning News

Posted on August 15, 2009 at 4:46 PM

Updated Friday, Oct 16 at 12:30 PM

SHERMAN - Sgt. John M. Russell was his family's hero, finding a place for himself in the Army as a "John Wayne" soldier who never complained to folks back home and would never ask for help, say his elderly father and only son.

His life and theirs have come horribly undone. The 44-year-old was charged with murdering two officers and three fellow soldiers at a chronic stress clinic in Baghdad on Monday, about a week after commanders in his combat engineering unit ordered him to surrender his weapon and submit to psychiatric treatment.

With that, his family says, the future they'd planned lies in ruins. He'd just built a two-story dream home on the edge of Sherman for his eventual retirement and arranged for his son and parents to live there. They were looking forward to a family reunion in July, after his third deployment.

And he wanted to retire in five years and move his German-born wife and her parents to Sherman.

"We can't understand any of this," said his 20-year-old son, John Michael Russell II. "He didn't like conflict."

The family got word of the attack in a phone call from his wife, who lives in Bamberg, Germany, where Russell's unit, the 54th Combat Engineer Battalion, is based. She explained to Russell's mother that the base commander had just come to her home.

"They said John went crazy and killed five people," said the sergeant's father, Wilburn Russell.

Military officials have released few details about the shooting, saying only that Russell was asked to leave the clinic after a confrontation. He somehow obtained a weapon and returned to shoot three clinic personnel and two soldiers who were there to receive treatment. Military police arrested him outside the clinic.

The sergeant e-mailed his wife last week "that the 5th and 6th of May had been the worst two days of his life," the elder Russell said, "that two officers threatened him."

Russell enlisted in the National Guard in Sherman in 1988. He graduated from an area high school and married in 1985. His family said the Guard supplemented his income from low-paying maintenance jobs at a local hospital and defense industry plant and several apartment complexes.

His wife filed for divorce soon after their son was born. Months after the divorce was final, Russell joined the regular Army as a communications specialist. His father and son said he thrived in overseas assignments, serving two six-month tours in Bosnia and Kosovo in the mid-1990s and two year-long assignments in Iraq in 2003-04 and 2005-06. "That was his whole life, the military" his father said.

He met his current wife, a meat cutter, in Germany, and they married in 1999.

He arranged for his new house to be built last summer, adding German touches, and carefully planning $1,500 in monthly mortgage payments so it would be paid for when he retired, his father said.

He never saw combat, his father and son said, and he never talked about being bothered by his time in Iraq. He "salvaged electronics components after roadside bombings," his father said. "I'm sure that he had to wash brains and blood off of equipment."

But he never complained, the father added, thinking "of himself as a John Wayne."

"He was calm under most circumstances," he said. "I'm gonna say, though, if he thought someone was lying to him or about him, he's quite defensive about right or wrong. He sees things in black and white."

Russell's last contact with his Texas family was an e-mail and a bouquet of flowers for his mother for Mother's Day.

"It was, 'Hi, Mom, happy Mother's Day. Hot as hell here. Can't wait to see you,' " said his mother, Beth Russell. "I guess he didn't want us to worry."

Since his arrest, the family in Texas has heard nothing from the military. The elder Russell says he suspects that officers had singled his son out and were trying to force him out of the Army. The father said he - the father - faced similar problems with vindictive officers in the Navy but managed to get help from superiors.

He said his son wasn't the kind to ask for help. "He would've seen it as being wimpy." At the clinic, "he probably accused them of stressing him, they probably denied it and that made him mad," the elder Russell said.

"The only reason he would've done that and killed anyone was he felt like the Army was turned against him," he said.

The sergeant's son said he's trying to comprehend why his dad felt compelled to kill fellow soldiers. "I always thought he would be killed over there. I never thought anything like this would happen," the younger Russell said.