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U.S. soldier who killed fellow servicemen had wanted Army exit: prosecutor

By Eric M. Johnson

TACOMA, Washington (Reuters) - A U.S. soldier who pleaded guilty to shooting dead five fellow servicemen at a military counseling center in Iraq sought help from healthcare workers in securing an early exit from the Army but was rebuffed before the killings, a military prosecutor said on Monday.

Army Sergeant John Russell pleaded guilty last month to killing two medical staff officers and three soldiers at Camp Liberty, adjacent to the Baghdad airport, in a 2009 shooting the military has said could have been triggered by combat stress.

He faced the first day of an expedited court martial on Monday to determine the level of his guilt.

Russell, who was attached to the 54th Engineer Battalion based in Bamberg, Germany, struck a plea deal to avoid the death penalty in a case that marked one of the worst episodes of soldier-on-soldier violence in the Iraq war.

At issue in his court-martial at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state is whether he acted on impulse, as his defense attorneys argue, or with malice aforethought, as alleged by military prosecutors.

Russell faces up to life in confinement without the possibility of parole, forfeiture of pay and a dishonorable discharge. At issue in the court-martial is whether he "had the ability to premeditate his intention to kill," the judge, Colonel David Conn, said on Monday.

Russell's state of mind has been the focus of legal proceedings over the past year at Lewis-McChord. Defense lawyers said Russell suffered a host of mental ailments after several combat tours and was suicidal before the attack.

A WAY OUT

During his opening statement, Lieutenant Colonel Robert Stelle, a military prosecutor, said the time, distance and actions required for Russell to carry out his attacks showed premeditation.

"The accused had ... the design to bring about the deaths of five victims," Stelle said, adding that Russell was looking for "revenge, payback."

In describing the day before the attack, Stelle said Russell had exhibited "goal-oriented, conscious behavior" as he sought a way out of the Army and was angered by a mental healthcare worker who said "that's not you."

"But, doc, what would it take?" Stelle said, summarizing a conversation between a persistent Russell and the mental healthcare worker, Lieutenant Colonel Michael Jones, the day before the attack. Jones was not wounded in the shooting.

Stelle said that Russell, angered after another, more heated exchange with Jones, stole a Ford sport utility vehicle driven by his base escort, loaded a 30-round magazine into an M16-A2 rifle, and drove 40 minutes to the stress clinic area.

There, he smoked a cigarette, removed identification tags and the gun's optic, and slipped into the clinic through the back entrance closest to Jones' office, and opened fire, Stelle said.

Defense attorneys did not immediately make an opening statement but have said Russell suffered a host of mental ailments after several combat tours and was suicidal before the attack.

An independent forensic psychiatrist, Dr Robert Sadoff of the University of Pennsylvania, concluded that Russell suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and psychosis at the time of the shootings. Sadoff suggested Russell was provoked to violence by maltreatment at the hands of mental health personnel at Camp Liberty.

"My plan was to kill myself," Russell said during his plea hearing. "I wanted the pain to stop."

(Editing by Cynthia Johnston, Doina Chiacu, Dan Grebler and Mohammad Zargham)

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