By Laura L. Myers
SEATTLE (Reuters) - A U.S. soldier accused of killing five fellow servicemen at a military combat stress center in Baghdad in 2009 has been ordered to stand trial in a U.S. military court, officials said on Friday.
Sergeant John Russell, who could face the death penalty if convicted, is accused of going on a shooting spree at Camp Liberty, near the Baghdad airport, in an assault the military said at the time could have been triggered by combat stress.
Russell, of the 54th Engineer Battalion based in Bamberg, Germany, faces five charges of premeditated murder, one charge of aggravated assault, and one charge of attempted murder in connection with the May 2009 shootings.
Two of the five people killed in the shooting were medical staff officers at the counseling center for soldiers experiencing combat stress. The others were soldiers.
In the days following the shooting, Admiral Mike Mullen, then chairman of the U.S. military's Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the incident highlighted the risks of multiple deployments on soldiers and underlined the need to redouble efforts to deal effectively with combat stress.
Before the shooting, Russell's commander had determined that Russell should have his weapon taken away.
Russell's civilian lawyer, James Culp, wrote in a memo this year that his client was "facing death because the Army's mental health system failed him."
In a statement issued by Joint Base Lewis-McChord, military officials said Russell had been referred by a General Court Martial Convening Authority for trial.
"As it stands right now, he's fit to stand trial," said Lieutenant Colonel Gary Dangerfield, the base spokesman.
The shooting was among several incidents that have brought attention to the issue of combat-related stress among soldiers.
A recent Army study estimated as many as 20 percent of the more than 2 million U.S. troops who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan could suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.
In another case where defense lawyers have cited stress as a factor, Staff Sergeant Robert Bales is accused of killing 16 people, including nine children, in a shooting rampage in Afghanistan in March.
Bales was on his fourth deployment to a war zone in the past 10 years, and his civilian lawyer has said that PTSD would likely be an element of his defense.
In the Iraq case, Russell was moved from Fort Leavenworth in Kansas to confinement at Joint Base Lewis-McChord earlier this year, Dangerfield said. Although the court-martial likely will be conducted at the Washington state base, "anything is subject to change."
No trial date has been set for Russell, of Sherman, Texas.
(Writing by Mary Slosson; Editing by Cynthia Johnston)