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Stress killed five in Iraq tragedy

Burst of gunfire from U.S. soldier touches varied lives

ABOVE: A family photo shows Pfc. Michael Edward Yates Jr. and his son Kamren. BELOW: Licensed clinical social worker Cmdr. Charles Keith Springle

ABOVE: A family photo shows Pfc. Michael Edward Yates Jr. and his son Kamren. BELOW: Licensed clinical social worker Cmdr. Charles Keith Springle

Keith Springle, who grew up swimming and fishing off the North Carolina coast and seemed destined as a boy to join the Navy, was in Iraq because it was his duty as a military psychologist. Dr. Matthew Houseal, a 54-year-old Army reservist and psychiatrist, was there because he felt he needed to be.

Regardless of how they came to be there, both made it their mission to help their fellow service members cope with the stress of life in the combat zone. Soldiers like the Maryland rebel who liked tinkering with guns and despised “pencil pushers”; or the Peru native who, whether he was walking the streets of New Jersey or the dirt roads of Iraq, was a magnet for candy-seeking kids; or the shy video gamer from Missouri whose refusal to back down probably cost him his life.

Stress brought the five together earlier this week at a Baghdad clinic, the emotionally wounded and the healers. And stress is what killed them.

Authorities say Sgt. John M. Russell, who was nearing the end of his third tour in Iraq, was deeply angry at the military when he walked into the combat stress clinic at Camp Liberty on Monday and opened fire.

Killed were Springle, 52, a Navy commander from Beaufort, N.C.; Houseal of Amarillo, Texas; Army Sgt. Christian E. Bueno-Galdos, 25, of Paterson, N.J.; Spc. Jacob D. Barton, 20, of Lenox, Mo.; and Pfc. Michael E. Yates Jr., 19, of Federalsburg, Md., who had met Russell shortly before the shootings.

The paths that brought these six men together traced a grid across the globe, from South America to rural Missouri, from the islands of Alaska to deepest Antarctica, before intersecting so tragically in an Army clinic.

Family and teachers said Jacob Barton was a quiet student who loved graphic novels and science fiction. Growing up with his grandmother in the house, he sometimes had trouble relating to kids his own age.

“His grandmother was foremost on his mind at all times,” said Rod Waldrip, Barton’s high school English teacher at Rolla High School, where Barton graduated last year. “He sometimes wouldn’t do after-school activities because he had to see if she was OK. She was his main concern.”

Rose Coleman said her grandson was adjusting to life in the Army and that he “seemed to like it.”

Although he was reserved, he wasn’t afraid. Waldrip remembers seeing Barton come to the rescue of somebody who was getting bullied.

“He wouldn’t say much unless there was some injustice being done, and then he would speak up.”

Coleman said the Army told the family that Barton died trying to shield another man from the shooting.

“And he tried to talk the guy with the gun to put his gun down,” she said.

Springle knew mental health issues in the past weren’t being addressed and wanted to be proactive in treating the issues faced by soldiers and their families, said Staff Sgt. Robert Mullis of the Boone-based 1451st Transportation Company of the N.C. National Guard, who was part of a civilian outreach program with Springle.

“He saw it as preventive maintenance,” Mullis said of Springle. “They’ve just been through some tough experiences. He was reaching out trying to try and stop a big beast before it got started.”

Springle grew up in the little fishing village of Lewiston, N.C., just east of Beaufort. Cousin Alton Dudley said the pair were a kind of saltwater Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer.

“It was a carefree life,” said Dudley, a fishing boat captain who was nine years older than Springle. “I am sure that he joined the Navy so that he could be at sea or close to it.”

All who knew him talked about Springle’s sense of humor and upbeat attitude. But Springle, whose son and son-in-law have each done a tour in Iraq, took the issue of combat stress very seriously. While deploying to Iraq was his duty, his work on the homefront with the Citizen-Soldier Support Program was a labor of love.

“This was volunteer work,” said Bob Goodale, director of behavioral mental health for the Chapel Hill-based program. “He was doing this because it was the right thing to do: training civilian providers so they were better equipped to serve the families and the service members.”

At 54, Houseal, a major in the Army Reserves, was under no obligation to go to Iraq. But he was already something of an adventurer.

For 11 months in 1991, the University of Michigan graduate served as the physician for about 20 people working at the Amundsen-Scott Station near the South Pole in a climate research project funded by the National Science Foundation, said Mike O’Neill who was the group’s electronics technician.

“He came in at the last minute not knowing anybody,” said O’Neill, who works for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Colorado. “That’s one of the reasons I really respected him.”

The Amarillo man had worked for a dozen years at the Texas Panhandle Mental Health and Mental Retardation clinic, said executive director Bud Schertler. He left Texas for Iraq in late January and was assigned to the 55th Medical Company in Indianapolis, which ran the clinic where the shootings occurred.

Bueno-Galdos couldn’t wait to serve his adopted country and did so exceptionally, earning three Army Commendation Medals.

He was 7 when his family emigrated from Mollendo, Peru, for better economic opportunities. The youngest of four children, Chinito – a term of endearment that literally means “little Chinaman” – became a U.S. citizen in high school and joined the Army as soon as he graduated.

Back home in Paterson, he never made a trip to the corner bodega without a group of neighborhood children tailing behind, knowing he would buy them candy or a soda, his family recalled. It was the same in Iraq, where he was on his second tour.

Yates displayed zeal for serving in the Army, but perhaps not the locale where he was serving, as evidenced by his MySpace page.

His profile lists his location as “(expletive), Iraq.”

Yates’ mother, Shawna Machlinski, said her son joined the Army, not out of a sense of duty, but because he didn’t see many other options. Besides, his stepfather and two stepbrothers were all military men.

Yates liked the military, especially going out on what he called “stealth missions.” His problems started when he went back after spending nearly the entire month of April at home. His son, Kamren Mister, celebrated his first birthday on April 7.

But the visit left him anxious. He wasn’t home long enough, but he’d still been away from “my military family” too long. Once back in Iraq, his mother said, he began to think about things he wished he’d done while visiting Maryland.

When the strong emotions began surfacing, she said, he was transferred to headquarters company “so he could stay out of combat.”

“He didn’t like headquarters at all,” said Machlinski. “He said they’re stupid pencil pushers.”

Despite the stigma, Yates volunteered to go to the stress clinic.

“I need help dealing with this,” he told his mom.

Yates had been at the clinic nearly a week when he called home Sunday for Mother’s Day.

Sometime during that time, he bumped into Russell.

Yates told his mother that Russell seemed like a nice enough guy, but after three tours, he clearly hated the Army.

“Man, this guy’s got issues,” she remembers him telling her.

Russell, 44, who was a little more than a month shy of finishing his third tour, told his family that the clinic was hurting him more than helping.

Now, he faces charges of murder and aggravated assault.

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