Former Army Private Steven D. Green has entered a not guilty plea to charges of rape and murder in connection with the deaths of a young Iraqi girl and members of her family. The crimes allegedly occurred in March of this year, when Green was serving with the 101st Airborne Division in Iraq. Green was honorably discharged from the Army in May, apparently after being diagnosed with an “anti-social personality disorder.” Four other soldiers, still on active duty, face similar charges in the case.

According to media reports, Green served for about a year on active duty before being discharged for psychiatric reasons. The Army hasn’t divulged Green’s diagnosis, but his discharge has all the elements of a “rush job,” someone who was hustled out of the service because mental health professionals determined he was a risk to himself, and other soldiers. Over my 20-year-military career, I witnessed a couple of similar incidents; in a bureaucracy not designed for speed, it was amazing how quickly the military could get rid of someone when it became necessary.

It’s unclear if Green’s sudden discharge was related to the reported crimes in Iraq. But in the era of the “strategic corporal” and the “three block war,” it’s worth asking why Green was allowed to enlist in the military. Admittedly, recruiters and drill instructors can’t catch every bad egg that winds up in a military uniform, but it is disconcerting that Green not only finished basic training, but wound up in a combat unit, carrying a loaded weapon. And, when his problems became obvious, the Army hustled to get him out of uniform, and back on the street.

Obviously, Mr. Green deserves his day in court, but the system that allowed a mentally ill individual to enter the U.S. Army deserves renewed scrutiny. And, more distressingly, the alleged massacre in Iraq is not the first time a mentally disturbed individual has killed unsuspecting victims. Back in 1994, the U.S. Air Force had a similar episode, with equally murderous results.

On June 20, 1994, former Airman First Class Dean Mellberg entered the hospital at Fairchild AFB, near Spokane, Washington. Mellberg was upset after being discharged from the Air Force for psychiatric reasons and went on a shooting spree, killing five persons and wounding 23 others. The rampage finally ended when a base security policeman, on bicycle patrol, shot Mellberg dead in the hosptial parking lot.

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During the subsequent investigation, it was determined that Mellberg had long aroused suspicions from co-workers and supervisors. There were serious concerns about his behavior during Mellberg’s first assignment at Cannon AFB, New Mexico, where he served as a maintenance specialist in the early 1990s. But rather than getting Mellberg out of uniform–and into a treatment program–the leadership at Cannon decided to pass the buck, and arranged a transfer to Fairchild. Apparently, there were concerns that discharging Mellberg from his squadron at Cannon would make the “unit look bad,” and besides, it was easier to arrange a transfer than initiate the documentation for a psychiatric discharge. That process was finally concluded at Fairchild, but once again, there was little concern for what Mellberg might do, once he was booted from service. The answer to that question became painfully obvious on that June day in 1994.

While I have nothing but respect for military recruiters and those who train new recruits, the Green and Mellberg cases illustrate that we can do a better job in screening those entering the military. As Chief Buddy once observed, military leadership really does begin at the recruiting office. Even with increased pressure to meeting recruiting and training quotas, the military must be willing to make the first quality cuts at the front door, and bar admission for those who aren’t qualified, or exhibit symptoms of severe psychiatric disorders. When the book is finally closed on former Private Green, we wil probably discover that his problems were evident early in his military career, but no one bothered to do the right thing–until it was too late.

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