For almost two years, Dean Mellberg fought to stay in the Air Force.
It was a time when the military was working vigorously to reduce its forces. People were forced out for being overweight, for being out of shape or gay. Senior officers with high job ratings were pushed into early retirement. Men and women with certain specialties were paid bonuses to quit early.
In the midst of this drawdown, the young airman diagnosed with such personality disorders as paranoia and passive-aggressive behavior made it through basic training and another school that taught him to be a specialist in an electrical laboratory. He was assigned to two bases.
Before Mellberg finally was discharged against his will, he was put through the same process as other people who were being forced out of the Air Force.
That process protected him from being dismissed arbitrarily. But it also may have kept him in uniform long enough to trigger a final, violent reaction when the uniform was taken away, psychologists said.
“Once you’re in that uniform, you’ve found a family,” said Paul Quinnett, a psychologist with Spokane’s Community Mental Health Center. “If that unit becomes your family and then they reject you … your feelings of retribution, resentment and anger would be much greater.”
Quinnett and others emphasized that they can only speculate about the conditions that led to Mellberg’s June 20 rampage at Fairchild Air Force Base.
Armed with a semiautomatic assault rifle, he killed four people and wounded 23 more before being shot dead. One of those wounded was a pregant woman who later lost the unborn child.
But certain patterns of behavior tend to be common to people who commit such violent acts, psychologists said.
Mellberg’s inexplicable actions may be more understandable when these patterns and his military history are considered.
Mellberg may have lost a sense of personal worth or mission when he was discharged from the Air Force in May.
“If you draw your sense of selfworth from your job, the loss of that job heightens your stress or anxiety,” said Robin Inwald, director of Hilson Research Inc., a New York firm that helps police forces around the country screen and train new recruits.
Inwald has developed a test that helps identify the kind of people who might develop violent reactions to losing their jobs.
The test looks for such factors as unusual levels of anger, fascination with weapons, loner tendencies.
Acquaintances described Mellberg as a loner, and he had trouble fitting in with other young airmen at Fairchild. An Air Force psychiatrist reported that he once said he “liked to kill things.”
The Defense Department does not use Inwald’s test for its recruits. But Mellberg’s psychological problems apparently were flagged as early as basic training, where he received the first of three psychiatric evaluations recommending he be discharged.
That recommendation, however, did not keep him from graduating from basic training and becoming a member of the Air Force.
The graduation could have been a key to Mellberg’s later actions.
“Basic training is designed as a highly structured, ritual passage to manhood,” said Quinnett. “In some cases, the military even says, `We turn boys into men.”’
Before that rite of passage, Mellberg may have had a less violent reaction to being ousted from the military, Quinnett added.
“This is pure speculation on someone who’s now dead and can’t talk about it. But if you have been uncertain about who and what you are, and you get through basic, you’re rewarded with the uniform. Once you’re in that uniform, you’ve found a family.”
Mellberg’s ability to complete basic training and continue in his military career appears to be the result of a system set up to protect each airman’s rights.
An investigation by the Secretary of the Air Force is under way and Air Force personnel cannot discuss the specifics of Mellberg’s case.
But the process the military followed to discharge Mellberg is well-defined.
An airman has certain rights when his superiors are trying to push him out, said Jim Jones, chief of enlisted separations for the Air Force Military Personnel Center at Randolph Air Force Base near San Antonio, Texas.
In the case of someone like Mellberg, who was neither a high-ranking officer nor a non-commissioned officer and had been in the military less than six years, the discharge would have been recommended by his squadron commander.
That could occur only after all evidence supporting a discharge was assembled and shown to Mellberg and a defense attorney the Air Force would appoint.
Mellberg would have a chance to rebut any of the evidence.
The squadron commander’s recommendation would have to be approved by the wing commander, who would have to review all the evidence and Mellberg’s arguments against being discharged.
Mellberg was diagnosed with a personality disorder, a term poorly understood by the general public, psychologists said.
It is not a debilitating abnormal condition like manic depression or paranoid schizophrenia, said Col. Ted Yurkoski of the Air Force Surgeon General’s office.
It’s a condition that may have existed for years before his military service and would have to be properly diagnosed before a discharge to protect Mellberg’s rights.
Doctors would have to determine he was “unsuitable for service” before he could be discharged, Yurkoski said.
Many people who have personality disorders never lose contact with reality and are able to care for themselves, psychologists said.
At various points in his military career, Mellberg was diagnosed as having general anxiety disorder; obsessive, compulsive and passiveaggressive traits; and paranoia.
He was sent to Wilford Hall, the Air Force’s largest medical center near San Antonio last fall, but eventually was deemed fit to return to duty.
In March, he was reassigned from Fairchild to Cannon Air Force Base, in Clovis, N.M.
He told his mother, Lois Mellberg of Lansing, Mich., he wasn’t happy there and requested a transfer to a base in Washington state or Idaho. He also was reported riding his bicycle across a new base golf course.
After less than two months at Clovis, his squadron commander recommended Mellberg be discharged for a personality disorder.
Lois Mellberg has raised questions about whether her son received all the rights Jones said are available to people being discharged from the military against their will.
“For the longest time, they wouldn’t let him” see an attorney, she said shortly after the shootings. The attorney he finally received told him to “just take it,” she contends.
Mellberg did, however, have a chance to rebut the discharge recommendation.
In a five-page, singlespaced letter addressed to “Department of the Air Force, Separation Authority,” he talked about his desire to be in the Air Force since he was 13 and his belief he could excel beyond the standards for his job. “All that I needed … was the love and affection to which I have seen very little in the beginning of my career.”
On May 23, Mellberg was given an honorable discharge for a personality disorder.
Involuntary discharges for mental disorders always are honorable, said Jones. They are given “for the convenience of the government” - not for some finding that the individual has done something wrong.
Lois Mellberg said her son was escorted off base after his discharge and taken to a nearby motel.
Inwald, whose firm counsels police departments on how to deal with the stress of an all-consuming job, said Mellberg may have been in an especially poor condition to deal with the loss of his identity.
She always tells new recruits to keep strong ties to their families and friends, develop support systems and stay rooted in their communities.
Mellberg had few friends. He was in Clovis, where he had lived for less than two months. His parents were in far-away Michigan.
At 20, he may have been suffering his first major career setback, Inwald added.
As in cases of teenage suicides, young people don’t always realize that they can survive their first major crisis.
“If he was 30 or 40, had been through several jobs, been divorced and remarried, he might have reacted differently,” she said.
Like all airmen who receive such a discharge, Mellberg was given a temporary ID card that allowed him to stay on military bases, shop at commissaries and receive treatment at military hospitals.
In early June, he went to Alaska, telling his mother he wanted to “start over … get on with his life.”
But once there, he may have made one last attempt to reconnect with his Air Force family.
In Anchorage, he stayed for more than a week in transient billeting - a type of hotel for visiting military personnel - at Elmendorf Air Force Base.
As someone with a recent honorable discharge, he could stay in the low-cost facility if a room was available.
“He was still attached to the military. That was his home,” psychologist Inwald speculated.
On June 13, he left Anchorage and came to Spokane. He spent a week at a North Side motel, bought a MAK90 semi-automatic rifle and a 70-round magazine. On June 20, four weeks to the day from his discharge, he took a cab to the Fairchild hospital complex, went into the office of psychiatrist Thomas Brigham, who had recommended his discharge, and began firing.
It’s doubtful, suggests Quinnett, that Mellberg expected to leave a heavily armed military installation alive.