The Pentagon is expanding its investigation into the military career of a disturbed former airman who went on a murderous rampage last summer at the Fairchild hospital complex.
Defense Secretary William Perry is ordering two of his chief deputies to look further into the case of Dean Mellberg.
The young airman managed to stay in the Air Force for nearly two years, even though his skills were marginal and mental health experts said he should be discharged for a series of psychiatric problems.
When he was finally released at age 20 - without treatment or supervision - Mellberg returned to Fairchild Air Force Base and murdered two mental health experts who previously recommended his discharge.
He then killed two others and wounded 22 people before being shot dead by an Air Force policeman.
Problems uncovered in the review of the Mellberg case could lead to changes throughout the military, Perry said in a recent letter to Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.
“I trust you will find that the department will appropriately address the concerns raised about this tragic event,” Perry wrote.
Murray said Wednesday she was concerned that Perry set no timetable to complete the investigations. But she considers the expanded review another sign that the military is being more accountable to the public.
She likened it to a recent announcement that several top officers would be disciplined for an incident in Iraq in which U.S. fighter jets mistakenly shot down two U.S. helicopters.
“All government agencies, including the military, are being held to higher standards of accountability,” she said.
Murray and 12 other members of Congress wrote Perry in May, demanding a further investigation into how Mellberg enlisted and stayed in the military despite his mental problems. They also questioned whether military psychiatrists should perform a potentially dangerous dual role - treating patients while deciding whether that patient is fit to stay in uniform.
Perry then ordered the Defense Department’s inspector general to review the case.
The inspector general concluded there are problems with the way recruits are processed, the way new trainees with possible mental health problems are assigned duties, and the way airmen diagnosed with mental disorders are discharged, Perry said.
In Mellberg’s case, the Air Force has admitted problems on all three counts.
Mellberg reported on his recruiting papers that he had been in family counseling - a fact that may have disqualified him from service. Regardless, recruiters did not ask for details.
After basic training, a psychologist recommended that Mellberg not be given a job that involved using firearms or working with nuclear weapons. Those recommendations were not always contained in his files, although his duties did not include either activity.
Mental health experts on three separate occasions recommended that Mellberg be discharged for psychiatric problems. Maj. Thomas Brigham, the Fairchild psychiatrist, and Capt. Alan London, the base psychologist, diagnosed him as dangerous and requested he be put in treatment after his discharge.
Both doctors were killed in Mellberg’s shooting spree.
Other doctors variously diagnosed him as paranoid, psychotic, anxiety ridden or autistic after the two Fairchild mental health experts sent him to the Air Force’s main hospital, Wilford Hall Medical Center.
But non-medical commanders overrode the treatment recommendations and Mellberg was sent to Cannon Air Force Base in New Mexico. There he lasted about a month before a minor infraction prompted a new psychiatric review.
He was then discharged quickly with no treatment plan. A month later, he traveled to Spokane where he purchased a semiautomatic assault rifle and a 75-round magazine. He used that weapon on his shooting spree.
Murray and the other members of Congress called for the investigation after appeals from Susan Brigham, the psychiatrist’s widow, and other members of his family.
The Brighams have pushed for changes throughout the military that would protect mental health workers and make it harder for commanders to override the recommendations of psychiatrists and psychologists.
“Her determination to make sure this never happens to anybody else has been an inspiration to us all,” Murray said.
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