The Department of Defense should conduct a full-scale investigation into events leading to the shooting of 26 people by a deranged airman at Fairchild Air Force Base last summer, more than a dozen members of Congress say.
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and a bipartisan group from the House and the Senate want an explanation of how Dean Mellberg stayed in the Air Force so long after being diagnosed as dangerous, was given access to records he used to target the doctors who had recommended his discharge, then was released without a treatment plan.
“We are concerned that the Fairchild incident may have been more than an isolated and random event and may point to problems in the military’s mental health system,” the group says in a letter delivered Wednesday to Defense Secretary William Perry.
There was no immediate response from the Pentagon.
The senators and congressmen also criticized a previous review of the tragedy by the Air Force as inadequate and too secretive.
“We are concerned by the lack of public disclosure in this case,” the group says.
Mellberg had been released from the Air Force a month before he went on his murderous rampage at the Fairchild hospital complex.
The young airman, who had threatened his roommate and was obsessed over a minor mark on his career record, was diagnosed as dangerous while at Fairchild in September 1993. Maj. Thomas Brigham, the base psychiatrist, and Capt. Alan London, the base psychologist, sent him to an Air Force medical facility in San Antonio, where he variously was diagnosed as paranoid, schizophrenic or psychotic.
After Air Force doctors spent three months preparing Mellberg to be discharged and placed in a rehabilitation program, his diagnosis was changed to autism. A military panel ordered him returned to duty. Sent to Cannon Air Force Base in New Mexico, he lasted two months before a minor infraction led to his discharge.
He was given an honorable discharge for a personality disorder and escorted off the base. He withdrew more than $6,000 he had saved and went to Texas and Alaska and then back to Spokane.
He bought a MAK-90 assault rifle, a 70-round magazine drum. On the afternoon of June 20, he concealed the rifle in a duffel bag, took a cab to the base hospital complex and walked into a restroom in the hospital annex.
After loading the rifle, he walked down the hall to the mental health offices, where he shot London and Brigham. He then walked through the annex and the nearby hospital, spraying bullets that killed two others and wounded 22 airmen, retirees and civilians. One of those wounded was a pregnant woman whose unborn baby later died.
Mellberg was shot and killed by Senior Airman Andrew Brown, an Air Force security policeman.
“We have to have better safeguards,” Murray said Wednesday. “There are very serious questions about how we deal with mental health cases in our military system.”
Among those joining Murray are Sens. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, Richard Shelby, R-Ala., Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. and James Jeffords, R-Vt., and Bill Bradley, D-N.J.
The group said the Mellberg incident raises serious concerns about the dual role of mental health professionals in the military. Psychiatrists must diagnose and treat patients while at the same time help decide whether the patient remains in the military.
“When the therapist is obliged to provide both counseling services and job evaluation, this places a ‘target’ on the psychiatrist or mental health professional,” they warn. They ask what specific actions are being taken to prevent future retributions.
Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash., sent a separate letter to Air Force Secretary Sheila Widnall, requesting a full investigation and the release of the previous inspector general’s review.
“He agrees in principle with Sen. Murray’s letter, but wanted to send it in his own words,” a spokeswoman for Gorton said.
Rep. George Nethercutt of Spokane said he did not sign the Murray letter because he considered it politically motivated and an attempt to polarize the community or find a scapegoat. He said he may have private conversations with Pentagon officials or raise questions about the incident at future budget hearings.
“I don’t have the sense that there’s a lot of people like this slipping through the net,” Nethercutt said of Mellberg.
Murray replied her concern was personal, not political.
“It was motivated by sitting across the table from a woman who told me the most compelling story I’ve heard in my life,” she said.
That woman, Susan Brigham, the widow of the slain psychiatrist, said the doctor’s family was deeply grateful to Murray, her staff and the members of Congress who signed the letter.
“The strength of our armed forces resides in the sanity of its members and leaders,” she said. “The safety of the military is not a political issue but a fundamental human issue.”
xxxx THE QUESTIONS Dean Mellberg’s rampage prompted 13 members of Congress to ask the Defense Department: How Mellberg stayed in the Air Force after psychiatrists said he should get out. Why he had access to his records, allowing him to identify who had recommended his discharge. Why Mellberg was diagnosed as autistic and returned to duty. Why he later was released with no treatment plan and no warning to the doctors who had treated him. What changes are being made “to avoid future retributions” against mental health experts.