Susan Brigham fought to remain calm while the three-star general used statistics to explain her husband’s death at the hands of a crazed gunman.
Air Force Inspector General Marcus Anderson rattled off numbers from briefing cards: A large number of people enlist each year. A very small number are diagnosed with some type of mental problem. A much smaller number have personality disorders.
Yes, mistakes were made, Anderson confided. Mistakes that allowed Dean Mellberg - a 20-year-old airman flagged by Brigham’s psychiatrist husband as dangerous - to bounce around the Air Force mental health system, be discharged with no treatment or supervision, and return to his old air base to exact his revenge with an assault rifle.
But Maj. Thomas Brigham and a slain colleague had only written once in their reports that Mellberg was considered dangerous, Anderson noted.
“How many times do you ever see that in anybody’s records?” Brigham asked.
Dangerous is a vague term, Anderson replied before returning to his favorite analogy. The June 1994 shooting spree at Fairchild Air Force Base that left five dead and 22 wounded was like a plane crash, he said. A series of mistakes leading up to a tragic result.
Susan Brigham had heard enough. A former ROTC cadet, whose father was an Army colonel and whose mother held teas for other officers’ wives at West Point, she was grateful the Air Force’s top inspector was willing to hear her out, but she no longer cared about the stars on Anderson’s shoulders.
“Well general,” she said, skewering his analogy in her soft Southern accent, “when you put Dean Mellberg out on the street without any treatment, it was like putting a plane in the air without any fuel.
“When my son turns 12 and asks why his Daddy died, what should I tell him?”
I hope you’ll tell him his father died for his country, Anderson replied.
“No general, he didn’t. He died because of his country.”
A worrisome patient
Susan Brigham has fought for nearly a year to make sense out of a senseless tragedy.
Last week, 13 members of Congress asked for a full-scale investigation into the events that led to the June 20 shootings. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said she decided to fight for the investigation after Brigham told her one of the most compelling stories she ever heard.
That story starts in the middle of 1993, when Thomas Brigham came in contact with Mellberg, a patient who worried him more than any he had seen in six years of civilian medical training and two years of military psychiatric practice.
The 31-year-old major, described by his staff as a brilliant doctor and a strong patient advocate, was responsible for the sanity of a base with nuclear weapons. He had a dangerous paranoid on his hands.
The young airman obsessed over a relatively minor grievance against a roommate and showed signs of violence. His reactions were unpredictable, his thinking disjointed. He often spoke in a monotone, then raised his voice to a shout for no apparent reason.
Mellberg originally was sent to Capt. Alan London, the base psychologist, by his supervisors. His roommate, Erik Rayner, complained that Mellberg was openly masturbating in their room. Mellberg denied it and accused Rayner of trying to sabotage his career because he wouldn’t loan Rayner money for a car.
Constant requests for reviews by his commanders and the inspector general got Mellberg sent first to the chaplain and later to London.
After several sessions, London asked Brigham for a second opinion. Mellberg’s visits had the entire mental health office on edge.
He always carried a briefcase, office secretary Cathy Shay recalled. Staff members worried he had a gun inside. Eventually they asked him to leave the locked case outside the office, which he reluctantly did.
Sometimes Brigham would ask Shay, who was pregnant, to take a long lunch so she would be gone when Mellberg was in the office.
Brigham was worried about her safety, she said.
At home, Brigham took other precautions. Without mentioning names, he told his wife a patient was a potential threat to their safety.
“I never saw Tom react to a patient like this,” Susan Brigham recalled.
Psychotic patients are rare for a military psychiatrist, she noted. The system is designed to weed out people with serious mental problems before they finish basic training and are sent to bases with some of the nation’s most advanced weapons.
In September 1993, Mellberg snapped during a meeting with Rayner, Brigham, London and his first sergeant that was designed to “clear the air” over the masturbation allegation. He accused Rayner of committing a crime against humanity by lying, talked of lawsuits and retribution.
Suspecting him of dangerous paranoia that made him unfit for military service, the two doctors had Mellberg sent to Wilford Hall, the Air Force’s main medical center in San Antonio, Texas.
“Tom hated to hospitalize patients. He felt you could do most treatment on outpatient,” Susan Brigham said. He and London eventually agreed they had no choice because Fairchild wasn’t equipped to handle a paranoid psychotic.
The night Mellberg was flown to Texas, the Brighams sat together on the living room couch in their Spokane County home.
“This is the type of patient that could come back and kill us, two weeks, two years or 20 years from now,” he told her.
Alarmed, Susan Brigham asked something she had never asked about a patient: What does he look like?
“Tom looked out at the darkness beyond the window and said, ‘He looks like a short, fat, red-headed Hitler.”’ she recalled. “‘If anybody comes to the house who looks like that, just get the gun.”’
That weekend, Brigham showed his wife how to load the rifle and shotgun that had been passed down through his family. He put the shotgun in a closet, the Winchester under the bed.
The precautions bothered Susan Brigham, particularly with an 8-year-old daughter and a 5-year-old son in the house, but her husband was adamant. She discouraged him from buying a pistol, but agreed to buy a can of Mace for her night stand.
Months later, when Mellberg returned to Fairchild looking for revenge, the guns were still loaded.
“When I first heard (about the shooting) that afternoon on the television, I knew Tom was dead, and I knew who did it.”
A new diagnosis
Mellberg arrived at Wilford Hall with Brigham and London’s assessment that he was dangerous and should be discharged with a treatment plan. For three months, the staff at Wilford Hall worked toward that goal. Then two things derailed plans that even Mellberg was coming to accept.
A new doctor, Capt. John Campbell, gave Mellberg a new diagnosis: autism without mental retardation, an extremely unusual but less dangerous assessment than others given the airman. The diagnosis absolved the Air Force of responsibility for his civilian care should he be discharged, and allowed a special panel to order him returned to duty.
Mellberg and his mother, Lois, wrote the congressman for their hometown of Lansing, Mich., to complain about his treatment. Rep. Dave Camp, R-Mich., contacted Pentagon officials, who eventually assured him that Mellberg was staying in the Air Force.
He was sent to Cannon Air Force Base in Clovis, N.M., and lasted about a month before a minor infraction brought him to the attention of psychiatric staff there. Aware of his penchant for filing requests for congressional help and inspector general investigations, Cannon commanders quickly processed his discharge. He had a personality disorder that made him unfit for service, they said, discharging him without disability payments or government-paid civilian care.
He received an ID card good for temporary access to all military facilities and was driven to a nearby motel. After several late-night encounters with security guards on Cannon, he was told to stay off that base.
No one at Cannon called the mental health office at Fairchild to warn them Mellberg was out of the military.
So right, yet so dead
In the months since Mellberg’s rampage, Susan Brigham has tried to understand what went wrong and how the system can be changed.
The 37-year-old microbiologist and immunologist moved her children to the Midwest after the tragedy. She tries applying analytical methods as she pieces together the events that led up to the tragedy.
“I’m trying to find out how Tom and Alan (London) were so right about Mellberg, and are now so dead.”
The Air Force has refused repeatedly to release the Special Management Review of Mellberg’s military service. With Murray’s help, Brigham may soon get a sanitized version of that 29-page report that the congressional group has called inadequate.
She talks to members of Congress and Air Force officials about changes that would make the military’s mental health system better. Among her suggestions: Don’t put psychiatrists in the conflicting role of treating a patient and reporting on his job performance to superiors.
She’s asking the leaders of the American Psychiatric Association for their help in changing that system.
She enlisted her late husband’s family in a campaign of contacting members of Congress to reopen the case.
There are days when grief overwhelms her and she cries when remembering the blood-spattered personal effects the Air Force gave her after the murders. She shakes with anger when recalling the Air Force psychiatrist who said her feelings that she could have done something to derail the massacre were as grandiose and delusional as Mellberg.
She is barred by federal case law from suing the Air Force over her husband’s death. The military cannot be held liable for anything that happens to members on active duty.
But it can be held accountable, she said. That’s what her husband, who fought to make Fairchild’s mental health system better, would want.
“Tom hated litigation. What he wanted was change,” she said.
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter