Rocked by tragedies like the Dean Mellberg shootings at Fairchild Air Force Base, the U.S. military has new rules for handling service members with dangerous mental problems.
A new directive requires military officials to develop treatment plans for “imminently dangerous” service members before they are discharged from service.
It also requires potential victims to be notified when disturbed service members are released.
The new directive, which covers all branches of the armed forces, attempts to correct several problems that contributed to the 1994 shooting spree that left five people dead and 22 wounded at Fairchild.
“I think (Pentagon officials) realized it was a system failure,” said Susan Brigham, whose husband, Maj. Thomas Brigham, was killed by Mellberg on June 20, 1994.
Mellberg, a 20-year-old electronics worker, was considered dangerous by several Air Force doctors during his military career.
Brigham, the base psychiatrist, diagnosed Mellberg as mentally ill and dangerous months before the shootings. Brigham sent the airman to an Air Force hospital in Texas where he could get treatment and eventually be discharged.
Air Force medical staff spent several months preparing Mellberg for discharge into a program that would provide him with treatment as a civilian. At the last minute, however, his diagnosis was changed from a potentially dangerous condition to a more benign problem. He was returned to duty at Cannon Air Force Base in New Mexico, without a full report of his previous problems.
After a month there, he was arrested for a minor infraction and sent to a hospital when he reacted strangely to orders from police and senior officers. He was quickly discharged and escorted off base.
Fairchild staff who had treated him were not told he was discharged.
“He was just dumped,” said Brigham, who has spent the last three years lobbying the Pentagon to change the way it handles dangerous people and to better protect the military staff who diagnose and treat them.
Less than a month after his discharge, Mellberg travelled to Spokane, where he bought a semiautomatic assault rifle and a 70-shot magazine.
On the afternoon of June 20, he took a cab to the base hospital complex, which had no security fence or guards at the time. He went into the annex where the mental health offices were located, pulled the rifle from a duffel bag and began firing.
He killed Brigham and Capt. Alan London, the base psychologist who had also treated Mellberg and recommended he be discharged. He then began wandering through the hospital complex, firing at patients and hospital staff with his MAK-90 rifle.
He was shot dead by an Air Force policeman in front of the hospital.
The federal government faces 19 lawsuits from victims of the shooting spree. Among the claims in each suit is that the Air Force failed to provide proper treatment for Mellberg and ignored evidence that he was mentally ill and dangerous when commanders first returned him to duty at Cannon AFB, and later when they discharged him.
A hearing on the government’s request to dismiss those cases is scheduled for January in U.S. District Court in Spokane.
“The Mellberg case … greatly influenced the department in developing these policies after assessing how dangerous service members were managed and treated,” a Pentagon spokesman said Friday.
Another impetus was a 1995 incident at Fort Bragg, N.C., in which a mentally unstable soldier killed one and wounded 18.
In her fight to improve rules governing dangerous people who are in the military, Susan Brigham said topranking officers told her that the term “dangerous” - which her husband and London used to describe Mellberg - was vague.
Because it was vague, Air Force commanders had more leeway to keep Mellberg in uniform when he fought his discharge.
The new directive changes that. It says anyone who could cause injury or death to himself or another person can be considered imminently dangerous. A psychiatrist or psychologist who determines a person is imminently dangerous can recommend the person be discharged.
A commander can overrule that recommendation, but only after notifying a higher level of authority.
Brigham said she is relieved that the military is taking these steps to correct problems. But the emotions are bittersweet, she said.
“There was a moment of elation, followed by days of crying,” she said. “It doesn’t bring back five dead and heal 22 wounded.”
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