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Tragedy Makes A Terrible Taskmaster

Wed., Nov. 19, 1997, midnight

(From For the Record, November 21, 1997): The last name of Major Thomas Brigham, who was shot to death at Fairchild AFB in 1994, was misspelled in Wednesday’s editorial.

We’ve asked the question often: Why do we wait for tragedy to strike before we do the right thing?

Frequently, the answer is simple and mean: money. We don’t want to spend tax dollars to protect potential victims.

North Idaho would rather make do with schools that are overcrowded and crumbling than pass a levy or bond to improve them. Spokane would rather live with dangerously deteriorating streets than approve a street bond or gas tax to fix them.

Sometimes, the answer is not so simple.

In June 1994, a complete bureaucratic failure ignited Dean Mellberg’s shooting rampage. The Air Force had shuffled the mentally ill airman from treatment center to active duty until he landed at Fairchild Air Force Base with a semiautomatic rifle in his hands. The system meltdown left five dead and 22 wounded.

Now, more than three years later, the military finally has issued new rules for handling service members with dangerous mental problems. The Pentagon deserves credit for taking constructive steps to prevent another tragedy like the one at Fairchild. But we’re not surprised that few survivors of Mellberg’s fury are joyful.

Many of them are putting their lives back together still.

Susan Bingham greeted the military’s announcement this week with mixed emotions. She 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.

Her husband, Major Thomas Bingham, the base psychiatrist, diagnosed Mellberg as mentally ill and dangerous months before the shootings. He and Capt. Alan London, the base psychologist, were the first to die.

“There was a moment of elation, followed by days of crying,” Bingham said. “It doesn’t bring back five dead and heal 22 wounded.”

Instead of dumping its problems on civilians, as the Air Force did with Mellberg, all branches now will require treatment plans before they discharge “imminently dangerous service members.” Also, they will require potential victims to be notified when disturbed service members are released.

Major Bingham might be alive today if these rules had been in place 42 months ago.

We shouldn’t wait to act until disaster strikes. We can honor the victims of Mellberg’s madness by searching out and fixing things that endanger society.

, DataTimes The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = D.F. Oliveria/For the editorial board

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