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Monday
Mar122012

Could US Soldier's Afghan Killing Spree Have Been Prevented?

ABC News(NEW YORK) -- Whether it was a psychotic break or an underlying mental illness that led a United States Army soldier to allegedly massacre 16 Afghan civilians -- including women and children -- is still unclear.

But as military investigators reportedly interrogate the 38-year-old staff sergeant they believe is behind the Sunday morning killing spree, psychological experts said such actions are generally preceded by strong signals that something is wrong -- signals that, in this case, may have been missed or gone unreported.

The soldier, whose name has not been released, is believed to have returned to the base on his own volition after the killings and turned himself in.  According to military statements, investigators have the soldier in custody and are trying to learn more about what happened, and what may have precipitated the incident.

All of the mental health experts contacted by ABC News said that until more information is made available they could only speculate as to exactly what happened.  But most said that warning signs generally presage violent actions like this one.

"This could have been signaled by erratic and changed behavior in the soldier including strange or unusual behavior, insomnia, weight loss, talking nonsensically or incoherently, making threatening statements and using drugs," said Dr. Jeffrey Lieberman, chairman of psychiatry at the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and director of the New York State Psychiatric Institute, in an email.  "Rarely do such incidents of extreme behavior occur without some preceding signs."

"The individuals responsible for mass murders similar to this in the United States... have often given off strong signals of serious mental illness to friends, parents, associates, etc. prior to the incident," said Dr. Paul Newhouse, director of the Center for Cognitive Medicine at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville, Tenn., and a former lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army Medical Corps, in an email.  "If this individual was seriously mentally ill, then it is possible that he may have showed signs of this type of disturbance to fellow soldiers and NCOs or medical personnel."

Dr. Simon Rego, director of psychology training at Montefiore Medical Center in New York, said in an email that warning signs "are not always obvious," but he noted that some of the more well-known ones -- such as "difficulty regulating emotions, discipline problems, getting into fights, withdrawal from others, damaging/destroying property [and] increasing risk-taking behavior" -- may be observed before an act of extreme violence.

Whether any of these warning signs were present before the alleged mass killing is not yet known.  But Dr. Bengt Arnetz, professor of occupational and environmental medicine at Wayne State University in Detroit, Mich., said that even if these signals were present, the current system used by the military is woefully inadequate at detecting them.

"All the systems have never been evaluated," said Arnetz, whose research focuses on the effects of stress on the psychological well being of police, first responders and soldiers.  "I think that they're very, very bad at monitoring people close to the breaking point.  We don't have good surveillance tools."

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ABC News Radio