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WASHINGTON -- The U.S. soldier who allegedly attacked and killed 16 Afghan civilians Sunday may have experienced a relatively rare state of mental derangement characterized by a blind killing rage, a disregard of pain and danger, and a total disconnection from his fellow troops, military mental health specialists said.
Officials in Afghanistan and at the Pentagon released scant details about the alleged shooter's background. He had served three tours in Iraq, they said, and arrived in southern Afghanistan in January to help support a small special forces team in Kandahar.
It's not clear what might have ignited his rage, said Dr. Jonathan Shay, a clinical psychiatrist who for decades has treated combat veterans with mental trauma. But he said what is known of the incident fits a pattern in which someone literally goes berserk.
Shay currently advises the Army and Marine Corps on leadership, trauma and mental health issues, and is the author of several books including "Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character."
Berserkers, he told The Huffington Post, "have this curious quality of icy and flaming rage; all they want to do is destroy, they want nothing to get in the way of their unmediated destruction and killing, and they are truly insensitive to pain. They are totally beyond the society of their own military forces and disconnected from them."
"It's a painful and destructive thing and usually fatal for the soldier. And it's fairly rare -- in 20 years I had only two patients who unmistakably had episodes of berserkness,'' Shay said. The term "berserk" is an Old Norse word describing the frenzied trance in which some warriors fought.
The link between combat stress and outbursts of violence was well documented even before troops began routinely serving three, four or more combat deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past decade. But PTSD and violence among veterans has become more prevalent. A study conducted at the Puget Sound Veterans Affairs hospital in Washington, for instance, demonstrated high levels of anger and hostility among returning combat veterans screening positive for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
The soldier in the Afghanistan shooting had been diagnosed with traumatic brain injury in 2010 after a vehicle rollover in Iraq, CNN reported Monday night, citing an unnamed U.S. official. A temporary finding of traumatic brain injury is required by the U.S. military after troops suffer any possible concussion from a blast or other cause and does not necessarily indicate significant brain injury, mental health specialists said. CNN reported that the soldier was later cleared for return to duty.
According to a recent U.S. Army study, about 472,000 troops who served in Iraq or Afghanistan may have some form of PTSD.