The Heart of the Matter

Curious indeed, to reflect that by the end of this year, I will have been out of the Air Force for as long as I was in it – but the time does fly when you are having fun. But twenty years in the Big Blue Machine does leave marks, as well as an exquisite sense of how the military really operates in real time, among the lower-ranking levels, close to the ground. This isn’t a sense readily developed from reading, although I suppose someone with wide experience, a strong sense of empathy and close personal associations with veterans can develop it by proxy.

This around-about way of explaining how all this last week, my daughter and I were wondering about a murder-suicide at Lackland AFB last Friday morning – nearly a week ago. A trainee airman had fatally shot his squadron commander, and then killed himself. Of course, it all came out in dribbles over the weekend; the trainee was an E-6, aged 41 and a student in the pararescue course … and had also resigned from the FBI as a special agent. Everything about this was curious, even unlikely; the Air Force para-rescue specialty is one of the most physically-demanding jobs the Air Force has. It’s comparable to the SEALS, and Army Special Forces, in that many are called, few chosen, and even fewer still graduate.

And an instant promotion to E-5 or E-6, Blondie and I agreed, must mean this man must had been prior service; Marine or Army Ranger, in order to waltz in without going through Air Force basic. But to have dropped from the FBI to enlist … curioser and curioser, Blondie and I agreed – and until this last Tuesday, there was nothing really reported which explained any of this … until I found a story from the L.A. Times. A reporter had actually looked at the anomalies, and reported thusly:

Bellino joined the Army after graduating from high school in 1992, training first as an Army Ranger at Ft. Stewart, Ga., then as a Green Beret at Ft. Bragg, N.C., according to his attorney, Daniel Conway. In 2002, he left the Army and joined the Army National Guard, serving with a special forces unit based in Ohio, according to Conway and military records. During his time in the Army and National Guard, Bellino served multiple tours in Afghanistan, Iraq, Kosovo and Kuwait …From 2004 to 2007, Bellino also worked as a civilian contractor with a private security firm, the lawyer said. In 2011, Bellino left the military, went to work as an FBI special agent in the New York office but resigned after less than two years, according to an FBI statement. He then tried to reenlist in the Army or join the Navy, but eventually settled on the Air Force because it involved the least amount of red tape…

The story has otherwise vanished from the media – there don’t seem to be any other reports – or even any great curiosity about a truly strange set of circumstances for murder out of the clear blue. Of course, the Air Force public affairs offices at all levels likely want this to vanish down the memory hole, but then, it seems, so does the established news media. This is the only story that I could find that went into more than just terse detail of names, ranks and ages.

To recapitulate; Bellino spent ten years in the Army, then the Army National Guard for nine years, to include three years as a civilian contractor, then a mere two years as an FBI agent … and back to military service, as a trainee among people half his age. This, when he had already spent years in extremely demanding military or law enforcement specialties. A badge hunter? Addicted to the adrenaline rush? I’d also venture a speculation that an extremely checkered career might be an indication of certain personality traits; traits that made him a very bad team player and a huge problem for commanders and NCOs, all the way along. I’d also speculate that he looked good at first look and on the resume, every time … but eventually the problem traits surfaced, and it was just less trouble for all involved to let him move on. Discuss – and I would like very much to hear what other veterans, especially Subotai Bahadur have to offer.

(Cross-posted from several days ago at

32 thoughts on “The Heart of the Matter”

  1. I wonder how this fits the story of the murderer of Chris Kyle.

    Routh’s mother had asked Kyle, a former Navy SEAL whose wartime exploits were depicted in his 2012 memoir, to help her son overcome troubles that had at least twice led him to be admitted to a psychiatric hospital. Routh had been a small arms technician who served in Iraq and was deployed to earthquake-ravaged Haiti before leaving the Marines in 2010.

    PTSD from no combat I understand.

    I was interviewing an applicant for the military yesterday. a young Asian girl, and gradually got a wild story of troubles, It took me almost an hour to get the story. The techs said they were starting to worry about me. I can imagine the people who interviewed this guy and Bowie Bergdahl were in a hurry to get through.

  2. This is another strange one. Forty one seems kind of old for an E-6, but maybe because of the National Guard thing…would seem as though if he went through all that Ranger and Green Beret entailed he would have gotten back into the Army. The prior service I encountered came over because they were stuck in dead-end rates and wanted a better situation, none were in high-profile outfits. I suppose the Pararescue-Ranger thing was a lateral though…

  3. There’s a physical entry test for pararescue that includes a rigorous swimming portion. They should’ve known he couldn’t swim. It sounds like they probably let him skate through because of his prior service.

  4. That’s one of the curious elements, Gurray – the Rangers and Special Forces also have pretty rigorous swimming requirements. As Blondie said, early on – the swimming qualifications should have been a walk in the park for him … unless he had really gone out of shape.

  5. Considering he was in the Green Beret 20 years ago, it would be easy to get out of shape. I’ve heard stories about navy SEAL recruits showing up to BUD/S training without knowing how to swim. I don’t know if they let these guys in to have a good laugh or they just like to pack the field or what. Sooner or later lax entry procedures were going to backfire, and it did when they let this lunatic in.

    There was a great show a few years ago about special forces training called Surviving the Cut. Here was the pararescue:

    The swim is nuts. 25 meters fully clothed with 60 lbs of gear on your back without breaking the surface.

  6. Courageous of the commander. Sad leaving two little kids.

    It still makes me think of the Kyle thing.

  7. Very odd; very sad.

    I read an account recently of the FBI murder of a witness in the Boston bombing case. It made me wonder if the FBI deliberately recruits a few murderous loonies. I suppose they have their uses, but I must say I wouldn’t want to serve alongside one.

  8. I was in the Army 1-61 to 12-63. It was a difficult time for the military. A mixture of guys with Combat Infantry Badges and a bunch of incompetents that couldn’t make it in civilian life. More than once I witnessed the “hand off”. Commanders had little control of who got assigned to fill slots in the TOE. When you got handed a dud the easy way out was to praise him to the rafters and encourage a transfer. Make him someone else’s problem.

  9. I wonder if the strain of doing the physical training at 41 got to him? This isn’t just basic training but I would assume stuff that weeds out 20 year olds.

    Lots of them.

    Was there anything in his past Army service to indicate he was a loose cannon? (no pun intended).

    I saw a series on Netflix I think – on an Air Force para rescue unit in Afghanistan – I was surprised – those guys were hard core. I expected to see some unit like that in the Marines, Army or SEALs – but they were/are second to none.

    I can’t imagine having to go though all that stuff at age 41. They are trying to weed out the 50% or so. Old men need not apply.

    And in that kind of unit, 41 is old.

    I always had a chuckle in Army Basic training at the rifle range – in the tower of the range master sat a locked and loaded M16. In case someone went nuts I suppose.

    I never asked.

  10. “I can’t imagine having to go though all that stuff at age 41.”

    I’ve seen a couple of prior service guys applying for OCS in the Navy. The only thing open to guys over 35 is EOD. I guess there is not much demand for getting yourself blown up.

    I can’t imagine what this guy was doing there.

    I think of it from the POV of the doctor who has to certify the applicant is qualified.

    I wouldn’t like to be the guy who qualified Bergdahl.

  11. To my mind, Bergdahl was a plant, an activist looking to subvert. Much the same as Hasan. If you’re a Bergdahl, “against the war” and all that goes with it, how do you end up in a rifle platoon in a war zone? You don’t. In the big services like the Army and Navy there are thousands of jobs in non-combat areas. Not unusual at all for someone to do twenty years with out ever leaving the U.S., going to sea, etc. You can get your G.I. Bill, retirement, just by keeping your uniform squared away, and staying under the radar. I personally knew individuals who worked 9-5 jobs for their entire hitch, never stood a watch, couldn’t tell starboard from port.

    The Kyle thing still stinks, despite it being “settled science” in the parlance of the administration. I keeping thinking of that story I read (at SOCOM?) about the skipper of the Roosevelt approaching the SEAL team to “help out” with the gang problem aboard. Given who the CIC was, nothing would surprise me. I’d be willing to bet the ranks are heavily salted nowadays with SJW’s looking for opportunities wherever they may be.

  12. It is a curious instance.

    One motivation for getting back in would be to get to active duty retirement longevity. His guard time would have only counted for the periods of extended activation (pre-, deployment, post-). He could of made that without going elite. The FBI pays better than E6. All of his active duty periods would have countered toward his FBI federal civil service retirement for longevity, not benefits- so he wouldn’t have had to stay that many years. Addition of his active and guard service would have put him only a year or so from a military reserve service pension payable starting at age 60. Doubt it was financial, short or long term.

    I’m going to guess that he found the contractor and FBI environments less satisfying to a warrior mentality than his earlier service- they are. As an FBI agent he was likely working for a younger, less warrior spirit with bureaucratic ambitions and playing that game. He was limited in advancement due to age and likely formal education. He might have reached a midlife crisis period with regrets over leaving the brotherhood. Going into another branch of special ops wouldn’t likely be his first choice and I doubt the red tape was a factor. The issue could well have been the circumstances of his departure from the active army. The Army would have had much more documentation on his service than what they would have likely shared with the Air Force. Elite forces don’t volunteer information that could be interpreted as reflecting badly on them.

    When guys leave the Army combat arms (and I’m sure other military services warrior classes), they may leave voluntarily due to special personal circumstances (mainly family). It usually has little to do with better compensated opportunities as their skills are highly specialized. If they are forced out (more or less involuntarily), it is either performance as reflected in their evaluations, addictive or other behavioral issues or physical limitations (results of aging, illness or injury). Just like professional contact sports, much of the physical conditioning, rehab and lifestyle discipline required to stay in the game falls on the individual. Some guys are superman physically and technically, but as they move forward in the service, are not effective as leaders rather than followers. It can also be interpersonal issues with team or leadership members that the individual can not see a resolution possible. Special ops is a close knit community and it is not like you can transfer easily to avoid a bad chemistry situation. Knowing more about his actual unit assignments and transfers might show a pattern. What happens within the brotherhood likely stays there, rather than being written down in any detail. Those in the brotherhood know how to fill in the blanks and that would not likely cross service lines. Some combination of these factors most likely explains why he left the brotherhood mid career.

    Even in the elite special ops, the services are depleted and the Air Force might have taken a calculated risk on this guy without digging as deeply as they should have. I would guess that their special ops guys got involved late in the acceptance process or that their reps were somewhat less diligent than if they had actually had to serve with this guy. The very act of seeking entry in a sister service special ops should have raised red flags. Pressure to recruit is intense and you doing usually put your best warriors in positions of recruitment and staff work.

    The trouble with being middle aged is that you aren’t 21. The trouble with midlife crisis is that you don’t factor that reality. A guy who self-identifies as an elite warrior could snap if confronted with that reality in a graphic way, especially if there were other psychological factors preexisting.


  13. In western societies isn’t there often overlap between mental illness and jihadism, just as there is between criminality and jihadism?

    (WRT Bergdahl and Hasan.)

  14. “Was there anything in his past Army service to indicate he was a loose cannon?”

    I wonder about that myself – likely not that there would be anything actually written down. I’m making some assumptions based on my own experience in a relatively small career field, of course. The thing about relatively small career fields is that after a hitch or two, you know everyone or of everyone else in it. If he was a troop with issues, or was constantly clashing with peers and supervisors, that word would get around. He went Air Force, according to the story, because there was too much paperwork involved in rejoining the Army … what if people processing his applications went and quietly called around to his old units, saying, “Hey, you worked with him, and he wants back in – what do you think?” and the answer they got was, “Oh, HELL no!” It did work that way in my career field; I spiked a guys’s assignment to a unit, because I recalled very well what a PITA he was when we worked together previously. Was there anything ever on paper – no, all word of mouth. The det chief asked me, casually — and I about blew his ears off with an honest reply along the lines of “HELL NO!!”

    I wonder also if he expected the para-rescue course to be a relative doddle, anyway. The AF does have a bit of a reputation for not being rigorous in field training – and why not, we’re mostly technicians?

    And if the training cadre also expected him, on the basis of his written record to accomplish it easily, in spite of the age? “Hey, people – got us a grown-up trainee! Looky there, honor grad materiel for sure!” Only to be hideously disappointed when it became clear he couldn’t hack it, after all.

  15. People have been driven crazy. Hasan claimed that he had been. It can take on diabolical and very dangerous dimensions. Post-Vietnam morale was notoriously ugly. The divide between junior and senior enlisted wide. I knew of several instances, an E-6 who was our division leader was hated by all, including the E-5’s and E-4’s who worked under him. It was an open secret that he should not be caught alone on the weather decks at night underway. We had some seriously bad apples aboard.

    Another situation on the same unit was a fireman who’s EO had it in for him. He learned that the Lieutenant’s wife had a drinking problem. He developed a plan, and one night while we were home-ported he picked her up outside the Officer’s Club. A whole bunch of the black gang partied with her. Fireworks. Word spread rapidly. He sat out the next patrol TAD at the barracks, and then was transferred. I took orders off that unit later, but my understanding is that he never made LCDR, and left the service because of the incident.

  16. Albeit at a lower level, I served with older prior-service troops who left the military and then came back in for various reasons, who were exemplary soldiers, respected as stalwarts by peers, NCOs, and officers. Just on the information in the account, Bellino’s coming back to the uniform doesn’t seem exceptional besides the elite level of his service. That USAF’s SF would give him a try-out doesn’t seem exceptional, either.

    On its face, this looks like yet another unpredictable, even black-swan act to add to the list with the likes of Elliot Rodger, Jaylen Fryberg, Myron May, Aaron Alexis, Jared Lee Loughner, Charles Carl Roberts IV, George Sodini, Chris Dorner, James Holmes, Robert Bales, Adam Lanza, Seung-Hui Cho, Yoselyn Ortega, Nidal Hasan … not an exclusive list, but a famous segment of a recently growing and diverse list of murderers who, often without especial prior indicators of murderous violence, often in contradiction of their apparent profile, suddenly exploded in their homes and communities by committing homicides openly, often impersonally if not randomly, with considerable forethought, and with little or no attempt to escape.

  17. Sgt. Mom:
    “I wonder also if he expected the para-rescue course to be a relative doddle, anyway.”

    I doubt that. Maybe if he was a ‘stolen honor’ fake vet. It’s true that soldiers make fun of airmen generally, but we understood USAF security and pararescue were a different breed from typical airmen. If he was an Army Ranger and Green Beret, then SF knows and respects SF across branches, more so since they’ve served together in the field since 9/11.

  18. And forward air traffic controllers have a pretty rigorous program as well – count them as SF, too, I think.

    You may be on to something in bringing up the matter of Chris Dorner, though. Seemingly absolutely straight-arrow, good reputation, as near as I could tell, good military record … and suddenly going all mad-dog murderous, for no very good reason that I have read – and the news media put out far more about him than they have in this case.

  19. “a famous segment of a recently growing and diverse list of murderers who, often without especial prior indicators of murderous violence, often in contradiction of their apparent profile, suddenly exploded”: has anyone checked the prescription drugs they were on, the inoculations they had had?

  20. “…has anyone checked the prescription drugs they were on, the inoculations they had had?”

    Yet another thing to wonder about, Dearie – especially the prescription drugs. I know that some of recent sudden spree murderers can be or have been attributed to the onset of schizophrenia; normal male kid suddenly goes off the rails in early 20s. Not my field of expertise, though – for matters medical, I’d defer to Mike K.’s judgement.

  21. “suddenly going all mad-dog murderous, for no very good reason that I have read”

    Didn’t that Captain whose daughter he killed at the beginning have something to do with Dorner’s situation ?

    I thought I read something.

    “the onset of schizophrenia; normal male kid suddenly goes off the rails in early 20s.”

    That doesn’t happen with 41 year olds. Crazy behavior with a 41 year old is more likely to be cocaine (or maybe Meth) than schizophrenia. Unless, of course, there was a history which sounds unlikely.

    I see previous service folks all the time going into the NG or reserves. We check their RE code. I’ve had a couple I had to look upon Google.

  22. Dorner and Hasan both had skate jobs, nothing that would generate battle stress. Both most likely had persecution complex’s, Hasan probably had to take some guff over his known sympathies, but was already known as trouble. Dorner left a manifesto, which I’m not sure has ever been released. The “medicine” they were both on didn’t come in tablet form, but from the likes of Rev. Wright and al Awlaki. I have no doubt there’s a lot more to this grim tale, and there are undoubtedly many more. If the country survives this administration we just may be able to hear a few.

  23. “If the country survives this administration we just may be able to hear a few.”

    Yes, still almost 9 months to go.

  24. “schizophrenia; normal male kid suddenly goes off the rails in early 20s”: I’ve seen that twice in students under my supervision. It’s awful to see. Even more awful is to see their bewildered, heart-broken parents.

  25. Death6

    I am bothered by the targeted premeditation and limited body count in this.

    Bellino killed his CO and himself. Stop.

    No one else.

    A true “Psycotic Break” in someone of Bellino’s skill’s set sould have left -a lot- more bodies.

    There was a Ft Bragg Psycotic Break a few years ago when a trooper got an assault rifle and used it on a P.T. formation on a morning run.

    Bellino actions strikes me as something other than a Psycotic Break.

    NB: The example the comes to mind is from over a decade and half ago where a SF officer blew a claymore under the bed of his wife and her lover, but in this case the officer didn’t kill himself.

    Beyond that, I have not a clue.

  26. “I’ve seen that twice in students under my supervision”

    Our next door neighbors’ son was 17 when he became schizophrenic. I’d known him since childhood. Amazing change. Then their daughter died of melanoma.

    Neurobiology is coming up with some explanations but nothing that seems to be preventable although marijuana is a significant risk.

  27. I think it speaks to the kind of person he was, when he failed the swim qual portion of the course and he left with out permission, to go home back to Ohio. I suspect that action might have triggered questions being asked about his prior history in the service. It is very odd though that he left being a PMC to join the FBI, I would have thought that being a contractor checked all the boxes for an action/glory seeker. I suppose that he thought he might skate through the para-rescue training on his previous laurels, but was confronted with the inescapable lesson post-9/11 service has changed from pre-9/11. Bellino might not have been aware of the shift in war doctrine in the time he was out of active service, and did not meet the new standards set for special forces operators.

  28. “A true “Psycotic Break” in someone of Bellino’s skill’s set sould have left -a lot- more bodies.”

    Remember the CO told the first sergeant to run. Then he grappled with the shooter. Maybe his bravery stopped a worse incident.

  29. Mike K,

    Unless Bellino’s CO disbled him in the grapple, I still have a very hard time seeing how there were not more bodies.

  30. Well, Bellino shot him in the arm three times and then the head to kill him. It may have taken long enough for everyone else to get away. The shooter may then have just decided to kill himself.

    Still a courageous thing for the CO to do.

    A friend of mine has a big article about him in “Leatherneck” magazine this month. He is one of the most famous Marine fighter pilots ever.

    I don’t know if you might be a subscriber.

  31. My nephew is currently (ao 4/2016) at Lackland, and related to my brother that the murder/ suicide trainee was in the K9 corps unit, and was scheduled to be discharged for XXX and YYY reasons and was not too happy about it. The result of that was the shooting.
    He reported that investigation was likely going to take a long time, and that his(trainee) squad leader and CO were on to something in deciding to discharge him based on the outcome.

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