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Soldier accused of robbery finds friend in bank president

Monday, June 14, 2004

FORT CAMPBELL, Ky. -- Seven hours from his Army post and thousands of miles from the Iraq war he left behind, Master Sgt. Kenneth Schweitzer confessed to walking into an Iowa bank, firing shots into the ceiling and walking out with a bag of cash.

He drove straight to a police station and turned himself in, saying he didn't need the money, he just wanted to live in an 8-by-8 -oot cell, authorities said.

The case has baffled police and acquaintances of Schweit-zer, a 38-year-old father and decorated soldier who fought in Afghanistan and Iraq with the 101st Airborne Division. He told police his war experience was not related to the robbery, but some say there must be a connection.

Schweitzer apparently knew no one in Keokuk, a town of 11,000, before he walked into the Keokuk Savings Bank and demanded money. He found compassion from an unlikely source -- the president of the bank.

To Ed Johnstone, a Navy veteran and the bank's president, one thing is clear: Schweitzer needed help. Johnstone asked the local prosecutor to transfer the case to military courts, where he believes Schweitzer could get the best counseling.

"Having served in the military as a young man, I understand the pressures people are under," Johnstone said. "I have great empathy for his feelings and what he was trying to deal with."

Prosecutor Michael Short agreed to transfer the case to Army courts because he agreed that they were best equipped to handle it.

"It was an extremely unusual case," Short said.

Schweitzer, who has been in the Army 18 years, is now in a confinement center at Fort Knox where the Army says he is receiving help. Charges against him could come later. Lt. Col. Trey Cate, a public affairs officer for the 101st, said Schweitzer's attorney would not comment.

The 101st Airborne Division is a rapid-deployment unit trained to go anywhere in the world in 36 hours. It is based at Fort Campbell on the Tennessee border, 480 miles from Keokuk.

Schweitzer deployed with the division when it fought in Afghanistan after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and he earned a Bronze Star.

He also went to Iraq. The 20,000 soldiers of the 101st returned home earlier this spring after a yearlong deployment. Fifty-eight of its soldiers were killed in the war.

Florida attorney Shawn Risen, who represented Schweitzer during a 1999 bankruptcy filing, was shocked when he heard the news of Schweitzer's April arrest.

Schweitzer came across as an honorable, "admirable" man, Risen said.

"I perceived him to be one of the quintessential military types that we're most proud of, like the consummate soldier to me," he said.

Schweitzer's wife, Karen, declined to be interviewed, as did his commanders in the Inspector General's Office at Fort Campbell where he worked.

Authorities said Schweitzer left Fort Campbell the day of the robbery, and his wife was trying to find him. Keokuk police aren't sure why he ended up in their town.

Johnstone, the bank president, said his employees described the bank robber as businesslike and not at all nervous.

Schweitzer allegedly told police he chose a one-story bank because he knew firing shots into to the ceiling could hurt people on the second floor.

Police don't know why he did it, but Schweitzer told them it was not in response to his war experiences.

"We haven't figured out yet. He definitely didn't want to hurt anybody," said police Capt. Kevin Church. "It wasn't for money. He said he was going to keep the reasons to himself."

Rachel Yehuda, a psychiatry professor who directs the post-traumatic stress disorder program at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in New York City, said the desire to withdraw from society can be a reaction to traumatic events in war.

War veterans often become emotionally isolated, Yehuda said, adding that some returning Vietnam vets chose to live in seclusion in the woods because they felt out of control and did not want to hurt anybody.

"I think this kind of behavior suggests that something terrible did happen," Yehuda said. "Given the news ... no one should be surprised that there are terrible things happening in war that are not always talked about."

If a soldier like Schweitzer receives counseling from the Army, Yehuda said it should be commended. It is only in recent years that the military has acknowledged soldiers need help readjusting as they return from war, she said.

The Army now offers screening and counseling to all soldiers returning from a combat zone.

Yehuda also praised Johnstone's actions. Sometimes, it takes a veteran to understand what another one is going through, she said.

"It's a very touching story where everybody did the right thing ... trying to understand this behavior as a call for help," Yehuda said.

Whatever the reasons, Schweitzer ended up in Johnstone's bank, and he hopes Schweitzer is getting the help he needs.

"I guess I felt initially and continue to feel the responsibility lies with the United States Army," Johnstone said.


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