bellino

A photo captures Steven Bellino wearing a beard, a hint that he might have been in a war zone in this undated picture. His half-brother, Scott Workman, said he was in Afghanistan. The Air Force accuses him of killing his squadron commander, but Workman and his family don’t believe it. “My brother was not an angry person,” he said. “My brother was so emotionally controlled that he could have been called a Vulcan.” Photo courtesy of Scott Workman.

This story was originally featured in the San Antonio News Express and is shared here with permission. The original version can be found here.

By Sig Christensen

At her desk and preoccupied, 1st Sgt. Tiwanda Griffin-Greer didn’t see Tech. Sgt. Steven Bellino enter her office until she heard a metallic clinking and looked up. He had taken a seat in front of her, a Glock handgun tucked into the waistband of his Air Force “blue suit” uniform.

Bellino told her to call her boss. Several minutes passed before Lt. Col. William Schroeder opened the door, stared down at Bellino and spotted the gun, an Air Force investigator later would tell Bellino’s family.

“You really ruined a lot of airmen’s lives,” Bellino told Schroeder, according to a description of the encounter provided by the investigator, Special Agent Elizabeth Rocha. Bellino’s family recorded Rocha’s statement and made it available to the San Antonio Express-News.

“Let’s talk about your AWOL status,” replied Schroeder, commander of the 342nd Training Squadron. A moment later, he lunged at Bellino.

The shots fired April 8 inside Forbes Hall, a training headquarters on Lackland’s Medina Annex, put the base on a brief lockdown.

The two men, veterans of the U.S. Special Operations Command, died in a murder-suicide.

They were in the Air Force’s elite Battlefield Airmen program at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, where Bellino had trained in a tough pararescue program the summer before — and by washing out, had seen his military career unravel.

An Air Education and Training Command investigation of the shooting continues. But a collection of audio recordings, military records, an Air Force psychiatric evaluation, a timeline Bellino made of key events in his life — all made available to the Express-News by family members, much of it provided to them by the Air Force — show he harbored a deep anger.

The trove included a two-page unsigned note typed eight months before the shooting. The Air Force described it as a suicide note. The family members dispute that, saying an expert they hired called it “highly unlikely” Bellino wrote it.

At 41, Bellino had struggled to regain his footing amid professional setbacks following repeated deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan. Post traumatic stress disorder symptoms grew more and more severe in the final year of his life, the documents indicate.

Friends say Bellino was idealistic, a man of exacting fairness, even when distributing candy to kids in the Balkans. He lived up to the letter of the law and expected it of others. He would call out anyone who fell short — he once accused a sergeant major of lying in front of a roomful of soldiers.

But the high standards and high achievement through his years as an Army Ranger, Green Beret, CIA and NSA contractor and FBI agent masked a growing personal crisis. A series of perceived slights and violations of his sense of honor had accumulated long before he came to Lackland — and he told almost no one about it.

“I do not like this world, and I do not want to be a part of it any longer,” Bellino wrote in the disputed note in August 2015, the month he quit the pararescue program, went home to Ohio and was charged with being absent without leave. “I’ve searched for many years to find a home consistent with my ethics and such a place does not exist.”

The Air Force confirmed it found that note in a flash drive during a search of a San Antonio storage shed and that investigators believe Bellino wrote it.

Bellino’s family members refuse to believe he killed himself and are trying to clear his name. Still grieving in Parma Heights, a suburb of Cleveland, they say he had everything to live for after a sterling military career.

“Steve devoted his life to the military,” his father, Michael Bellino Sr., told one of his son’s friends from the pararescue program in a phone call the older man recorded. “And then, I mean, he was in battle. He had all these missions he did; the awards, everything he’d done … and then it’s going to come down to this, where (he’s) going to kill himself?”

Hardened, then brittle

Bellino considered himself a patriot.

He had joined the Army with his parents’ permission at 17, spent years in special operations, became an explosives expert, spoke Arabic. He lived in Ecuador to perfect his Spanish. His GPA was 3.5 at Ohio State University, majoring in criminal psychology.

And Bellino had excelled in a long list of military schools and deployments. He earned the coveted Ranger tab, became a Green Beret, spent years in the Ohio National Guard and did contract work for the CIA and National Security Agency in Iraq. Out of the military, Bellino graduated from the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia, hoping to serve in the agency’s Hostage Rescue Team.

He impressed many along the way. A Special Forces company commander, Maj. Richard G. Rhyne, wrote of him in 2001, “Staff Sgt. Bellino continually displays a heroic attitude. He is above the standards in every thing that he does.”

Behind the standout résumé was a darker side. Bellino soldiered through multiple overseas deployments over two decades but told his family members very little about his service.

They didn’t know Bellino had been a Green Beret until his funeral.

He had close calls. A suicide bomber in Iraq detonated an explosive belt on the other side of a wall from him. Much later, Bellino mentioned it on a long list of memories that triggered PTSD symptoms — the worst of which was how he unintentionally killed a young Afghan girl with an M203 grenade launcher during a firefight.

He was fond of children, a doting uncle, though he never married and had few serious relationships, said Bellino’s half-brother, Scott Workman.

As colleagues and commanders fell short of his ethical code, an older, brittle Bellino smoldered. In conversations with his lawyers in his final eight months, it was clear that his experience at Lackland made it a full burn.

Yet Bellino wrote that he had arrived “feeling excited about the future” when he pulled up at the Medina Annex in an old Saturn bought in better times.

Hammered by war

Bellino’s entire adult life had been about conquering the next mountain, but recent years of frustration might have given him pause.

After his final tour in Afghanistan, he had gone to the FBI in 2011 but ended up in a New York assignment he thought was for burned-out agents. He clashed with a supervisor and quit in 2013.

“Every day I was there felt like a lie and as if I couldn’t breathe,” he wrote in the disputed note. “Agents were there to achieve their dream title, not actually make the world a better place.”

There’s no record of Bellino seeking psychiatric help while in special operations, though it could have been done informally. An Air Force psychiatric evaluation stemming from his AWOL charge found he suffered from no “severe mental disease or defect,” and had “no historical or current mental health symptoms.”

The forensic psychiatrist who examined him, Dr. (Maj.) Belinda Kelly, also wrote: “Tech. Sgt. Bellino does possess certain personality traits, specifically stoicism, limited interpersonal relationships, a high threshold for respecting leadership and a somewhat rigid personal code of what he considers professional behavior.”

He “denied experiencing any persistent negative emotional effects” from “combat-type situations” as a CIA contractor in Iraq and Special Forces soldier in Afghanistan, she wrote.

Bellino gave a different narrative to Dan Conway, his last lawyer, weeks before his death.

In a 13-page report and timeline that included a “summary of historical events relevant to potential PTSD,” he described being incapable of concentrating or controlling his anger, having trouble falling asleep most nights or being around large crowds. There were recurring nightmares. He kept to himself more than in the past.

Those symptoms would worsen almost as soon as he began Lackland’s two-week Developmental Course, where he was the highest-ranking NCO and class leader.

The Air Force was not his first choice. After the FBI, Bellino had lived with his parents in Ohio, tried to rejoin the active-duty Special Forces and felt betrayed when he was rejected. He had been “misled for months” into thinking he could return, he wrote in his timeline to Conway, adding, “Words do not capture the energy I expended to make this application process work and the anger that followed.”

He tried to enter the Navy but was too old, and his FBI experience steered him away from any other U.S. law enforcement agency, Bellino added.

“I had reasonable expectations enlisting into the Air Force,” he wrote. “But some of the challenges encountered I could never have foreseen.”

The washout

The trouble began quickly. Trainees were told they wouldn’t get “washbacks” — a second chance to pass training. In his timeline, Bellino called that policy arbitrary and punitive.

Students who had flunked told him they believed the school’s trainers “seemed to dislike” airmen who had transferred from other military branches. They were released from the Air Force with a stigma — a re-entry code, “3A,” that made it it more difficult to land jobs in the Defense Department or private security firms.

Col. Sean McKenna, AETC’s chief spokesman, confirmed that the code is typically given for performance failure and requires a waiver to re-enlist. A policy now allows such individuals to get new jobs in the Air Force — it stemmed from a commander-directed investigation into the Battlefield Airman program that has not yet been publicly released, he said.

The Air Force told Bellino his training had a 90 percent attrition rate but never mentioned troops from other services would be “punished for failure” with the 3A code, Bellino complained in his timeline. He detested the way the school was run, with nightly accountability check-ins and daily room inspections.

But worst of all, Bellino’s ethical code was affronted. His group was ordered to start a fund, with the understanding that it was “to buy very expensive parting gifts” for the trainers. Each trainee would chip in $80 to raise a total of more than $4,700 — “clearly a racket,” Bellino wrote in the timeline.

The AETC disputes that. The Battlefield Airmen Training Group classes have voluntary funds to buy food or equipment supplements for trainees and for “the benefit of the student training team,” which doesn’t violate policy, McKenna said. He said the trainers and their methods were professional and the commander’s probe uncovered no hazing.

Bellino wrote that an instructor at an exercise class asked about his Army specialty — the Special Forces’ “18 series” — and that another trainer “shouted at me in a very proud tone, ‘Did you hear what I did to the last 18 series guy we had?’”

The Air Force said such a comment would violate no rules but could not confirm that it had been made.

The same trainer yelled that he hadn’t completed a lap in a pool days later. The airmen had to complete 25-meter underwater lengths, touching a crack on the bottom corner of the deep end, ascending and recrossing within three minutes. Bellino followed an order to swim down to touch the crack again, but he had been “unfairly singled out,” he wrote in the timeline.

The following Monday, on Aug. 3, 2015, Bellino quit the program. He refused trainers’ orders to sound a bullhorn to signal his departure, telling them it was juvenile, and the trainer who he felt had singled him out “shouted in my face for a few minutes,” Bellino wrote. “It made me feel angry beyond any words that could describe it.”

To avoid another shouting match, Bellino skipped an exit interview with the program’s commandant. He walked to his dorm, changed into civilian clothes, grabbed his backpack and headed for San Antonio International Airport, he wrote.

Hours later, he was home with his folks.

In free fall

By going AWOL, Bellino believed he was retaking control of his life, he wrote. But he was in free fall, watching movies in his room for days, according to his psychiatric exam. He was aware of PTSD symptoms and conceded, in the timeline, they were worse than ever.

Bellino later would tell the Air Force psychiatrist he knowingly left the base without permission, and that a week passed before he thought about it. His family, as usual, was in the dark. He didn’t call anyone at Lackland. The Air Force, in time, called him.

Ten days passed before Bellino flew back to San Antonio. He passed a drug test, gave Security Forces a statement admitting he had gone AWOL, and was represented by a New York lawyer who crafted a plea agreement — an Article 15, a form of nonjudicial punishment. Bellino wouldn’t agree to it and fired the lawyer in November.

Conway, the lawyer who represented him later, told Bellino’s father that it was an “arguably lenient” deal that included a general discharge, a recording of their conversation shows.

An Air Force lawyer, then-Capt. Taren Wellman, took over Bellino’s defense and tried to cut a similar deal, but he resisted. She tried to convince him the deal was better than a federal conviction.

A recording of their Dec. 1, 2015, conversation included an exchange in which Bellino expressed an expletive-laced hostility toward Schroeder, but it’s unknown if Bellino and Schroeder ever met before the shooting.

By this time, Bellino was under Air Force scrutiny for creating a website critical of the Battlefield Airmen program.

On Dec. 10, having pleaded with him through several meetings, Wellman warned Bellino that Air Force prosecutors were angry at how long it was taking to resolve his case and might add new charges. Bellino could get a year in jail and a bad-conduct discharge.

Bellino said no. He already had taken “a demotion for a job that turns out to be a big lie, that’s riddled with children who talk down to me,” he told her. “I was Ranger qualified, SF qualified, airborne qualified and had other qualifications before they were even in junior high.”

Wellman let him have it.

“You seem batshit crazy, Sgt. Bellino. Excuse my language. I don’t care at this point. I’ve got a client who’s about to voluntarily walk down a plank for the rest of his life, and I can’t talk you out of it.”

Bellino’s relationship with Wellman was tense. She had found out he was recording their conversations and had asked him at one point if he was carrying a firearm. He said no.

Wellman, now a major, cannot comment on conversations with clients, an Air Force spokeswoman said.

The showdown

Bellino got along better with Conway, a San Antonio-based lawyer, and finally agreed to take the deal. It’s unclear what changed his mind. Conway fielded an email early in April that appeared to settle it.

“I won’t bother with a long explanation,” Bellino wrote him. “Things are getting worse with my mother, and the other day I realized that I am no longer angry about this place. I would like to return to Ohio as soon as I can.”

Conway was relieved. But there were questions. The Air Force said the agreement did not settle what kind of discharge Bellino would get. Taking it meant he had stopped trying to get a guaranteed honorable discharge with the re-entry code he wanted.

There also was a personal factor that Conway knew was a big deal. It was Schroeder. Bellino “had a major problem with taking an Article 15 from the colonel that he viewed as being arrogant,” Conway told Bellino’s father. Bellino had spoken of friends who had flunked the training and wound up depressed, alcoholic or with suicidal thoughts, Conway said.

The meeting with Schroeder was a formality. Once done, Bellino would have three business days to decide if he’d accept the Article 15. A court-martial never was in the cards. The Air Force said Schroeder did not intend to force one.

Those who encountered Bellino as he headed to Forbes Hall saw nothing unusual. He arrived in Griffin-Greer’s office in dress uniform, rows of service ribbons on his chest and a technical sergeant’s chevrons — a daily reminder of his comedown from Special Forces master sergeant.

Rocha, the Air Force investigator, told the Bellino family that Griffin-Greer felt like “everything just drained out” of her when she saw the gun. Her call to Schroeder went straight to voicemail, and Bellino told her, “OK, we’ll wait and we’ll try again,” according to the recording made by his father.

Griffin-Greer reached Schroeder on the second try and tried to alert him to trouble with her tone of voice, Rocha told the family. When Schroeder entered, Bellino sat facing him and slowly nudged the Glock to point it at his commander.

The fight started after a few words. The men struggled, standing up. Schroeder yelled at the first sergeant to run after the first shot. Three more shots came before she was out of the office, racing down a hallway crying, “911 active shooter!”

Rocha told Bellino’s family that Griffin-Greer heard at least three more shots, locked herself in a room and called Security Forces.

Schroeder, 39, of Ames, Iowa, was hit three times in his right arm and once in the head, the Air Force said. Friends and admirers said the colonel’s decision to tackle Bellino saved his first sergeant’s life and was perfectly in keeping with a straight-up career that ended heroically. He left a wife and two sons.

Bellino had carried two handguns and a knife to the encounter, the Air Force said. The pathology report stated that he was shot in the head, through his mouth. The Office of the Armed Force’s Medical Examiner at Dover AFB, Delaware, ruled it a suicide.

A forensic pathologist hired by Bellino’s family, Dr. Cyril H. Wecht, offered no finding and did not characterize the cause of death. Workman, 49, of Millen, Georgia, insisted that both he and his parents are certain that his half-brother wouldn’t have killed himself.

Air Force investigators might know things they have not yet released, perhaps a recording of those final moments. The Air Force autopsy said Bellino was carrying a cellphone and an unspecified “electronic device.” AETC would not say if a recording was made but secretly taping meetings something Bellino routinely did at Lackland.

Workman said that neither he nor his parents can be sure that Bellino killed Schroeder or was even armed when he entered Forbes Hall. It’s also possible Bellino “went into a pre-programmed mode” when Schroeder lunged at him, said Workman, who believes his half-brother is a victim and a hero who cared about trainees whose careers were ruined by not being able to re-enlist after attempting a program that only one out of 10 complete.

“I don’t care what the Air Force says. They’re looking to cover their ass. And that’s all this is about,” Workman said. “He wasn’t just fighting for himself, he was fighting for the others.”

Sig Christensen can be reached at sigc@express-news.net