Mentally Unfit, Forced to Fight
Military data show that deaths in Iraq due to all non-combat causes, such as accidents, rose by 32 percent from 2004 to 2005. Of the more than 500 non-combat deaths among all service branches since the start of the war, gunshot wounds were the second-leading cause of death, behind vehicle crashes but ahead of heart attacks and other medical ailments.
While many families of service members who died of non-combat causes say they are not familiar with military deployment policies, some question whether the military knowingly put their loved ones at risk.
Among them are relatives of Army Spec. Michael S. Deem, a 35-year-old father of two, who was deployed to Iraq in January 2005 despite a history of depression that family members say was known to the military. Shortly before Deem deployed, a military psychiatrist gave him a long-term supply of Prozac to help him handle the stress, his wife said.
Just 3 1/2 weeks after he arrived in Iraq, Deem died in his sleep of what the Army later determined was an enlarged heart "complicated by elevated levels of fluoxetine'' -- the generic name for Prozac.
Family members of some troops whose deaths have been labeled suicides complain that the military has given them limited information about the circumstances of the deaths. Some have had to wait more than a year for autopsies and investigative reports, which they say still leave questions unanswered.
Barbara Butler, mother of Army National Guard 1st Lt. Debra A. Banaszak, 35, of Bloomington, Ill., said she has trouble understanding why her daughter would have taken her own life in Kuwait last October, as the military has determined. She said that while Banaszak, the single mother of a teenage son, was proud to serve her country and had not complained, the stresses of the deployment may have exacerbated her depression.
"She was used to being in charge and being a leader, but never in these circumstances,'' said Butler. "If the Army is right that she did this, it was nothing she would have done ordinarily. It was that war that brought it about.''
Some autopsy and investigative reports obtained by The Courant make clear that service members who committed suicide were experiencing serious psychological problems during deployment.
In the months before Army Pfc. Samuel Lee, of Anaheim, Calif., killed himself in March 2005, an investigative report says, the 19-year-old had talked to fellow soldiers about a dream in which he tried to kill his sergeant before taking his own life, and of kidnapping, raping and killing Iraqi children. Three times, a soldier recounted in a sworn statement, Lee had pointed his gun at himself and depressed the trigger, stopping just before a round fired.
But two of Lee's superiors gave statements saying they did not realize Lee was having trouble until the day he balanced the butt of his rifle on a cot, put his mouth over the muzzle and fired.
But a number of other reports on 2004 and 2005 suicides indicate that military superiors were aware that soldiers were self-destructing.
Among them was Army Staff Sgt. Cory W. Brooks, 32, of Philip, S.D., who shot himself in the head on April 24, 2004. In sworn statements, a major and first lieutenant acknowledged they had conducted "counseling'' with Brooks, and a first sergeant "detailed his knowledge of SSG Brooks' suicidal ideations.''
Brooks' father, Darral, said he believes his son's death stemmed from a combination of personal and combat-related stress, and he does not blame the military for retaining him in Iraq.
"Cory was a dedicated soldier. He wanted to be there,'' he said. "If his captain told him to walk off a cliff, he'd do it.''
But in other cases in which superiors retained a soldier who was experiencing mental health problems, families are not so forgiving.
Ann Scheuerman, mother of the soldier who shot himself after his suicide note was discounted by Army officials, said her family has had a frustrating time getting the military to acknowledge mistakes in the way her son was treated.
"We wanted to make sure that whatever protocol they have in place is used, and if it doesn't work, fix it,'' Scheuerman said. "And to date, we're just not getting anything at all.
"Nothing can bring back my son,'' she said. "But if something can be done to prevent any more deaths, then if I offend a couple of people, I'll go ahead and apologize up front. Go ahead and come after me, but something needs to be done.''
Family members of Jeffrey Henthorn, the Choctaw, Okla., native, are concerned that the Army ignored blatant warnings that Henthorn was suicidal.