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By CHRIS VAUGHN Star-Telegram Staff Writer
May 26, 2008
BEDFORD — Not long ago, a World War II veteran approached Charles McKinney and asked whether he’d served in the Big Red One.
The 1st Infantry Division’s famous icon, affixed to the back of McKinney’s pickup, had attracted the old-timer’s attention.
“No, my son did,” McKinney said.
This happens regularly, one curious and innocently asked question inevitably leading to another. These conversations always end the same way, as it did that morning with the World War II veteran.
“My son didn’t come back from Iraq,” McKinney said.
They hugged and not many more words came out.
Rarely does McKinney share more of his family’s painful saga. It’s too complicated, too thorny, too emotionally risky, for a conversation at a garage sale or in a parking lot with a stranger.
On July 11, 2007, in a violent Baghdad neighborhood, Master Sgt. Jeffrey R. McKinney killed himself. He put his M-4 rifle to his neck and pulled the trigger.
There was no Purple Heart, and the Defense Department announced it as a “non-combat-related incident.”
But Jeffrey McKinney, 40, a company first sergeant and a 19-year Army veteran, is no less a casualty of the war in Iraq than the thousands of young men and women who have been killed by sniper fire and roadside bombs.
Some injuries just can’t be seen.
“We’re proud of Jeff,” his father said. “He’s our hero. Jeff died for his country.”
A painful glimpse
The McKinney family has company this Memorial Day.
Suicides hit a record high in the Army last year, and attempted suicides are up dramatically, most certainly because of the hardships of long and frequent tours away from home, the psychological stresses of guerrilla warfare, perhaps even the prevalence of traumatic brain injuries resulting from repeated concussions.
The Army and the Marine Corps have put in place numerous mental health programs, in Iraq and at bases stateside, to help troops deal with the fallout of combat. But Jeff McKinney and the 120 other soldier suicides last year are proof that the measures are falling far short of their intentions.
Jeff had the second-highest rank an enlisted soldier can achieve and was a respected leader in the 1st Battalion, 26th Infantry, a unit that lost 31 men in Iraq on its second tour, including a Medal of Honor recipient. He was also a husband, a father of a teenage son and a baby boy, and only a year from being eligible for retirement.
While leaving many questions unanswered, the Army’s investigation provided his family with a painful glimpse into a professional soldier who was hurting and getting little support.
“There was no reason for him to kill himself,” his mother, Kay Watson, said. “He was looking forward to coming home and finishing his service and starting a new life. He served honorably for almost 20 years, and you don’t give 20 years of your life to something unless you love it.
“But the things that were happening just kept compounding. Something was terribly wrong with him.”
He couldn’t wait to join
Back in July, an Army casualty assistance officer sat at the dining room table with Charles and presented him with a Bronze Star, a Combat Infantryman Badge, a Meritorious Service Medal, Army commendations, and his airborne and Ranger tabs — all the considerable achievements of Jeff’s Army career.
Charles pushed it back toward the Army sergeant.
“I’ll trade you all this for Jeff,” he said.
When Jeff graduated from DeSoto High School in 1985, he was already a soldier. He had gone to basic training the summer before and served in the Army Reserve until he finished school.
He always wanted a life in the military.
His father served in the Marine Corps for four years and pulled a tour in Vietnam in 1964-65 with a helicopter squadron, one of the earliest units sent to Southeast Asia.
Jeff wanted the Marine Corps too, but they wouldn’t let him enlist until he graduated from high school. He didn’t want to wait, so he went to the Army.
Over the years, he lived in Arizona, Hawaii and Louisiana, but nowhere captured his heart like Germany. He kept finding a way to get stationed there.
He taught himself German and spoke it fluently, loved to visit Bavaria and drink beer and twice married German women. In June 2005, he married his girlfriend, Christina Maurer, in a big church wedding in her hometown of Muehltal, a small village south of Frankfurt.
They had a boy in November 2006. Jeff saw Jeremy just one time. James, a teenage son from a previous marriage, lives in Berlin.
“He liked Germany because it was clean and orderly,” his father said. “He was like that. Everything in his house had a place. All the things in his pantry were lined up perfectly.”
Jeff missed the Gulf War because he was in a noncombat unit stateside, and he fretted about it mightily over the years, that he had missed the big war of his generation. His dad kept telling him that war wasn’t something he really wanted to experience.
When Jeff returned from Iraq in 2005 from his first deployment, he told his father about a gun battle in Samarra between his men and insurgents. When it was over, two children lay dead, caught in the crossfire.
He told his dad he would never forget the sound of the mothers’ wailing.
A dedicated leader
On Sunday, July 8, 2007, Jeff called Christina. He hadn’t called a lot in recent weeks.
“He was really upset,” she said. “He didn’t think he was doing a good job. I was worried. I didn’t think he was getting enough rest. I told him he needed to see a doctor. I knew how he was, so I made him promise me that he would see a doctor the next day. I guess he never did.”
Jeff took over as first sergeant of Alpha Company in early May 2007, moving to a line unit in the middle of a hostile Sunni Arab neighborhood in Baghdad.
In statements to Army investigators and in memorials, his soldiers unfailingly describe a leader who loved his men, treated them like sons, and looked out for and worried about their welfare.
The company commander told a story at his memorial service about how he walked into Jeff’s room one night and it was swelteringly hot.
“I said to him, ‘You know, that air conditioner in the window works,'” according to the commander’s remarks. Jeff said, “Sir, there are soldiers in this building with no AC. Mine stays off till theirs comes on.”
‘APACHE 7 IS DOWN!’
But junior soldiers and the commander told Army investigators later that Jeff seemed to be having problems as the weeks wore on: He was not sleeping; he was losing weight; he had “zoned out” on a couple of occasions. He was taking casualties extremely hard, and there were many casualties in the battalion.
He also began expressing reservations to his company commander and driver that he was unfit to be first sergeant, that he was failing and no one respected him, according to the statements.
His company commander, a physician assistant and a medic all gave him sleeping aids, and the commander told investigators that he made sure Jeff knew his fears of failure were “unfounded.”
In late June, Jeff responded to a catastrophic scene, where a powerful roadside bomb had blown up a Bradley fighting vehicle, killing all five soldiers on board. He and other soldiers “picked up the body parts,” according to one soldier’s statement.
Three or four days later, another powerful roadside bomb detonated right in front of Jeff’s Humvee. He had already survived three roadside bomb attacks, and the near-miss apparently deeply affected him, according to the soldiers.
On July 11, 2007, a convoy that included Jeff and the company commander left the base to go on patrol.
The company commander told Army investigators that Jeff “gave me a blank look” when he asked him to lead the casualty evacuation rehearsal before leaving. Nevertheless, the commander allowed Jeff to go on the mission, later telling investigators that “if I would have sent 1SG McKinney back to his rack, I’m afraid his soldiers would have lost confidence in his leadership.”
During the mission, Jeff failed to respond to radio calls, said almost nothing to anyone and played with an M-4 round in his hand, according to statements. The other soldiers in the Humvee covered for him on the radio and figured he was just tired.
Finally, around 2 p.m., 12 hours after he reported for duty that day, Jeff yelled “F— this!”
He stepped out of the Humvee and fired two rounds into a vacant building.
Then he pointed the gun at himself and pulled the trigger.
“APACHE 7 IS DOWN!” his driver screamed into the radio. “HE SHOT HIMSELF. I NEED HELP NOW!”
‘A million signs’
That same day, about 6 p.m., Charles walked by his front door, where a flag with a blue star hung, indicating that they had a loved one serving in a war zone.
He saw two soldiers in dress uniforms walking up the sidewalk. Charles ran to the back of the house and screamed at his wife, Rhonda.
“Don’t let them in!” he said.
Rhonda answered the door. She had no choice.
“No,” she said, shaking her head.
“Yes,” the soldiers nodded. She noticed that they had tears in their eyes.
What the soldiers told Charles and Rhonda didn’t sound right. Jeff? Self-inflicted? Why would he do that?
“It did not fit,” Rhonda said. “He wasn’t despondent or depressed in his e-mails or calls.”
For months, as the Army continued its investigation, Charles and Rhonda remained convinced that another soldier had killed him, a type of “fragging” because perhaps he was so hard on his men that they hated him.
When Jeff’s battalion returned to Germany in the autumn, Christina got an idea of what happened from talking to the soldiers. Then in March, Jeff’s family filed a Freedom of Information Act request for the report on their son. What they found in it dispelled their notion of anything but suicide.
That part they’ve accepted, at least as much as anyone ever can.
“I was mad at Jeff for a short time for leaving his wife and sons,” his father said. “But then I realized that was not the Jeff I knew.”
His mother immediately noticed the photos of Jeff’s room in Iraq.
“My son was a neatnik,” she said. “The pictures we were shown of his room, it was in disarray. Jeff was never like that.”
They also expressed surprise at the medications in Jeff’s room — antidepressants, antibiotics and prescriptions for heartburn and diarrhea. They knew nothing about that, and they were equally puzzled that none of them appeared in the toxicology report from the autopsy.
Absolutely none of it makes sense to them, although in some ways the report eased their pain.
“Seeing that he was not himself anymore, crying out for help, knowing he was not in a good mental condition makes it easier to accept,” his wife said.
Their anger has mostly settled on President Bush, for starting the war in Iraq in the first place, and the Army, for not protecting their son.
Blaming the president is not something Charles does easily. He’s a Vietnam veteran and never believed that a person could support the troops and not the war. They’re intertwined, he would say, and argued with anyone who said otherwise.
“I wanted to defend Bush,” he said. “After a while, it sunk into me that this war took my only son. I just can’t imagine more parents going through this. I want our boys home.”
As for the Army, Jeff’s mother, father and stepmother place blame on his commanders for not recognizing the danger Jeff was in.
“I don’t mind telling you that I personally hold the company commander responsible,” he said. “This man made a poor decision. We want to call attention to the military’s responsibility and to make sure that people are aware of the signs, because Jeff gave a million signs that he needed help.”
The day’s too personal
Charles and Rhonda McKinney typically go to a Memorial Day ceremony at the Dallas-Fort Worth National Cemetery. This year, they’re not up for it.
Memorial Day is too personal now.
They can’t visit Jeff’s grave either. He’s buried in a little cemetery in Muehltal, the only U.S. soldier there.
“We had talked about ‘what if,'” Christina said. “He said, ‘My heart is in Germany. That’s where I want to be buried.'”
It was a hard decision for his parents, for selfish reasons, but also an easy decision because they knew how much he loved Christina.
“On Veterans Day, I wanted to visit him,” Charles McKinney said. “I obviously couldn’t, so I called Chrissi and asked her to go see Jeff. I would like to have had him here, but his family is there, and we love Chrissi to death.”
Quite a few German villagers went to Jeff’s funeral. Most of them didn’t know him.
When Charles left Muehltal after the ceremony, the villagers promised him they would take care of Jeff.
One thought that haunts
On many mornings, Charles drives his pickup with the Big Red One sticker to the Bedford Boys Ranch, a city park. It was the last place where father and son celebrated.
It was in April 2006. The McKinneys and friends from all over the Metroplex, Oklahoma and Missouri went to the park for a party under the pavilion for Jeff and Christina. Close to 50 people attended.
Charles sits under the pavilion now and talks to his son about Grandma, Charlotte, John, Jennifer, Brad and Bethany and all the people who loved him. And sometimes Charles can’t help, sitting in that place of such joy and laughter, thinking about Jeff’s last days, and he will cry until it hurts.
Because there is one thought that haunts him.
“What kind of suffering were you going through, Jeff, that brought you to that point?”
CHRIS VAUGHN, 817-390-7547 firstname.lastname@example.org