Army report released to newspaper says Smith College graduate shot herself in Iraq
by The Republican Newsroom
Wednesday January 21, 2009, 5:53 PM
The late Capt. Roselle M. Hoffmaster is shown in an Alumnae Fund ad that appeared in the fall 1996 issue of the Smith Alumnae Quarterly.
By FRED CONTRADA
A U.S. Army investigation has concluded that Capt. Roselle M. Hoffmaster, a 2000 graduate of Smith College in Northampton, took her own life by shooting herself in the head while alone in her room in Iraq.
The voluminous report was released to The Republican this week, 16 months after the Army announced that the 32-year-old Hoffmaster, an Army surgeon, had died while on deployment in Kirkuk on Sept. 20, 2007. The investigation includes numerous interviews with military colleagues and family members, many of whom attested to Hoffmaster's positive attitude and expressed disbelief that she would commit suicide.
As the report describes it, Hoffmaster was found dead on her cot by one of her roommates, the M9 Beretta pistol that delivered the fatal shot still in her hand. The highly redacted report deleted the names of virtually everyone involved in the investigation, but several witnesses said that Hoffmaster had broken down in tears previously that day after being berated by a supervisor for failing to carry out one of her medical duties.
One officer told investigators that Hoffmaster was "swamped from the day she arrived at the unit" and "had about four of five months of catching up to do with a new Army program that she was completely unfamiliar with." Because Hoffmaster was a last minute replacement for another surgeon who left the unit, she was not able to attend a joint readiness training center in Louisiana, the officer said, or to get acclimated to her new unit. The officer told investigators he felt the Army did Hoffmaster a disservice and called the situation "a 'perfect storm' to create tension and anxiety."
Despite her distress that day, Hoffmaster was by all accounts a strong, positive, focused person who worked hard to achieve her goals and put the needs of others before her own. At Smith, she is remembered as a top student who was not easily frustrated. Because of her ethical concerns about doing laboratory experiments on live animals, Hoffmaster chose to work with frozen cells, according to her faculty adviser Mary E. Harrington, a professor of psychology.
Carla M. Coffey, Hoffmaster's track coach at Smith, called her "the total package."
"She had the smile," Coffey said. "You just don't find people like that."
After graduating from Smith, Hoffmaster got her medical degree at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. She was a native of Ohio. She enlisted in the Army to help pay for her medical school costs. According to friends quoted in the report, Hoffmaster volunteered for assignment to Iraq because she had no children and wanted to spare doctors who did.
Hoffmaster knew little about Army culture when she deployed to the Middle East around Labor Day of 2007, according to accounts in the report. She spent about a week in Kuwait before she was sent to Forward Operation Base Warrior in Kirkuk, Iraq, with the 10th Mountain Division's 1st Brigade Combat Team. She shared a room there with two other female Army captains.
As the report describes the sequence of events, Hoffmaster received a verbal reprimand from a supervisor at about 5 p.m. on Sept. 20 for not completing a pre-screening for blood donors. After Hoffmaster walked out of the meeting crying, the supervisor told another officer that Hoffmaster needed to "toughen up."
A female major pulled Hoffmaster aside and gave her a pep talk, telling her she was "in the Army now" and that "everything would be OK." Hoffmaster told the major that "she couldn't do it anymore and that she wanted to quit," according to one of Hoffmaster's roommates, who overheard the conversation.
That same roommate told investigators that she returned to her room at about 11:30 p.m. and saw Hoffmaster lying in a awkward position on her bed. When she noticed blood and signs of injury, she summoned officials. Hoffmaster was already dead when a doctor arrived shortly before midnight.
The roommate told investigators that the gun found in Hoffmaster's hand was her own. Hoffmaster's was still in a holster by her bed.
Hoffmaster's parents, whose names were also redacted, said their daughter had a learning disability that made it difficult for her to do mechanical tasks, despite her high IQ. They and other family members said she gave no hint of being anxious or depressed and that they did not believe she would take her own life.
"She was a positive person and would not have committed suicide," Hoffmaster's mother is quoted as saying in the Army's report. "I believe that Roselle fumbled with the gun after a long day, and it took her life."
Hoffmaster's husband, Gordon Pfeiffer, described their marriage in idyllic terms.
"It was as if we were best friends rather than a married couple," he wrote in the report. "All of our buddies wanted to have a marriage like ours."
According to the report, Hoffmaster had been prescribed Zoloft for depression but had apparently not taken any of the pills from her most recent prescription. A civilian doctor who had treated Hoffmaster for depression in the U.S. told investigators that she seemed happy in her marriage and her life and never indicated that she had contemplated suicide.
Hoffmaster's family held a memorial service for her in West Chester, Pa.
More details in The Republican tomorrow.