Last December, a remarkable article appeared in Army Times, titled: "Not us. We're not going: Soldiers in 2nd Platoon, Charlie 1-26 stage a 'mutiny' that pulls the unit apart."
It was written by Kelly Kennedy, who had been embedded with a platoon in Iraq, and was just one part of her far-reaching series on that unit. Kennedy has continued to write about the plight of soldiers and veterans as a top Military Times reporter.
Kennedy back then described several incidents that caused many soldiers in the unit to take a stand -- and "stand down" in Iraq due largely to the unbearable stress they had been under, particularly after witnessing many colleagues brutally killed. Among other things, they were afraid they would take their anger and frustration out on innocent Iraqis.
One of the triggers, Kennedy explained, was a quite shocking and, as far as we knew, a first in this war: Last July, a much respected first sergeant had taken out his weapon while on a mission and, after shouting, "F--- this!", killed himself right in front of his men. His name was Jeffrey McKinney. This was just one of dozens of recent "soldier suicides" that I have chronicled but certainly the most public.
A preliminary investigation had found that McKinney, after all the recent deaths, felt he had let his men down, although there was scant evidence for this. He had been having trouble sleeping, and even communicating, and was on medication. Beyond that, there was great mystery, including: Why was he not in treatment somewhere?
I contacted McKinney's father, who had not yet seen Kennedy's article. When he did read it, he replied, quite politely, that he would not be commenting at that time.
Now, in recent days, he has started to speak out, first in an interview for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and now, quite fittingly, in a far more in-depth way for Kelly Kennedy.
Her update appeared at Army Times last week. Here is an excerpt. The entire article can be found here.
McKinney had been on the scene after a 500-pound bomb left five of his soldiers and an Iraqi interpreter dead; he was in a vehicle when another bomb blew up just two feet away, almost killing him and his men; he had consoled a soldier who lost a leg to a roadside bomb.
And he had stopped eating, stopped sleeping and become convinced he was not doing enough to keep his soldiers safe.
But even after a soldier found him sitting in a wooden supply shack, staring emptily into space, even after his face grew gaunt from weight loss, even after he was unable to form the thoughts necessary to give a morning briefing, McKinney kept going out on patrol.
And that is the part that everyone -- soldiers, commanders and family -- must now struggle with, each and every day....
As of May 3, 139 soldiers, 25 Marines and seven sailors have killed themselves in the Iraq and Afghanistan war zones, according to Pentagon data.
Thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, more suffer from depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury and other problems. But getting combat vets to seek help is difficult.
Studies by the Army, the Defense Department, Rand Corp. and others cite the same reasons why troops with mental health issues don't seek help: fear of being seen as "weak," inadequate access to care, concern that asking for help can hurt a career, and guilt about letting battle buddies go out on patrol without them.
Among the troubling factors is that, like McKinney, many of those who choose suicide aren't young first-tour junior troops. Forty-seven percent of soldiers who have killed themselves in theater are older than 30. And half were in paygrades E-5 or above. Experts are concerned that it's harder to spot signs of potential suicide in such war-hardened veterans.
McKinney's family believes that if his chain of command had paid closer attention to the symptoms, his death might have been avoided. And they hope that by talking about it now, months after his death, they might help prevent other suicides.
"It will not be in vain if it helps just one soldier to get the help they need," said McKinney's mother, Kay Watson. "And I want everyone to know what a good man he was."
Greg Mitchell's new book includes several chapters on soldier/vet suicides. It is So Wrong for So Long: How the Press, the Pundits -- and the President -- Failed on Iraq. He is editor of Editor & Publisher.