Of the thousands of "noncombat" American deaths in Iraq - and I have covered many of them for almost six years, here and elsewhere -- one of the most haunting involved Army Capt. Roselle M. Hoffmaster. Now the Army's investigation into her death on Sept. 20, 2007, has finally been released.
Hoffmaster was young (age 32), a 2000 graduate of Smith College, a surgeon commissioned into the Medical Corps in 2004. She went to Iraq because, while happily married, she had no children so far and thought she should take the place of someone who did have kids. She appeared to be widely liked, admired, treasured. I've written about her twice in this space.
Last month, her husband notified me privately that he had just received the results of the probe and that, indeed, her death had been ruled a suicide. Now a local paper in Massachusetts, The Republican, has received the report and posted a summary. It reveals that she took her own life by shooting herself in the head while alone in her room.
Just hours before she killed herself, Hoffmaster, a surgeon commissioned into the Army Medical Corps in 2004, had been berated by a senior officer, the report shows. She later told another officer who counseled her that night that she "couldn't do it anymore" and wanted to quit the military, the report states.
The report includes a statement from one officer who believes the Army did Hoffmaster a disservice by failing to properly prepare her for duty in Iraq.
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.
Hoffmaster was found dead on her cot by one of her roommates, whose M9 Beretta pistol was still in her hand. Several witnesses said that she had broken down in tears that day after being yelled at 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 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.
The story reflects my own experience. Whenever I wrote about her (including in my book on Iraq and the media) old friends of her would email to say what a truly great person she was and how they just can't believe she would kill herself.
Now The Republican relates that family members say 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 says 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, said: "It was as if we were best friends rather than a married couple. All of our buddies wanted to have a marriage like ours."
Greg Mitchell's book on Iraq and the media, which carries several chapters on soldier suicides, is "So Wrong for So Long." His latest book published this week is "Why Obama Won."