Was a Colonel's Death in Iraq Something More Sinister Than Suicide?
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Since last March, when I wrote a story about the apparent suicide of Col. Ted Westhusing in Iraq, I had believed there was nothing else to write about his tragic death.
But in December, I talked to a source in the Department of Defense who met Westhusing in Iraq about three months before his death. The source, who asked not to be identified for fear of reprisals, was investigating claims of wrongdoing against military contractors working in Iraq. After a short introduction, I asked him what he thought had happened to Westhusing. "I think he was killed. I honestly do. I think he was murdered," the source told me. "Maybe DOD didn't have enough evidence to call it murder, so they called it suicide." I contacted the source through Larry C. Johnson, a former employee of the CIA who specializes in terrorism and security issues, and who writes the "No Quarter USA" blog. Johnson and other bloggers have written extensively about Westhusing's death.
Two other factors led me to look into the story again: First, some members of Westhusing's family -- in particular his mother, Terry Clark -- refuse to believe that the career Army officer, who was found dead from a gunshot wound to the head at Camp Dublin on June 5, 2005, took his own life.
Second, the curiosities about Westhusing's death are getting attention on Capitol Hill. The House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, chaired by California Democrat Rep. Henry Waxman, has interviewed members of Westhusing's family and some of the investigators who met with Westhusing in Iraq in 2005. A spokesperson for the committee confirmed that it is "looking into the matter."
There are many reasons why Westhusing's story has attracted so much attention. At the time of his death (he was 44), he was the highest-ranking American soldier to die in Iraq. His rÃ©sumÃ© was stellar. Born in Dallas, he went to grade school in La Porte and later attended high school in Jenks, Oklahoma, where he was a National Merit Scholar. From there he went to West Point. As an underclassman, he was his company's honor representative on the cadet committee. In 1983, during his senior year, he was selected as the honor captain for the whole school, a position that made him the highest-ranking ethics official in the cadet corps. He graduated third in his class. He went to Ranger and Airborne schools and did stints in Italy, South Korea, and Honduras. He learned to speak Russian and Italian. He earned a doctorate in philosophy and was one of the Army's foremost experts on military ethics. Before volunteering to go to Iraq, he was a professor at West Point.
Aside from his pedigree, Westhusing was also close to the seat of power. When he was in Iraq, Westhusing worked for one of the most famous generals in the U.S. military, David Petraeus, who at the time was head of the Multi-National Security Transition Command-Iraq. Petraeus has since gained another star on his uniform (he now has four) and has become the commander of all U.S. forces in Iraq.
Westhusing's job in Iraq was to oversee the training of Iraqi security forces. As part of that effort, he was also charged with overseeing the work of military contractors. The ongoing stench of corruption from various military contractors has led to numerous investigations and indictments. It has also fueled suspicions that Westhusing met with foul play. Adding yet more curiosity to the story is that when Westhusing died, he had only about a month left before his tour of duty in Iraq was scheduled to end.
All of those factors have stoked interest in the story. Last June, I posted a number of documents on my Web site that I had obtained from the Defense Department under the Freedom of Information Act. Within 24 hours, those documents had been downloaded about 8,000 times. In August, Newsweek ran a story about the tens of thousands of U.S.-purchased firearms that have disappeared in Iraq. The story includes several paragraphs about Westhusing's role as a lead trainer of Iraq's counterterrorism forces and notes that the arms transfers to Iraqi forces began while Westhusing was working under Petraeus.
Before going further, let's be clear that the available evidence generally supports the military's finding that Westhusing's death was a suicide. As I wrote in my earlier story on Westhusing, ("I Am Sullied -- No More," March 9, 2007) he was increasingly withdrawn and exhibited signs of depression in the weeks before his death. His e-mails back to his family in the U.S. reflected his increasing worries and frustration with his situation. In one May 14, 2005, e-mail that was recently provided to me by his mother, Westhusing wrote, "Dear moms -- My boss is an idiot." It isn't clear if Westhusing is referring to Petraeus or another commander he worked under, Maj. Gen. Joseph Fil. The e-mail continues, saying that he will "keep working it ... impossible as it may be." Two days later, he wrote again, saying, "Very small dingy dear moms in a rough, endless sea." On May 29, another e-mail to his mother: "I am getting into fights with everyone. No support, trying to take my contractor away, investigations, etc. I will stick to my guns ... Love you. May call tonight if able. No worries. Don't stick around because no guarantees."
While most of the evidence points to the simplest conclusion -- suicide -- there are several oddities about his death that deserve further consideration.
Foremost, why would Westhusing shoot himself behind the ear? Most suicides by gunshot occur when the victims place the muzzle of a firearm in their mouth, under their chin, at their forehead, or to their temple. Westhusing's death, according to military reports, was caused by a gunshot behind his left ear. Dr. Lawson Bernstein, an expert in forensic and clinical psychiatry who is based in Pittsburgh and has worked on numerous suicide investigations, told me that he had never seen a case of suicide by gunshot with the wound behind the ear. "If I was part of any coroner's team, I'd be looking at this as something else," he said. "It sounds like an execution." He went on to say that it's "an unusual mechanism" for suicide and that in his mind there are two possibilities: It's not a suicide, or "it's someone trying to make it not look like a suicide."
There are questions about Westhusing's use of a bodyguard. Westhusing's family contends that a bodyguard employed by a military contractor protected him. They say that a few days before his death, his bodyguard was allowed to take personal vacation. If that is the case, then it bolsters their view that Westhusing met with foul play. The problem is that it's not clear that Westhusing had a bodyguard. Army Lt. Col. Robert Bateman worked with Westhusing in Iraq. Bateman said he attended a meeting on June 4, 2005, that was attended by only two other people: Westhusing and Petraeus. Bateman, now working at the Pentagon, told me he never saw any evidence that Westhusing had a bodyguard. He added that it wouldn't make sense for Westhusing to have a bodyguard. None of the other colonels that Bateman worked with had bodyguards, and he said that only one of the generals that he was in contact with in Iraq (Petraeus) had a bodyguard.
Bateman said he believes Westhusing committed suicide.
Perhaps the most confounding element of the Westhusing story is the letter that Westhusing wrote to Maj. Gen. Fil on May 28, 2005, officially absolving a key contractor of alleged wrongdoing. One of Westhusing's primary duties was overseeing contractors from Virginia-based U.S. Investigations Services, a private security company with contracts worth $79 million to help train Iraqi police units that were conducting special operations. (The owners of USIS include the Carlyle Group, the private equity firm whose investors formerly included former President George H.W. Bush and former Secretary of State James A. Baker III.) A few days before he penned the May 28 letter, Westhusing had received an anonymous letter claiming USIS was cheating the military, that several hundred weapons assigned to the counterterrorism training program had disappeared, and that a number of radios, each costing $4,000, had vanished. The anonymous letter concluded that USIS was "not providing what you are paying for" and that the entire training operation was "a total failure."
Westhusing repeatedly told his family he was distraught over his problems with military contractors. The same day he wrote the letter absolving USIS, he wrote an e-mail to his brother, Thad, which said, "We are painting a picture with evil ripping the canvas with every stroke, with five and seven and 10 levels of bureaucracy gone through before applying the brush, with every stroke of the brush liable to be ripped from your grasp by a VBIED [vehicle-borne improvised explosive device]. ... Every day brings insurmountable problems."
The note found next to his body, which his mother refuses to accept as a suicide note, includes this line: "I didn't volunteer to support corrupt, money grubbing contractors ... "
Yet on May 28, one week before his death, Westhusing wrote a letter that officially exonerated USIS. "My review of the allegations and response is that USIS is complying with its contractual obligations," he wrote. "The evidence suggests that the other allegations are not true as well." Westhusing's letter came the day after USIS wrote its own response to the Joint Contracting Command-Iraq in Baghdad. The company denied all the allegations in the anonymous letter, calling them "baseless and patently false." The company's May 27 letter concluded that "USIS has been faithfully supporting the U.S. and Iraqi governments on the front lines in the global war on terrorism since reconstruction and stabilization efforts began in Iraq ... all allegations addressed herein are nothing more than unsubstantiated rumors."
Perhaps that was true. But Westhusing's mother said the problems he was having with the contractors "really gnawed" at him. "He knew there was something wrong ... If he killed himself, the letter is part of the reason." She adds, "He was convinced in his heart that things were corrupt."
Over the past few months, it has become clear that the lost weapons associated with the counterterrorism program are just a fraction of the overall losses. Last August, the Government Accountability Office reported that the Pentagon cannot account for 110,000 AK-47 assault rifles, 80,000 pistols, 135,000 items of body armor, and 115,000 helmets intended for Iraqi security forces.
So why did Westhusing write the letter absolving USIS? Was he coerced by his commanders? It is not likely those questions can be answered. In hindsight, it appears that Westhusing's USIS letter was a key element in his worsening mental state. If he was coerced to write the letter, that might have driven him to take his own life. After all, Westhusing had spent his entire career believing in the West Point credo that says a cadet "will not lie, cheat, or steal, or tolerate those who do."
The final question about Westhusing's death is also the most personal. Why would he take his life on June 5, his mother's birthday? Westhusing and his mother were very close. Westhusing's father, Keith, said that of all of her seven children, Clark was probably closest to Ted. Clark confirms that assessment.
On December 31, while I was back in my hometown, I stopped by to see Clark at her home in south Tulsa. We had talked several times over the previous weeks by phone. She met me at the door. Slowed by a battle with liver cancer, her hair thinning from chemotherapy, she continued resolute in her belief that her son wouldn't take his own life. She mentioned that Westhusing e-mailed her on the morning of his death to wish her a happy birthday.
As we sat in her living room, which was decorated for Christmas, a fire quietly burned in the fireplace. Clark freely admitted that her days are numbered. The cancer treatments have been fairly effective, she told me. But she was well aware of how deadly liver cancer is. We discussed the fact that she's a devout Catholic, as was Col. Westhusing. And while Clark had come to terms with the fact that he is dead, and that she will likely die soon, she couldn't reconcile the idea that he took his own life, that he lost the faith. She recalled her son's amazing work ethic, beginning with his tireless effort to make sure that he was a starting varsity player for the Jenks High School basketball team. "Ted never quit," she said. "I've never known him to quit anything, ever, no matter what the obstacles were."
For Clark, the fact that Westhusing died on June 5 has convinced her that he did not quit. "He would not kill himself on my birthday," she declared.
The likely truth is that there will never be a good explanation of Westhusing's death. Perhaps the best analysis comes from a recently retired Army officer who was among Westhusing's closest friends. The officer, a classmate of Westhusing's at West Point, told me, "Whatever happened, Ted was a casualty of war. Whether it was by his own hand or not, we don't know. There are so many circumstances that are unexplainable. And now people are using his death as a way to express their feelings about the war."
Clark is one of those people. She used to be a staunch supporter of the war. "I was a Republican," she said. "I thought it was a great thing. I thought it was a noble thing we were doing. I've changed my mind."