The scourge of suicides among American troops in Iraq is a serious, and seriously underreported, problem, as this column has observed numerous times in the past three years. One of the few high-profile cases involved a much-admired Army colonel named Ted Westhusing.
A portrait of Westhusing written by T. Christian Miller for the Los Angeles Times in November 2005 (which I covered at the time) revealed that Westhusing, before putting a bullet through his head, had been deeply disturbed by abuses carried out by American contractors in Iraq, including allegations that they had witnessed or even participated in the murder of Iraqis.
His widow, asked by a friend what killed this West Point scholar, had replied simply: “Iraq.”
Now, a new article reveals — based on documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act — that Westhusing’s apparent suicide note included claims that his two commanders tolerated a mission based on “corruption, human right abuses and liars.” One of those commanders: the new leader of the “surge” campaign in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus.
Westhusing, 44, had been found dead in a trailer at a military base near the Baghdad airport in June 2005, a single gunshot wound to the head. At the time, he was the highest-ranking officer to die in Iraq. The Army concluded that he committed suicide with his service pistol. Westhusing was an unusual case: “one of the Army’s leading scholars of military ethics, a full professor at West Point who volunteered to serve in Iraq to be able to better teach his students. He had a doctorate in philosophy; his dissertation was an extended meditation on the meaning of honor,” Miller explained in his L.A. Times piece.
”So it was only natural that Westhusing acted when he learned of possible corruption by U.S. contractors in Iraq. A few weeks before he died, Westhusing received an anonymous complaint that a private security company he oversaw had cheated the U.S. government and committed human rights violations. Westhusing confronted the contractor and reported the concerns to superiors, who launched an investigation.
”In e-mails to his family, Westhusing seemed especially upset by one conclusion he had reached: that traditional military values such as duty, honor and country had been replaced by profit motives in Iraq, where the U.S. had come to rely heavily on contractors for jobs once done by the military.”
His death followed quickly. “He was sick of money-grubbing contractors,” one official recounted. Westhusing said that “he had not come over to Iraq for this.” After a three-month inquiry, investigators declared Westhusing’s death a suicide.
Now, nearly 18 months after Miller’s article, The Texas Observer this month has published a cover story by contributor Robert Bryce titled “I Am Sullied No More.” Bryce covers much of the same ground paved by Miller but adds details on the Petraeus angle.
“When he was in Iraq, Westhusing worked for one of the most famous generals in the U.S. military, David Petraeus,” Bryce observes. “As the head of counterterrorism and special operations under Petraeus, Westhusing oversaw the single most important task facing the U.S. military in Iraq then and now: training the Iraqi security forces.”
Bryce refers to a “two-inch stack of documents, obtained over the past 15 months under the Freedom of Information Act, that provides many details of Westhusing’s suicide. The pile includes interviews with Westhusing’s co-workers, diagrams of his sleeping quarters, interviews with his family members, and partially redacted reports from the Army’s Criminal Investigation Command and Inspector General.
“The documents echo the story told by Westhusing’s friends. ‘Something he saw [in Iraq] drove him to this,’ one Army officer who was close to Westhusing said in an interview. ‘The sum of what he saw going on drove him’ to take his own life. ‘It’s because he believed in duty, honor, country that he’s dead.'”
In Iraq, Westhusing worked under two generals: Maj. Gen. Joseph Fil, and Petraeus, then a lieutenant general. In a March 2005 e-mail, Petraeus told Westhusing that he had “already exceeded the very lofty expectations that all had for you.”
But Bryce continues: “By late May, Westhusing was becoming despondent over what he was seeing. Steeped in—and totally believing in—the West Point credo that a cadet will ‘not lie, cheat, or steal, nor tolerate those who do,’ Westhusing found himself surrounded by contractors who had no interest in his ideals. He asked family members to pray for him. In a phone call with his wife, Michelle, who was back at West Point, Westhusing told her he planned to tell Petraeus that he was going to quit. She pleaded with him to just finish his tour and return home.”
When his body was found on June, a note was found nearby addressed to Petraeus and Fil. According to Bryce it read:
“Thanks for telling me it was a good day until I briefed you. [Redacted name]—You are only interested in your career and provide no support to your staff—no msn [mission] support and you don’t care. I cannot support a msn that leads to corruption, human right abuses and liars. I am sullied—no more. I didn’t volunteer to support corrupt, money grubbing contractors, nor work for commanders only interested in themselves. I came to serve honorably and feel dishonored. I trust no Iraqi. I cannot live this way. All my love to my family, my wife and my precious children. I love you and trust you only. Death before being dishonored any more.
“Trust is essential—I don’t know who trust anymore. Why serve when you cannot accomplish the mission, when you no longer believe in the cause, when your every effort and breath to succeed meets with lies, lack of support, and selfishness? No more. Reevaluate yourselves, cdrs [commanders]. You are not what you think you are and I know it.”
Twelve days after Westhusing’s body was found, Army investigators talked with his widow, Michelle, who told them: “The one thing I really wish is you guys to go to everyone listed in that letter and speak with them. I think Ted gave his life to let everyone know what was going on. They need to get to the bottom of it, and hope all these bad things get cleaned up.”
“In September 2005, the Army’s inspector general concluded an investigation into allegations raised in the anonymous letter to Westhusing shortly before his death. It found no basis for any of the issues raised. Although the report is redacted in places, it is clear that the investigation was aimed at determining whether Fil or Petraeus had ignored the corruption and human rights abuses allegedly occurring within the training program for Iraqi security personnel. The report, approved by the Army’s vice chief of staff, four-star Gen. Richard Cody, concluded that ‘commands and commanders operated in an Iraqi cultural and ethical environment often at odds with Western practices.’ It said none of the unit members ‘accepted institutional corruption or human rights abuses. Unit members, and specifically [redacted name] and [redacted name] took appropriate action where corruption or abuse was reported.’
“The context, placement and relative size of the redacted names strongly suggest that they refer to Petraeus and Fil.
“Last November, Fil returned to Iraq. He is now the commanding general of the Multinational Division in Baghdad and of the 1st Cavalry Division. On February 12, Petraeus took command of all U.S. forces in Iraq. He now wears four stars.”
A Journey that ended in anguish
Col. Ted Westhusing “Suicided” in Iraq