There is not enough guilt to go around here, so intent is each woman in Jeffrey Henthorn's life on owning a piece of the blame.
His sister, Shannon Austill, had found him in the living room, laughing at a CD he had brought back from his first combat tour -- images of Iraqi adults and children who had been shot, dismembered, burned beyond recognition.
"Jeffrey,'' she remembers chastising him, "that's immoral. That's disgraceful. Why do you have these pictures?''
He had shrugged her off. "I don't know -- because I can't believe it,'' she recalls him saying. "Anyway, c'mon, they're all dead.''
Trisha Fish, his ex-wife, had seen the anguish in his eyes when he jolted awake from a nap, grabbed her by the shoulders and appealed for absolution -- for killing a young Iraqi boy, about the same age as their son. He told family members he was tormented by memories of shoving a boy off a moving tank and watching his limp body slip under the track wheels.
"Jeffrey wasn't the same -- he was really messed up,'' says Trisha, 27, who remained close to Jeffrey after their breakup. "I knew he wasn't right, but I didn't know what I could do.''
But no one wears the guilt like Henthorn's mother, Kay, a speck of a woman who has literally seemed to shrink under the burden, her family says. More than a year after his death, she still winces as she replays the last time she saw him -- Christmas 2004, at Fort Riley in Kansas the day before he shipped out for his second Iraq tour.
When she hugged him goodbye, her brave soldier son -- the boy who had grown up respecting the uniform, in the sprawling shadow of Tinker Air Force Base -- had crumpled in her arms.
"I don't want to go back,'' he sobbed. "I don't want to go.''
She told him she loved him and that everything would be OK.
And then she did what she was supposed to do:
She left him there.
"I will never forget the look on his face when he looked at me. It eats all over me,'' says Kay, 57, who works at the deli counter of the local Wal-Mart. "Why didn't I turn the car around, bring him home, and say the hell with them, the hell with the Army?'' Her breath catches in her throat. "I didn't know.''
No one knew that Jeffrey, 25, would be flown back to Tinker less than two months into his second deployment -- in a box. Shortly after noon on Feb. 8, 2005, he shot himself through the mouth with an M-16 rifle at an Army camp in Balad, Iraq, according to the military.
While the women left behind wrestle with the clues they missed, Henthorn's father, Warren, an Air Force veteran, seethes over what the Army missed: his son's freefall into depression, including suicide warnings that were known to his Army superiors. The elder Henthorn, divorced from Kay, is an unassuming man who runs a heating and air-conditioning repair business in the back-pocket town of Choctaw, where Jeffrey spent most of his childhood.
"This whole thing hasn't felt right from the get-go,'' Warren says. "If a man is having serious emotional problems, and the chain of command knows about it, you get him out of there and get him help.''
Henthorn's case is perhaps the most egregious example of a military mental health system that is focused on retaining troops in combat, even when they exhibit clear signs of psychological distress. Since the war in Iraq began, the military has stressed the importance of treating troubled soldiers on the front lines and improving "return-to-duty'' rates -- principles that some believe are being taken too far, putting troops' safety at risk.
Henthorn is one of 11 service members identified by The Courant who killed themselves in 2004 and 2005 after being kept in Iraq despite obvious mental problems. His family agreed to speak out in the hope that "we can maybe save a couple of families from what's happened to us,'' in Warren Henthorn's words.
Warren has come by his anger at the Army the hard way. First, there was a 14-month wait for an investigative report on Jeffrey's death, despite his repeated appeals to U.S. congressmen and top Army brass for answers.
Then, when the report finally arrived last month, it contained no mention of the possibility of combat-related stress, and made only passing reference to his son's suicide threats -- the first, shortly before his second deployment to Iraq, when he crashed his car and then slashed his arm with a knife, and the second, three weeks before he died, when he locked himself in a latrine with his rifle in Kuwait and had to be forcibly removed before he could harm himself.
Although the report makes clear that Henthorn's superiors in the 24th Transportation Company knew of both incidents, there is no indication that any of them was held accountable, or even questioned extensively about their actions.
For Warren, whose own father, uncles and brother all served in the military, the past year has unfolded like a religious conversion, stripping him of his faith.
"You've gotta understand -- we have oil, we have gas, we have cattle and wheat, and then we have military here,'' Warren says. "The largest employer in the state is Tinker, and then you've got Fort Sill, the artillery school for the entire Army,'' about 90 miles away.
"The whole state's pretty well dominated by the military. I mean, I respect them. But I'm not going to kowtow to them.''
An Instant Love
Jeffrey Henthorn's life could have ended eight years earlier, in the woods of Harrah, Okla., if Trisha Fish's father had squeezed the trigger.
"I could take him out right now,'' Trisha recounts her father boasting to his friends as he pointed a gun at the scrawny 18-year-old from the neighboring town who had gotten his daughter pregnant.
Jeffrey and Trisha had met while attending rival high schools -- a giddy flirtation of late-night phone calls and after-school detours that quickly turned serious, over their parents' objections.
"It wasn't two months into dating -- he was only 16 -- he said, `I love you. I really do love you,''' recalls Trisha, who grew up on a farm in Harrah. "Then we just became inseparable.''
In the next year, the two would drop out of school -- Jeffrey at the end of his junior year, Trisha as a senior -- and move in together to a rundown apartment in Midwest City. Both would earn their GEDs, and Jeffrey would juggle jobs at Pizza Hut and his father's business to cover the bills.
Shortly before Trisha became pregnant with their son, Chance, in 1997, Jeffrey came home one day and abruptly told her he was joining the National Guard.
"He said to me, `My Mom's picking me up. They're making me go in the Guard,''' she recalls. "I said, `Are you going to have to go away from me?' He said, `Yeah. But let me do this for them.'''
Kay Henthorn acknowledges that she and Warren had pushed their only son to join the Reserve after he dropped out of school. About that, she expresses no regret.
"He needed structure. I wasn't about to watch him lay around and waste his life,'' Kay says. "He took to it fine. It was a once-a-month thing. He was always responsible about doing his duty.''
Jeffrey's family says he seemed proud of his role in the Guard, and the experience helped him mature. The teenager whose moods rose and fell on the rock band Linkin Park, Austin Powers movies, Mustang cars and Sooner football was responding to tornado emergencies and hauling hay to cattle farmers affected by drought.
"I think Jeffrey always looked at people in the military as having a higher status,'' says his sister, Shannon, 31. "You have to understand my brother -- he wanted to be noticed, whether it was failing or succeeding at something. I think this made him feel important.''
Still, Jeffrey, who divorced Trisha in 2000, spent his early 20s in what family members describe as a delayed, freewheeling adolescence. He fathered a son, Brenden, with a woman he did not marry, then married a woman who was pregnant with another man's child. He worked steady jobs installing heating and cooling units, and sought refuge from his tangled romances at Kay's house in Del City.
In early 2003, when he decided to enlist full time in the Army, Jeffrey's oldest sister, Jayme Ivie, was relieved -- even as the march to war was underway.
"My Mom had kind of babied him and always come to his rescue, and we were thinking it would be good for him to cut the apron strings,'' recalls Jayme, 36. "He needed to be out on his own.''
Jeffrey joined the Army on March 3, 2003, walking away with a $6,000 signing bonus and an assignment to Fort Riley, about five hours away.
When Operation Shock and Awe started 16 days later, Kay wasn't worried.
Everyone said it would be over in a couple of weeks.
Hazy, Empty Eyes
When Jeffrey came home from Baghdad in the spring of 2004, the first things they noticed were his eyes.
"They were glossy, kind of hazy,'' Jayme says.
"They were empty, like all the emotion was gone,'' Trisha says.
"He just had this blank stare, like he wasn't there,'' Shannon says.
Jeffrey, a truck and tank driver, had seemed to adapt well during his 11-month tour, asking his mother to send him candy to give out to Iraqi children, and writing candid letters to his son Chance.
"It is very hot here,'' he wrote in one such letter. "Sometimes there are bombs that go off. People shoot at us, but don't worry, we shoot back. ... Nothing is gonna happen to daddy.
"I am here for good reasons,'' he had explained to the 6-year-old. "But I wish I was home.''
The eyes were just the first clue to a change in Jeffrey that the people closest to him still have trouble understanding. The CD of dead bodies, the confessions, the fear of going back -- there were hints strewn everywhere Jeffrey went, but what to make of them? According to the Army, he was just fine.
And yet they knew he wasn't.
During a visit home in the summer, family members say, Jeffrey seemed sullen, withdrawn. Because his marriage to his second wife had fallen apart during his deployment, Jayme says, they assumed he was depressed about "having nobody to come home to.''
But the divorce alone did not account for his peculiar behavior, family members say.
It didn't explain why he had yanked Shannon out of bed one night as she slept and urged her to "Get down! Get down!''
"He scared me to death. I couldn't tell if he was really awake,'' Shannon recalls. "I was like, `Jeffrey Stewart, what on earth are you doing? You're home now.' He just said, `I don't feel like I'm home.'''
Trisha still cannot explain why Jeffrey got so irritated, during a cookout at her house, when friends of hers thanked him for his service in Iraq.
"He said something like, `I get tired of hearing "thank you.'' You don't even know. It's not what everybody thinks. It's like a military of robots. We're all dispensable,''' she recalls. "He was going off about it.''
In November, when Jeffrey was back at his apartment near Fort Riley, he called Kay late one night to say he had wrecked his car. His sisters say he was distressed over an incident with a new girlfriend, Alainna Neal, that had made him jealous. He had started dating Alainna, a fellow soldier at Fort Riley, about six months earlier.
Trisha says she, too, got a late-night call, with Jeffrey sobbing, "I just wrecked my car. I'm so sorry. Please tell Chance I love him,'' before hanging up.
What the women did not know at the time was that later the same night, Jeffrey would slash his arm, "possibly a suicidal attempt on his life,'' according to a sworn statement that Jayme provided to Army investigators after she learned about the incident from the wife of Jeffrey's best friend. That friend, a sergeant at Fort Riley, had "informed their chain of command of the incident,'' Jayme's statement says.
Kay, who did not learn about the arm injury until after her son's death, says Jeffrey's call about his car crash had rattled her. But she assumed that if he were having any serious problems, the Army would get him help.
There is no indication in the investigative report into Jeffrey's death that he ever received any psychological counseling, beyond a mandatory debriefing after his return from Iraq. And there is no mention of how -- or whether -- the "chain of command'' responded to his reported suicide threat.
When Jeffrey returned to Oklahoma for a family visit later in November, accompanied by Alainna, the two made no mention of any problems and were already making plans to get married. They were set to deploy to Iraq together right after Christmas.
Kay and Shannon say Jeffrey seemed anxious and drank more heavily than usual, but he hardly spoke about having to go back to war. "He was kind of quiet. He kept a lot of things inside,'' Kay says.
He made a point of making sure his family listened to a music CD he brought home -- a song called "This is Your Life'' by the band Switchfoot:
"This is your life, is it everything you've dreamed it would be
When the world was younger, and you had everything to lose ... ''
When they went to Kansas on Christmas Day to see Jeffrey off for his second tour, Kay and Warren brought along their grandson, Chance. When his boy was around, they say, Jeffrey wore a mask of strength.
"The last time I saw him was Christmas of 2004,'' Chance would later write on a message board dedicated to the memory of his father. "He got me race cars and a xbox he let me sleep with him in fort riley he left the next day to go to Iraq.''
Chance dubbed his father, who would not survive the next 45 days, "the best soldier I ever saw.''
The Army Report
Spec. Jeffrey Henthorn killed himself over girlfriend trouble.
That's what the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command implies in a 106-page report on his death.
Although Alainna Neal herself and several other soldiers told investigators that the couple was not having any serious problems, the Army inquiry is focused almost exclusively on the relationship. The possibility of combat stress is never discussed. In fact, the report does not even mention that Henthorn had completed one tour in Iraq and died just weeks into his second deployment.
The report also does not dwell on an incident in Kuwait in January 2005, as Henthorn's unit was getting ready to head to Iraq, in which Henthorn, reportedly upset over an argument with Neal, had locked himself in a latrine with his gun and had to be forcibly removed before he could harm himself.
A sergeant at the scene told investigators he heard "a sound he described as a slide being pulled back on an M-249'' and "immediately forced the [latrine] door open and took Spc. Henthorn's weapon away.'' The platoon sergeant spoke to Henthorn for about 30 minutes, then directed a staff sergeant to return the gun, the report says. A first lieutenant was notified of the incident; it was unclear if the company commander also was told.
"Spc. Henthorn and Spc. [Neal] were back on good terms and he got his weapon back,'' the unidentified sergeant recounted to investigators.
Asked if he had ever heard Henthorn talk about suicide, the sergeant said he could not recall. But asked if Neal had ever approached him with concerns that Henthorn might harm himself, he acknowledged, "Yes, but I can't recall. We kinda just blew her off.''
Neal would end up the only witness to Henthorn's death, three weeks after his Kuwait suicide threat.
According to Neal's statement to investigators, Henthorn came into her room at Camp Anaconda in Balad, Iraq, around noon on Feb. 8, when he was supposed to be working on paperwork for a promotion, and presented her with birthday and Valentine's Day cards. He sat on the floor near her bed and asked her what she thought of the cards.
"I told him that for where we were, they meant a lot and that it showed he cared, even being out here,'' she told investigators, according to a transcript.
He then asked for the key to her wall locker and took out her gun. When she asked him what he was doing, he said "he was going to make my birthday memorable,'' her statement says. He fired one shot into his head and collapsed on the floor, while she screamed in vain, "No! No! Jeff!'' The blast tore off a portion of his skull, and he died instantly.
In her statement, Neal allowed that tensions in their relationship may have been a tipping point for Henthorn's despair. She acknowledged that she and Henthorn had argued during their deployment together because she "wasn't giving in to what he wanted.''
"The transition was hard for both of us by not being [able] to walk hand in hand, kiss and wake up next to each other,'' she told investigators. "I guess he thought I didn't love him as much as he loved me.''
But she also maintained that "the relationship wasn't going to be lost and ruined.''
Two other soldiers and a sergeant also said they were not aware of any serious problems in the couple's relationship.
Neal, who now lives in Texas, declined to speak with The Courant, but sent an e-mail response. "All I can say is the man was sick. He shouldn't have been over there,'' she wrote.
Army officials said they could not comment on individual cases, but explained that, in general, it can be difficult to determine which factors, personal or deployment-related, push a soldier over the edge.
Warren and Kay Henthorn say the long-awaited investigative report has only fueled their frustrations with the military, leaving open their questions about why Jeffrey was not sent home, or to a hospital, to get help.
"Whoever made the decision to keep him in Iraq,'' Kay says, "I wish I could get my hands on him.''
The Henthorns did not learn about Jeffrey's suicide threat in Kuwait until after he died, when Jayme was told about the incident by friends of her brother. Warren and Kay did say they were troubled by phone calls they had received from Jeffrey from Kuwait in January, in which he sounded weary and depressed. Warren says he was concerned enough about Jeffrey's mood to suggest he find a Catholic priest to talk to.
The last time they spoke to their son, in late January, he sounded better. He told his father that the conditions at Camp Anaconda were good, and in a Jan. 26 phone call with Trisha, he suggested they take Chance away for a family vacation when he got home.
Kay says she last heard from Jeffrey about a week before his death, when he called to ask her to send him a care package with cigarettes, boxer shorts and some University of Oklahoma memorabilia -- sheets, a sweat shirt and jogging shorts.
She scrambled to oblige him, as always.
The package would arrive in Iraq the day after he died.
A Matchstick Family
Wildfires are raging outside Choctaw and tornado season is closing in, but the Henthorns do not notice.
They are a matchstick family now, fragile and full of peril.
One day Kay seems bent on suing the Army for negligence; the next, she is so wracked with grief, she resents waking to another sunrise. She cannot bear to look at Jeffrey's childhood photos or to hear the old songs she used to play for him -- Paul Anka, Brenda Lee, Neil Sedaka, they have all become her tormentors.
"Personally, no matter what happens,'' she says, "things will never be right with me again.''
Trisha sought refuge from the past by moving to a house on Lake Eufaula, 100 miles and a world away from Midwest City, where she takes Chance fishing and tries to teach him about God and prayer.
"What do you want to pray for?'' she asked him one recent night, before she put him to bed.
"I want to pray,'' said the 7-year-old, who has not yet been told how his father died, "that I never have to go into the Army.''
Warren has gone head-to-head with Arlington Memory Gardens, a non-military cemetery in Midwest City, for refusing to let him put an American flag on Jeffrey's grave. Every time he plants one, someone comes by and removes it. Warren is so offended by the cemetery's policy barring such displays, he has written letters to his state legislators, who have promised to try to help.
He knows he might be diverting his anger into this small-time battle of wills.
But the bigger issue behind his anguish seems impossible to resolve.
"Let's face it, how many people really care about these soldiers?'' he says matter-of-factly. "I mean, it's not your kids, right? Not that many people are being affected. They're out of sight, out of mind.
"You're down at Wal-Mart, you're over at Target, just like always,'' he finishes. "This is somebody else's kid.''