The scourge of suicides among American troops and reservists in Iraq and Afghanistan remains a serious and seriously underreported problem. Last month they hit a new high in the US Army, despite intensive new efforts to prevent them. One of the few high-profile cases emerged six years ago this month, and it involves a much-admired Army colonel and ethicist named Ted Westhusing—who, in his suicide note, pointed a finger at a then little-known US general named David Petraeus.
Westhusing’s widow, asked by a friend what killed this West Point scholar, replied simply: “Iraq.”
Before putting a bullet through his head, Westhusing had been deeply disturbed by abuses carried out by American contractors and unnamed advisors in Iraq, including allegations that they had witnessed or even participated in the murder of Iraqis. His suicide note included claims that his two commanders, Lt. Gen. Petraeus and Maj. Gen. Josephy Fil, tolerated a mission based on “corruption, human rights 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.”
One of those commanders: the future leader of American forces in Iraq, and then Afghanistan, 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 and found his charges against the commanders unfounded. Petraeus and Fil would later attend Westhusing’s memorial service back in the United States.
In a new interview, Westhusing’s widow Michelle (who lives just up the river from me near West Point) says she wished they had not attended. “I feel like they let him down,” she says. “I feel as if no one was watching out for Ted’s welfare. He was trying to tell them something, and they ignored him. I can only imagine how that felt to him…. Ted very much believed in honor and doing the right thing. I think he was told not to worry about things, to sweep them under the carpet and go home. But Ted couldn’t do that. He wasn’t just a professor of ethics, he didn’t just teach it, he believed it with all his heart.””
Her husband 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,” Christian Miller explained in a major Los Angeles Times piece.
“In e-mails to his family,” Miller wrote, “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 US 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, and advisors. Westhusing said that “he had not come over to Iraq for this.”