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.”
After a three-month inquiry, investigators declared Westhusing’s death a suicide, although some Web writers would charge murder, without a good deal of evidence.
In 2007, The Texas Observer published a cover story by contributor Robert Bryce titled “I Am Sullied No More.” Bryce covered much of the same ground paved by Miller but added details on the Petraeus angle and allegations of murder.
“When he was in Iraq, Westhusing worked for one of the most famous generals in the U.S. military, David Petraeus,” Bryce observed. “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 referred 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 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. But Bryce continued: “By late May, Westhusing was becoming despondent over what he was seeing.” When his body was found, a note was found nearby addressed to Petraeus and Fil. 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, who told 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.”
Bryce concluded: “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.”
Since then, the corruption, torture and failed training angles have drawn wide attention although the Petraeus’s role, good or bad, has not.
The writer returned to the case one more time in February 2008 with another Texas Observer article. It opened: “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 have since gone through hundreds of pages of the FOIA documents, including transcripts of interviews with Westhusing’s widow, friends, colleagues. The Q&A with Westhusing widow is haunting. She claimed that her husband would never commit suicide, and she thought it more possible that “someone would kill him.” While he never mentioned being afraid for his life, she said, “In Ted’s voice, there was a fear. He did not like the night time and being alone in that trailer.”
She reported that her husband had expressed to her the sentiments in his suicide note pretty much verbatim, and was especially appalled by “the treatment of the insurgents.” This suggests witnessing or knowing about incidents of torture, whether carried out by U.S. personnel (such as civilian advisors) or by iraqis, with our knowledge or even suggestion. She concluded that he had “lost faith in his commanders. He was a moral and ethical person.”
In the documents I didn’t find anything others missed about Petraeus or possible murder (which I contnue to find unlikely). So the case remains a buried footnote to Petraeus’s storied, and supremely influential, career.
Greg Mitchell first wrote about Westhusing in his book So Wrong for So Long: How the Press, the Pundits and the President Failed on Iraq. His current books and e-books are The Age of WikiLeaks and Bradley Manning.