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THE CONFLICT IN IRAQ

A Journey That Ended in Anguish

Col. Ted Westhusing, a military ethicist who volunteered to go to Iraq, was upset by what he saw. His apparent suicide raises questions.

November 27, 2005|T. Christian Miller | Times Staff Writer

"I heard something in his voice," she told investigators, according to a transcript of the interview. "In Ted's voice, there was fear. He did not like the nighttime and being alone."

Westhusing's father, Keith, said the family did not want to comment for this article.

On June 4, Westhusing left his office in the U.S.-controlled Green Zone of Baghdad to view a demonstration of Iraqi police preparedness at Camp Dublin, the USIS headquarters at the airport. He gave a briefing that impressed Petraeus and a visiting scholar. He stayed overnight at the USIS camp.

That night in his office, a USIS secretary would later tell investigators, she watched Westhusing take out his 9-millimeter pistol and "play" with it, repeatedly unholstering the weapon.

At a meeting the next morning to discuss construction delays, he seemed agitated. He stewed over demands for tighter vetting of police candidates, worried that it would slow the mission. He seemed upset over funding shortfalls.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday November 30, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 38 words Type of Material: Correction
Army colonel -- An article in Sunday's Section A about the death of Army Col. Ted Westhusing in Iraq referred to the weapon found near his body as his service revolver. The 9-millimeter pistol was not a revolver.

Uncharacteristically, he lashed out at the contractors in attendance, according to the Army Corps official. In three months, the official had never seen Westhusing upset.

"He was sick of money-grubbing contractors," the official recounted. Westhusing said that "he had not come over to Iraq for this."

The meeting broke up shortly before lunch. About 1 p.m., a USIS manager went looking for Westhusing because he was scheduled for a ride back to the Green Zone. After getting no answer, the manager returned about 15 minutes later. Another USIS employee peeked through a window. He saw Westhusing lying on the floor in a pool of blood.

The manager rushed into the trailer and tried to revive Westhusing. The manager told investigators that he picked up the pistol at Westhusing's feet and tossed it onto the bed.

"I knew people would show up," that manager said later in attempting to explain why he had handled the weapon. "With 30 years from military and law enforcement training, I did not want the weapon to get bumped and go off."

After a three-month inquiry, investigators declared Westhusing's death a suicide. A test showed gunpowder residue on his hands. A shell casing in the room bore markings indicating it had been fired from his service revolver.

Then there was the note.

Investigators found it lying on Westhusing's bed. The handwriting matched his.

The first part of the four-page letter lashes out at Petraeus and Fil. Both men later told investigators that they had not criticized Westhusing or heard negative comments from him. An Army review undertaken after Westhusing's death was complimentary of the command climate under the two men, a U.S. military official said.

Most of the letter is a wrenching account of a struggle for honor in a strange land.

"I cannot support a msn [mission] that leads to corruption, human rights abuse and liars. I am sullied," it says. "I came to serve honorably and feel dishonored.

"Death before being dishonored any more."

A psychologist reviewed Westhusing's e-mails and interviewed colleagues. She concluded that the anonymous letter had been the "most difficult and probably most painful stressor."

She said that Westhusing had placed too much pressure on himself to succeed and that he was unusually rigid in his thinking. Westhusing struggled with the idea that monetary values could outweigh moral ones in war. This, she said, was a flaw.

"Despite his intelligence, his ability to grasp the idea that profit is an important goal for people working in the private sector was surprisingly limited," wrote Lt. Col. Lisa Breitenbach. "He could not shift his mind-set from the military notion of completing a mission irrespective of cost, nor could he change his belief that doing the right thing because it was the right thing to do should be the sole motivator for businesses."

One military officer said he felt Westhusing had trouble reconciling his ideals with Iraq's reality. Iraq "isn't a black-and-white place," the officer said. "There's a lot of gray."

Fil and Petraeus, Westhusing's commanding officers, declined to comment on the investigation, but they praised him. He was "an extremely bright, highly competent, completely professional and exceedingly hard-working officer. His death was truly tragic and was a tremendous blow," Petraeus said.

Westhusing's family and friends are troubled that he died at Camp Dublin, where he was without a bodyguard, surrounded by the same contractors he suspected of wrongdoing. They wonder why the manager who discovered Westhusing's body and picked up his weapon was not tested for gunpowder residue.

Mostly, they wonder how Col. Ted Westhusing -- father, husband, son and expert on doing right -- could have found himself in a place so dark that he saw no light.

"He's the last person who would commit suicide," said Fichtelberg, his graduate school colleague. "He couldn't have done it. He's just too damn stubborn."

Westhusing's body was flown back to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. Waiting to receive it were his family and a close friend from West Point, a lieutenant colonel.

In the military report, the unidentified colonel told investigators that he had turned to Michelle, Westhusing's wife, and asked what happened.

She answered:

"Iraq."

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