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Soldier's journey ends in anguish

Family searches for clues that led to suicide

WASHINGTON -- One hot, dusty day in June, Colonel Ted S. Westhusing was found dead in a trailer at a military base near the Baghdad, Iraq, airport, a single gunshot wound to the head.

The Army would conclude that he committed suicide with his service pistol. At the time, he was the highest-ranking officer to die in Iraq.

The Army closed its case. But the questions surrounding Westhusing's death continue.

Westhusing, 44, was no ordinary officer. He was one of the Army's leading scholars of military ethics, a professor at West Point who volunteered to serve in Iraq to be able to teach his students better. He had a doctorate in philosophy; his dissertation was an extended meditation on the meaning of honor.

So it was only natural that Westhusing acted when he learned of possible corruption by US contractors in Iraq. A few weeks before he died, Westhusing received an anonymous complaint that a private security company he oversaw had cheated the US 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upset by one conclusion he had reached: that traditional military values such as duty, honor, and country had been replaced by profit motives in Iraq, where the United States had come to rely heavily on contractors for jobs once done by the military.

His death stunned those who knew him. Colleagues and commanders wondered whether they had missed signs of depression. Only a day before his death, Westhusing won praise from a senior officer for his progress in training Iraqi police.

His friends and family struggle with the idea that Westhusing could have killed himself. He was a loving father and husband and a devout Catholic. He had less than a month before his return home. It seemed impossible that anything could crush the spirit of a man with such a powerful sense of right and wrong.

On the Internet and in conversations with one another, Westhusing's family and friends have questioned the military investigation.

A note found in his trailer seemed to offer clues. Written in what the Army determined was his handwriting, the colonel appeared to be struggling with a final question. How is honor possible in a war like the one in Iraq?

Even at Jenks High School in suburban Tulsa, one of the biggest in Oklahoma, Westhusing stood out. He was starting point guard for the Trojans, a team that made a strong run for the state basketball championship his senior year. He was a National Merit Scholarship finalist. He was an officer in a fellowship of Christian athletes.

When Westhusing entered West Point in 1979, the tradition-bound institution was just emerging from a cheating scandal that had shamed the Army. Restoring honor to the nation's pre-eminent incubator for Army leadership was the focus of the day.

Cadets are taught to value duty, honor, and country, and are drilled in West Point's strict moral code: A cadet will not lie, cheat, or steal -- or tolerate those who do.

Westhusing embraced it. He was selected as honor captain for the entire academy his senior year. Westhusing graduated third in his class in 1983 and became an infantry platoon leader. He received special forces training, served in Italy, South Korea, and Honduras, and eventually became division operations officer for the 82nd Airborne, based at Fort Bragg, N.C.

In 2000, Westhusing enrolled in Emory University's doctoral philosophy program. The idea was to return to West Point to teach future leaders.

He immediately stood out on the leafy Atlanta campus. A father with children, he was surrounded by young, single students. Plunged into academia, Westhusing held fast to his military ties. Students and professors recalled him jogging up steep hills in combat boots and camouflage, his rucksack full, to stay in shape. He wrote a paper challenging an essay that questioned the morality of patriotism.

As planned, Westhusing returned to teach philosophy and English at West Point as a full professor with a guaranteed lifetime assignment. He settled into life on campus with his wife, Michelle, and their three young children.

But amid the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, he told friends that he felt experience in Iraq would help him in teaching cadets. In the fall of 2004, he volunteered for duty.

In January, Westhusing began work on what the Pentagon considered the most important mission in Iraq: training Iraqi forces to take over security duties from US troops. Westhusing's task was to oversee a private security company, Virginia-based USIS, which had contracts worth $79 million to train an elite corps of Iraqi police to conduct special operations.

In March, General David Petraeus, commanding officer of the Iraqi training mission, praised Westhusing's performance, saying he had exceeded ''lofty expectations."

''Thanks much, sir, but we can do much better and will," Westhusing wrote back, according to a copy of the Army investigation into his death that was obtained by the Los Angeles Times.

By April, his mood seemed to have darkened. He worried over delays in training one of the police battalions. Then, in May, Westhusing received an anonymous four-page letter that contained detailed allegations of wrongdoing by USIS.

The writer accused USIS of deliberately shorting the government on the number of trainers to increase profit margins. More serious, the writer detailed two incidents in which USIS contractors allegedly had witnessed or participated in the killing of Iraqis.

A USIS contractor accompanied Iraqi police trainees during the assault on Fallujah in November 2004 and later boasted about the number of insurgents he had killed, the letter says. Private security contractors are not allowed to conduct offensive operations.

In a second incident, the letter says, a USIS employee witnessed Iraqi police trainees kill two innocent Iraqi civilians, then covered it up. A USIS manager ''did not want it reported because he thought it would put his contract at risk."

Westhusing reported the allegations to his superiors but told one of them, General Joseph Fil, that he believed USIS was complying with the terms of its contract.

But several US officials said inquiries into USIS were ongoing. One US military official, who, like others, requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the case, said the inquiries had turned up problems, although nothing to support the more serious charges of human rights violations.

The letter shook Westhusing, who felt personally implicated by accusations that he was too friendly with USIS management, according to an e-mail in the report. ''This is a mess . . . dunno what I will do with this," he wrote home to his family May 18.

By June, some of Westhusing's colleagues started worrying about his health. They later told investigators that he had lost weight and begun fidgeting, sometimes staring off into space. He seemed withdrawn, they said.

His family was becoming worried. He described feeling alone and abandoned. He sent home brief, cryptic e-mails. He talked of resigning his command. The family responded with an outpouring of e-mails expressing love and support. On June 4, Westhusing left his office in the US-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 camp.

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.

The meeting ended 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.

After a three-month inquiry, investigators ruled Westhusing's death a suicide. A test showed gunpowder residue from his 9-mm pistol on his hands.

Then there was the note, found lying on Westhusing's bed. The handwriting matched his. Most of the letter is a wrenching account of a struggle for honor in Iraq.

''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."

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