Army silence and censors bring agony

  • Article by: MARK BRUNSWICK , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 21, 2011 - 3:52 PM

The aftermath of soldier suicides can entail a frustrating search for answers and endless anguish for the families.

For the families of soldiers who kill themselves, the anguish that accompanies the initial news is often only the beginning of their ordeal.

What frequently follows, survivors say, is a string of slights, stonewalling and misinformation that conveys a disturbing message: Their loved ones remain government property, even after their deaths.

Military authorities routinely promise that they will do all they can to help, but some families are left feeling that the military's real goal is to protect itself.

The Campbell family of Cloquet, Minn., came to that conclusion after Corinne Campbell, still grieving after the funeral of her son, Jeremy, her mind reduced to "scrambled eggs,'' started up his laptop. The Army, she discovered, had wiped its hard drive clean. Even his personal pictures from a trip to Germany were gone.

Jan Fairbanks of St. Paul spent months of frustration searching for answers about the death of her son, Jacob. Then one day, a thick stack of investigative files was left unannounced by military officials at her front door -- documents that only raised new questions.

Meanwhile, the Hervas family of Coon Rapids contends that the Army so zealously protected information about their son, Tad, a high-ranking intelligence officer who killed himself, that more than half of the documents the family asked for were edited to the point of being largely indecipherable. Even his parents' names were blacked out.

The Army has resisted acknowledging that other documents exist, the family says, and told them that it would take a court order to get further papers.

"It's not just that these folks are thoughtless in handling our requests, and forget that they're not moving papers but dealing with a life,'' said Kevin Hervas, Tad's brother. "The painful part is that they forget that the life belonged to a hero."

In an extensive report on suicide prevention last year, a Department of Defense task force found that there is no program for chaplains, first responders and casualty assistance officers on how best to work with next of kin.

"Family members explained that from their perception, some commanders and others in the military community believe that discussing the death of a service member by suicide with their families would be harmful or damaging to them," the report said.

• • •

Insular culture

The stigma attached to military suicides has long been reinforced by official policy.

Until this summer, the White House never sent letters of condolence to families of service members who killed themselves. The Obama administration, after a lengthy review, recently changed the policy -- but only for those who kill themselves in a combat zone.

Most military suicides occur before or after a deployment.

Earlier this month, the Army announced that its 32 suicides in July were the highest it has ever recorded since it began keeping track of monthly rates two years ago. The deaths, which included 22 active-duty soldiers and 10 from the reserves, put a damper on claims that the military was getting a handle on the problem. As soldier suicides have risen to record levels, the military has hired scores of mental health counselors to help families cope. Pentagon task forces also have recommended that military officials better inform families about how their loved ones died.

But the handling of several Minnesota cases suggests that the military, shielded by privacy laws and security concerns, can still leave grieving relatives frustrated.

Michelle Lindo McCleur, executive director of the National Institute of Military Justice at American University in Washington, said it's common for outsiders seeking information, including family members of fallen soldiers, to find the military blocking their way.

"The military has always been more insular than the rest of society," she said.

Lindo McCleur, who served for more than a decade in the Air Force's Judge Advocate General's office, said she suspects that some problems arise because military officials simply want to protect the privacy of individuals.

"But I'm certain,'' she said, "there are probably some individual cases where it's, 'We're not too proud of this, things fell through the cracks, there may have been signs, and we don't want to acknowledge that.' "

Military suicides are treated like criminal investigations. Final reports can take up to a year to complete, fostering suspicion among grieving relatives. Some families say that when records finally emerge, there is often no consistency in what documents get released. Some families have to wage long battles for every scrap of paperwork regarding a suicide; others are provided with volumes of investigative files.

Such was the case for Jan Fairbanks after her son, Specialist Jacob Fairbanks, killed himself while in Iraq with the Army's 101st Airborne.

During a retreat for families who have lost loved ones in the service, she met then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty and told him her concerns about her son's death. A few weeks later, she was surprised to find the military's investigative files left at her front door.

She has gone over them many times, making notes about when people arrived on the scene, that the service rifle he used was moved, that there was no gunpowder residue detected on his hands. It is still difficult for her to come to grips with the idea that Jake shot himself.

Fairbanks returns to the documents occasionally for solace, or to try to find a new clue. But reading them often only leaves her with more questions.

"I have to put it down and leave it where it lies for a while, sometimes for months,'' she said. "If I don't, it drives me crazy."

• • •

Desperate for 'why'

Last year, a Pentagon task force convened to create strategies for preventing soldier suicides released a 233-page report. It recommended that military criminal investigation agencies get staffed with family advocates who are trained in communicating with surviving family members.

The military survivors group known as Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, or TAPS, takes on about nine new cases a week of family members struggling with a suicide. Families are often tenacious pursuers of investigative files, poring over documents and discovering flaws in how cases were handled.

"They are desperately trying to answer the whole question of 'why,' " said Ami Neiberger-Miller, a TAPS spokeswoman.

The Hervas family has sought access to an investigative report detailing allegations that Tad Hervas had an inappropriate relationship with a subordinate enlisted soldier while with the Minnesota Guard in southern Iraq. The investigation, known as an AR 15-6, was the basis for discipline imposed on Hervas that included recommendations that he be kicked out of the Army.

When family members asked for the document, they say the Army referred them to the National Guard. When they went to the Guard, they say they were told to talk to the Army.

One investigator makes reference to a Guard general's sworn statement in his final report, but the statement can't be found anywhere in the files. Because Hervas was an intelligence officer with a high security clearance, one portion of the report on his death is redacted and referred to the Army's Intelligence and Security Command at Fort George Meade, Md., which said it had no such document.

Initially, the family says, the command there denied having any records, then acknowledged it had a document but blanked out every name and e-mail address.

The Army eventually produced several hundred pages of documents. Many were blacked out or had large sections omitted because of what the Army said were privacy and security concerns.

Adding to the family's suspicions, the general in command in Iraq when Tad Hervas killed himself, Rick Nash, was recently named head of the Minnesota National Guard. Hervas met with Nash shortly before he killed himself, and Nash signed off on the discipline that preceded Hervas' suicide.

A Minnesota National Guard spokesman said Nash played no role in what information was provided to the Hervas family.

"Major General Nash's position in command of the 34th Red Bull Infantry Division, and his subsequent selection as Adjutant General of the Minnesota National Guard, in no way had an impact on the dissemination of information of official documents to the family of Maj. Tad Hervas," said Lt. Col. Kevin Olson.

In April, after more than 10 months, the Hervas family finally got the final report it had been seeking -- the original investigation into the relationship between Tad Hervas and a female specialist.

The 119-page report has six pages completely blacked out and the rest with every name blacked out. It includes sworn statements from an investigator's file that detail concerns soldiers raised about the relationship Hervas had with a subordinate, and the fact that he had been counseled about the perception of impropriety.

But with the names blacked out, the family says it cannot assess the strength of the accusations, which included concerns that Hervas was flaunting his rank and that the relationship contributed to an environment in which soldiers perceived that commanders were not holding certain soldiers responsible for their actions.

"I was hoping the Army would be more open and transparent with the investigation that ultimately led to Tad making his fateful decision," said Paul Guelle, a boyhood friend of Hervas' who has spent more than two decades in the active Army. "But here we are 18 months after Tad's death, and we still don't have answers.''

Mark Brunswick • 612-673-4434

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  • Redacted document

    Friday August 19, 2011

  • Corinne Campbell discovered the Army had wiped clean the hard drive of her son Jeremy’s laptop.

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