January 1, 2011
Several Warnings, Then a Soldier’s Lonely Death
By JAMES RISEN
WASHINGTON — A gentle snow fell on the funeral of Staff Sgt. David Senft at Arlington National Cemetery on Dec. 16, when his bitterly divided California family came together to say goodbye. His 5-year-old son received a flag from a grateful nation.
But that brief moment of peace could not hide the fact that for his family and friends and the soldiers who had served with him in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, too many unanswered questions remained about Sergeant Senft’s lonely death in a parked sport utility vehicle on an American air base in Afghanistan, and about whether the Army could have done more to prevent it.
Officially, the Army says only that Sergeant Senft, 27, a crew chief on a Black Hawk helicopter in the 101st Airborne Division’s aviation brigade, was killed as a result of “injuries sustained in a noncombat related incident” at Kandahar Air Base on Nov. 15. No specific cause of death has been announced. Army officials say three separate inquiries into the death are under way.
But his father, also named David Senft, an electrician from Grass Valley, Calif., who had worked in Afghanistan for a military contractor, is convinced that his son committed suicide, as are many of his friends and family members and the soldiers who served with him.
The evidence appears overwhelming. An investigator for the Army’s Criminal Investigative Division, which has been looking into the death, has told Sergeant Senft’s father by e-mail that his son was found dead with a single bullet hole in his head, a stolen M-4 automatic weapon in his hands and his body slumped over in the S.U.V., which was parked outside the air base’s ammunition supply point. By his side was his cellphone, displaying a text message with no time or date stamp, saying only, “I don’t know what to say, I’m sorry.” (Mr. Senft shared the e-mails from the C.I.D. investigator with The New York Times.)
With Sergeant Senft, the warning signs were blaring.
The Army declared him fit for duty and ordered him to Afghanistan after he had twice attempted suicide at Fort Campbell, Ky., and after he had been sent to a mental institution near the base, the home of the 101st. After his arrival at Kandahar early in 2010 he was so troubled that the Army took away his weapon and forced him into counseling on the air base, according to the e-mails from the Army investigator. But he was assigned a roommate who was fully armed. C.I.D. investigators have identified the M-4 with which Sergeant Senft was killed as belonging to his roommate.
“I question why, if he was suicidal and they had to take away his gun, why was he allowed to stay in Afghanistan?” asked Sergeant Senft’s father. “Why did they allow him to deploy in the first place, and why did they leave him there?”
Defense Department officials have frequently spoken about how suicide prevention has become a top priority, and in interviews, officials noted that the National Institute of Mental Health was now leading a major study of Army suicides.
Ever since the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq began, suicides among American troops have been soaring, as military personnel become mentally exhausted and traumatized from repeated deployments to combat zones. In 2004, the Army reported that 67 soldiers on active duty committed suicide; by 2009 that number had jumped to 162. The Army has reported 144 suicides in 2010 through November, and officials say it is now beginning to see a sharp rise in suicides among nonactive duty National Guard and Reserve personnel who are not currently deployed.
It is unclear how much the Army knew of Sergeant Senft’s deterioration. But Col. Chris Philbrick, deputy director of the Army’s health promotion and risk reduction task force, which handles suicide prevention programs, said that a medical determination of cause of death, a law enforcement review of the matter by Army investigators, and an internal review of both Sergeant Senft’s personnel history and the handling of his case by his chain of command were all continuing.
“We are trying to get answers to these questions, answers to many of the same questions that the family is raising,” said Colonel Philbrick, who has personally reviewed Sergeant Senft’s case.
Interviews with friends and family members suggest that for Sergeant Senft, prolonged exposure to two wars may have been too much to bear for a friendly and sweet, but emotionally fragile young man filled with insecurities resulting from a badly splintered family life.
His parents divorced when he was about 3 years old, and the rift between his father and mother never healed. Home life for David and his brother and sister became intertwined with a series of stepparents and divided families around Northern California. David’s younger brother, Andrew, is now in prison in California for armed robbery.
The first signs of trouble for David Senft came when he was 18 or 19 and living with a stepmother who had divorced his father and remarried. He ran away and threatened to kill himself, recalled his stepmother, Tina Norvell. Her husband, Steve Norvell, found him and took him home.
David Senft joined the Army in early 2002, just months after the Sept. 11 attacks.
After basic training, he was assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division based at Fort Bragg, N.C., and in 2003 he was sent to Iraq as a member of a helicopter crew.
His experiences during that first combat deployment had a major impact on him, according to close friends. In one episode that he often recounted to both his family and friends, he told of witnessing the crash of an evacuation helicopter filled with medical personnel and wounded soldiers that had been shot down by insurgents. He and his Black Hawk crew were ordered to the crash site, and the gruesome scene haunted him.
“He changed after he went to Iraq the first time,” recalled Ana Ochoa, one of his closest friends.
After returning to Fort Bragg in 2004, David Senft confided in another soldier, Lynette Hager, that he wanted to kill himself.
“I reported it to the chain of command,” recalled Ms. Hager, who has since left the Army. “When you come back from a deployment, they have briefings and make you watch PowerPoints, but if you need help, you have to go get it yourself.”
Ms. Hager and David Senft later began dating, and in 2005 she gave birth to their son, Landon. She said that during a fight over child support payments, he threatened to kill himself rather than make further payments and that because of the suicide threat, the court ordered that he be allowed only supervised visitation rights with their son. “He was a really good guy, fun, nice, and he loved being in the military,” Ms. Hager said. “But he didn’t have the coping skills to get out of his depressive states.”
In 2007, he was deployed again with the 82nd Airborne Division, this time to Afghanistan. After his return, he transferred to the 101st Airborne Division and re-enlisted in the Army.
“I told him not to re-enlist; I told him to get out, his personality was changing. I told him, ‘You are making me uncomfortable,’ ” Ms. Ochoa said. “After each deployment he seemed to get needier, sadder, and he would be talking deeper.”
While at Fort Campbell in 2008, he attempted suicide by swallowing a bottle of sleeping pills. The pills only knocked him out for two or three days, and when he awoke in his apartment, he called friends, who urged him to get help. He agreed to be admitted to a mental hospital in Hopkinsville, Ky. He told Ms. Ochoa that he had tried to kill himself twice while at Fort Campbell. “He was depressed,” she said. “He said he had seen a lot of crazy stuff and seen a lot of friends die, and he was unhappy; he had a lot of failed relationships.”
His suicide attempts and hospitalization finally got the attention of the Army, which kept him back from a scheduled deployment to Iraq. Instead, he was given a desk job at Fort Campbell. “I remember he told me he had tried to kill himself and had been taken off the deployment roster for Iraq,” recalled Matt Davis, who served with Sergeant Senft in the 82nd Airborne Division.
But he could not get out of his unit’s next scheduled deployment, to Afghanistan in early 2010. Colonel Philbrick said that he could not answer why Sergeant Senft was allowed to deploy to Afghanistan after he had been held back from Iraq after his suicide attempt.
He apparently did well for the first few months of the Afghan deployment, because he went home on leave in July and, without telling many friends and relatives, quietly married another soldier he had recently met.
But his mental state seemed to worsen again after his return to Afghanistan, and his commanders took action. He was placed in regular counseling in Kandahar, apparently for the first time in his military career, and met regularly with an Army chaplain on the base. His weapon was taken from him several months before his death, according to the e-mails from the Army investigator.
On the morning of Nov. 15, Sergeant Senft’s roommate woke to find his weapon missing. After Sergeant Senft failed to show up for duty that morning, another member of his unit discovered his body.
Ms. Ochoa said: “As soon as I heard he was dead, I just said to myself, he did it. He did it.”