Sanford, North Carolina, December 20, 2007 (AP) — Private First Class Jason Scheuerman nailed a suicide note to his barracks closet in Iraq, stepped inside and shot himself.
“Maybe finaly I can get some peace,” said the 20-year-old, misspelling “finally” but writing in a neat hand.
His parents didn’t find out about the note for well over a year, and only then when it showed up in a government envelope in his father’s rural North Carolina mailbox.
The one-page missive was among hundreds of pages of documents the soldier’s family obtained and shared with The Associated Press after battling a military bureaucracy they feel didn’t want to answer their questions, especially this: Why did Jason Scheuerman have to die?
What the soldier’s father, Chris, would learn about his son’s final days would lead the retired Special Forces commando, who teaches at Fort Bragg, to take on the very institution he’s spent his life serving — and ultimately prompt an investigation by the Army Inspector General’s office.
The documents, obtained by Freedom of Information Act requests filed by Chris Scheuerman, reveal a troubled soldier kept in Iraq despite repeated signs he was going to kill himself, including placing the muzzle of his weapon in his mouth multiple times.
Jason Scheuerman’s story — pieced together with interviews and information in the documents — demonstrates how he was failed by the very support system that was supposed to protect him. In his case, a psychologist told his commanders to send him back to his unit because he was capable of feigning mental illness to get out of the Army.
He is not alone. At least 152 U.S. troops have taken their own lives in Iraq and Afghanistan since the two wars started, contributing to the Army’s highest suicide rate in 26 years of keeping track. For the grieving parents, the answers don’t come easily or quickly.
For Jason Scheuerman, death came on July 30, 2005, around 5:30 p.m., about 45 minutes after his first sergeant told the teary-eyed private that if he was intentionally misbehaving so he could leave the Army, he would go to jail where he would be abused.
When the call came out over the unit’s radios that there had been a death, one soldier would later tell investigators he suspected it was Scheuerman.
Scheuerman spent his early years on military posts playing GI Joe. The middle child, he divided his time after his parents’ divorce between his mother’s house in Lynchburg, Va., and his father’s in North Carolina where he went to high school.
He was nearly 6 feet tall and loved to eat. His mother, Anne, said sometimes at 10 p.m. she’d find him defrosting chicken to grill.
Likable and witty, he often joked around — even dressing up like a clown one night at church camp, said his pastor, Mike Cox of West Lynchburg Baptist Church. But he had a quiet, reflective side, too, and sometimes withdrew, Cox said.
“You always knew how he felt. He wore his emotions on his sleeve,” his mother said. “If he was angry, you knew it. If he was upset, you knew it.”
Scheuerman liked military history and writing, but decided college wasn’t for him. After a short stint in landscaping, he followed what seemed an almost natural path into the military. His mother had spent a year in the Army, and his father, a physician’s assistant, retired as an Army master sergeant. One of his two brothers also joined and is now in Afghanistan.
He enlisted in 2004 and was sent to Iraq from Fort Benning, Ga., in January 2005 with the 3rd Infantry Division. On leave a few months later, Scheuerman told his father he was having a hard time with combat and killing people.
“I’ve seen war,” his father said. “I told him that a lot of what he was seeing was normal. That we all feel it. That we’re all afraid.”
Back in Iraq, things didn’t improve. One soldier — whose name was blacked out on the documents like most others — said he saw Jason put the muzzle of his rifle in his mouth, and told investigators other soldiers had seen him do something similar.
“He said it was a joke,” the soldier said. “He said he had thought about it before but didn’t have a plan to do it.”
Scheuerman was reprimanded for not bathing or shaving and spending too much time playing video games. He misplaced a radio and didn’t wear parts of his uniform. Sometimes, Scheuerman was singled out for punishment, one soldier told an investigator. “I don’t know why,” the soldier said. Another said his noncommissioned officers were yelling at him “more days then not.”
His platoon sergeant said in a disciplinary note that Scheuerman’s actions put everyone in danger. “If you continue on your present course of action, you may end up in a body bag,” he wrote.
In another, his squad leader said, “You have put me into a position where I have to treat you like a troublesome child. I hate being in this position. It makes me be someone I don’t like.”
Scheuerman was made to do push-ups in front of Iraqi soldiers, which humiliated him.
As he was punished, “it appeared as though he was out of touch with reality; in a world all his own,” his platoon sergeant said in a report.
After the punishment, Scheuerman slept on the floor of his unit’s operation’s center in Muqdadiyah, about 60 miles north of Baghdad.
An Army chaplain who met with him about a month before he died said his mood had “drastically changed.” He said Scheuerman demonstrated disturbing behavior by “sitting with his weapon between his legs and bobbing his head on the muzzle.” He told Scheuerman’s leaders to have his rifle and ammunition magazine “taken from him immediately” and for him to undergo a mental health evaluation.
Scheuerman checked on a mental health questionnaire that he had thoughts about killing himself, was uptight, anxious and depressed, had feelings of hopelessness and despair, felt guilty and was having work problems. But in person, the psychologist said, he denied having thoughts of suicide.
Less than a week later, Scheuerman’s mother got an e-mail from her son telling her goodbye. She contacted a family support official at Fort Benning and later received a call saying her son had been checked and was fine. Later, her son sent her an instant message and said her phone call had made things worse.
The same day as her call, Scheuerman’s company commander requested a mental evaluation, noting that the private was a “good soldier” but displays “distant, depression like symptoms.”
Visiting with the psychologist for the second time, Scheuerman said he sometimes saw other people on guard duty that other soldiers do not see, suggesting he was hallucinating. And he said that if he wasn’t diagnosed as having a mental problem, he was going to be in trouble with his leader. Yet he again denied being suicidal, the psychologist reported.
The psychologist determined Scheuerman did not meet the criteria for a mental health disorder, and that a screening test he had taken indicated he was exaggerating. He told Scheuerman’s leaders he was “capable of claiming mental illness in order to manipulate his command.”
Still, when he sent Scheuerman back to his barracks, he told the private’s leaders that if Scheuerman claimed to be depressed, to take it seriously. He recommended Scheuerman sleep in an area where he could be watched, that most of his personal belongings and privileges be taken away for his safety.
The evaluation “created in the leaders’ minds the idea that the soldier was a malingerer all along,” an officer from his unit evaluating the case as part of a post-suicide investigation would later determine.
Shortly after the psychologist’s determination and a few weeks before he died, Scheuerman’s Internet and phone communication were shut off. His parents did not hear from him again.
The night before he shot himself, his rifle — which had since been returned to him — was found in a Humvee. The next morning, one soldier said Scheuerman “was quiet and seemed depressed. He said he had a rough night and didn’t sleep well.”
Later that day, he was punished again and given 14 days of extra duty.
Scheuerman had tears in his eyes, but one of his noncommissioned officers said he was surprisingly calm before he went to his room, weapon in hand.
“I told him to go upstairs and clean his gear and change his uniform,” his squad leader told investigators. “I was soo angry with him, I went outside to smoke and talk to someone so I didn’t blow up.”
Less than an hour later, he said he heard someone yelling that Scheuerman had done something.
“At that point, I knew I was already too late,” he said.
Scheuerman’s body was discovered in a closet, blood streaming from his mouth.
Initially, Scheuerman’s father said he trusted the Army would investigate his son’s death and take action.
“I did not want to believe that it was as bad as I thought it was, so I chose not to make hasty judgments,” Scheuerman said from his kitchen table, sitting beside his ex-wife, whom he plans to remarry. “I chose to systematically try to get all the information that I could and once I received all the information I could, my worse fears were realized.”
Each document that arrived brought more pain.
When a copy of his son’s suicide note appeared, Scheuerman broke down crying. In the note, his son said he wanted to say goodbye, but his ability to contact the family was taken away “like everything else.” He said he’d brought dishonor on his family and his Army unit.
“I know you think I’m a coward for this but in the face of existing as I am now, I have no other choice,” Scheuerman wrote. “As the 1st Sgt said all I have to look forward to is a butt-buddy in jail, not much of a future.”
Chris Scheuerman wants to see a more thorough investigation, and some of his son’s leaders punished — perhaps even criminally charged — and the psychologist brought before a medical peer review committee. “We will not see a statistical decrease in Army suicides until the Army gets serious about holding people accountable when they do not do what they are trained to do,” he said.
Citing privacy, Maj. Nathan Banks, an Army public affairs officer, declined to discuss the case.
Eventually, Jason Scheuerman’s father sought the assistance of Rep. Bob Etheridge, D-N.C., who spoke with Army Secretary Pete Geren on Oct. 1 and asked him to initiate an investigation by the Inspector General’s Office. Geren agreed.
The Scheuermans say they hope the investigation will bring about changes that will prevent other suicides.
“The people that I trusted with the safety of my son killed him, and that hurts beyond words because we are a family of soldiers,” Scheuerman said.