KATY, Tex. -- Carol Coons keeps her son's dog tags and framed photo in the living room, on the same shelf as the dried roses from his memorial service.
She keeps her file folder in a kitchen drawer. "I call this my investigation folder," she said, pulling it out, dog-eared and thick with research, scribbled names and notes from her many phone calls to Washington officials. "We just had all these questions, and they had no answers."
Richard Coons, with wife Carol at their home in Katy, Tex., holds a photo of their son, Master Sgt. James Coons, wearing his Class A uniform.
(Michael Stravato For The Washington Post)
On June 21, 2003, the Army evacuated Master Sgt. James Curtis Coons, 36, from Kuwait after he overdosed on sleeping pills. He told doctors he was seeing the shattered face of a dead soldier in the mirror. They diagnosed him with post-traumatic stress disorder, sent him to a hospital in Germany and then to their premier treatment facility, Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Northwest Washington. By July 4 he was dead, hanging from a bedsheet in his room at Mologne House, a hotel for outpatients and families on the grounds of Walter Reed.
Nineteen months later, Carol Coons and her husband, Richard, have not given up their quest for answers. Why wasn't her son admitted as an inpatient? Why, after four days of worried phone calls, did it finally take a 2 a.m. call from his wife to get someone to check on him? How long had he been dead before his body was found?
James's widow, Robin, has another question, not about how her husband died but how he is remembered. Today, as the nation honors the service and sacrifice of its veterans, she wants to know: After 17 years of military service, after a Bronze Star awarded for Operation Iraqi Freedom, why is the name of James Coons not counted among the Iraq war dead?
"That really makes me angry. How can he not be put in there as a casualty of war? I don't understand that," Robin said. "It's like, because he did that to himself, he's forgotten."
'His Life Was the Army'
The boy his parents called Jimmy seemed destined for the military. At 5, he was enthralled with helicopters and practiced parachute jumps from backyard trees. As a teenager, he displayed a fastidiousness unusual for his years. "He would fold his dirty clothes before putting them in the hamper," said Carol Coons, 55.
He entered the Army in 1987, right after high school, and spent a short time as a field artilleryman before switching to the specialty that would define his military career, the signal corps. It required attention to detail as well as a way with people. For Coons, working on the computer systems that allowed soldiers to communicate with each other seemed a natural fit.
As a member of the 385th Signal Company, he was stationed in Texas and Japan before moving on to Carlisle Barracks in Carlisle, Pa. Don Watkins, the command sergeant major of the post, was Coons's next-door neighbor there and became his close friend. In the evenings, the men would chat at the chain-link fence. Coons confided his goal of reaching the rank of sergeant major.
"He was an outstanding, dedicated soldier," said Watkins, now retired. "His life was the Army, and he always wanted to go to the top."
Watkins selected Coons as the first sergeant of the company, putting him in charge of 125 soldiers. Coons was 6-foot-2 and handsome. He looked like a recruiting poster for the military.
"Everything was squared away," said Sgt. Hector Pedroza, 24, who worked under Coons.
He had a no-nonsense attitude with his soldiers, Pedroza said, but he was also approachable. Pedroza sought out Coons when he was unsure whether to marry his military girlfriend because he feared that they would be separated. Coons urged him to make the commitment, and after Pedroza did, his wife got pregnant, which helped get them placed together.
"He was my role model," Pedroza said. "A lot of things that I did, I thought, 'What would he do?' "