A Drunken Night in Iraq, A Soldier Is Left Behind
Friday, January 4, 2008
The sun had not yet risen in Taji. A young Army soldier lay alone in the dirt. She was alive, but barely. Her ribs had been crushed; her spleen, ruptured. Her right side was marked by the angular tread of a tire.
Pfc. Hannah Gunterman McKinney was 20 years old, the brown-eyed mother of a toddler son, when she was spotted in the headlights of a passing Humvee on a perimeter road at one of the largest U.S. military camps in Iraq.
Thirteen hours later, in Redlands, Calif., Barbie and Matt Heavrin, who had three children in the military, learned they had lost their elder daughter to "injuries suffered when she was struck by a vehicle," as the Army first described it.
But there was more to the story. For the Heavrins, the events of Sept. 4, 2006, inside the wire of Camp Taji emerged bit by bit. McKinney's last hours, they would learn, involved alcohol, sex and a decorated reservist who was responsible for looking out for junior enlisted soldiers such as their daughter.
Her case would become one in a litany of noncombat deaths in Iraq, which number more than 700, from crashes, suicides, illnesses and accidents that sometimes reveal messy truths about life in the war zone.
The cases can be especially brutal for parents who lose a child and struggle to understand why. In McKinney's case, many of the details are in a 1,460-page file and court-martial transcript obtained by The Washington Post under the Freedom of Information Act.
Now, her parents want her story to be fully told. They cannot reconcile themselves to the idea that, on that terrible day in Taji, their daughter was left behind.
In the early days after McKinney's death, the Heavrins say they were told by Army officials that it appeared their daughter might have been run over as she crossed a street in the dark while going from a guard tower to a nearby latrine.
There is no mention of that scenario in the case file. But it is what the Heavrins believed as they bowed their heads over her silver coffin in the family church, laying red roses and notes beside their dark-haired daughter.
Barbie Heavrin took McKinney's son, Todd, not yet 2, to her coffin to bid goodbye.
"Mama sleep?" the boy asked, patting her forehead.
The Heavrins described their daughter as attractive and willful, with singing talents and a well-honed sense of humor befitting her early childhood nickname: Happy Hannah. She read books constantly -- loved "Gone With the Wind" -- and wanted a career in marketing.