The Tragic Story of Jeff McKinney
All the warning signs were there, but could anyone have saved 1st Sgt. Jeff McKinney?
by Kelly Kennedy
Army Times, June 8, 2008
In a home movie, 1st Sgt. Jeff McKinney sings softly to his new son while his wife, Chrissi, gives the baby a bath. McKinney teases tiny Jeremy about this, his first nude video.
Someday, McKinney says, the family will show off the footage to Jeremy’s first girlfriend.
“Cause that’s how our parents did us,” McKinney sing-songs. “You’ll be 15, 16 years old, and you have your first date … .”
It won’t ever play out that way, though. The McKinneys made the movie during his two weeks of home leave halfway through what was supposed to be a 15-month Iraq war deployment. He spent the break bonding with his new son and talking to his 18-year-old son, James, about going to college.
But everything changed July 11 in the bright sunshine of Adhamiyah, Iraq. That day, while out on a simple meet-and-greet patrol, McKinney stepped out of his Humvee and yelled.
He raised the barrel of his M4 to his chin and squeezed off one shot.
The first sergeant — who sang Sesame Street songs to his men and teased them just enough to make them feel like family — left his soldiers shattered.
At first, they scrambled to find the sniper who they believed must have fired the shot. When they realized the truth, they wondered how Top could have deserted them.
“That’s not First Sergeant McKinney,” his driver, Spc. Anthony Seashore, who witnessed his death, later told investigators. “Never.”
His family also felt blindsided. McKinney had no history of mental health issues. But as his parents and wife accumulated documentation from the investigation into McKinney’s death, the case became clearer.
The leadership demands of an Army at war, the untold emotional and physical injuries of combat and the unrealistic stoicism of a dedicated soldier all collided in tragedy.
McKinney had been on the scene after a 500-pound bomb left five of his soldiers and an Iraqi interpreter dead; he was in a vehicle when another bomb blew up just two feet away, almost killing him and his men; he had consoled a soldier who lost a leg to a roadside bomb.
And he had stopped eating, stopped sleeping and become convinced he was not doing enough to keep his soldiers safe.
But even after a soldier found him sitting in a wooden supply shack, staring emptily into space, even after his face grew gaunt from weight loss, even after he was unable to form the thoughts necessary to give a morning briefing, McKinney kept going out on patrol.
And that is the part that everyone — soldiers, commanders and family — must now struggle with, each and every day.
‘JEFF WOULD NEVER DO THAT’
As of May 3, 139 soldiers, 25 Marines and seven sailors have killed themselves in the Iraq and Afghanistan war zones, according to Pentagon data.
Thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, more suffer from depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury and other problems. But getting combat vets to seek help is difficult.
Studies by the Army, the Defense Department, Rand Corp. and others cite the same reasons why troops with mental health issues don’t seek help: fear of being seen as “weak,” inadequate access to care, concern that asking for help can hurt a career, and guilt about letting battle buddies go out on patrol without them.
Among the troubling factors is that, like McKinney, many of those who choose suicide aren’t young first-tour junior troops. Forty-seven percent of soldiers who have killed themselves in theater are older than 30. And half were in paygrades E-5 or above. Experts are concerned that it’s harder to spot signs of potential suicide in such war-hardened veterans.
McKinney’s family believes that if his chain of command had paid closer attention to the symptoms, his death might have been avoided. And they hope that by talking about it now, months after his death, they might help prevent other suicides.
“It will not be in vain if it helps just one soldier to get the help they need,” said McKinney’s mother, Kay Watson. “And I want everyone to know what a good man he was.”
Chrissi McKinney had a second reason: If her husband had been in his right mind, he never would have hurt his men like that.
“The most important thing to know is Jeff was not himself,” she said. “Jeff would never do that.”
McKinney came to Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 26th Infantry Regiment, at the request of a friend. He first met 1st Sgt. Kevin Floyd at Fort Polk, La., where, Floyd said, there was nothing to do but fish and hang out with friends.
This was a guy, Floyd recalled, “who had his act together.” They spent all their time together and enjoyed competing as platoon sergeants within the same battalion — but always helped each other out. Floyd said McKinney liked to play, but he also wanted everything just so.
For example, McKinney had thousands of KinderEggs — chocolate eggs filled with toys that are popular with soldiers in Germany — but they were perfectly spaced and dusted.
Within the new battalion, McKinney quickly earned a reputation for knowing his job. He played the drill sergeant, ragging a soldier until he got it right. But he inevitably earned their respect along the way, according to several of his men.
“He definitely liked to joke with the soldiers — to try to make it feel like they were family,” Floyd said. “As a senior leader, that’s pretty unusual. In Alpha Company, he’d know who was married, who had kids. He had 140 people and he knew all the names and faces.”
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