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...
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.
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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.
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.
The death was all the more poignant because McKinney was in her final stretch of war duty, nearing her return to the soldier she had wed in a small ceremony just before deploying. She and Christopher McKinney, then 21, planned a nicer wedding at Christmas, at the Heavrins’ church.
“We had a funeral at the church instead,” her mother said.
Hannah McKinney had enlisted in the Army Reserve in 2003, then became pregnant with her son, Todd, in 2004. When her relationship with Todd’s father fell apart, she moved back home to California. But in 2005, hoping for good pay and benefits to support her son, she chose active duty, assuring her family that a single mother would not get shipped to war. It was then that she became romantically involved with Christopher McKinney.
Just months out of Army training, Hannah McKinney was deployed to Taji, north of Baghdad, with the 542nd Maintenance Company, 44th Corps Support Battalion. She was soon pulling shifts with a machine gun and a fellow soldier at guard towers along the camp’s perimeter.
Not far from there, one hot September night, three sergeants gathered to celebrate the coming end of their tours, according to their statements in the case file. Among them was Damon D. Shell, then 25, a one-time high-school quarterback on his second tour.
Although alcohol was banned in the combat zone, one of the sergeants had managed to buy vodka, and they drank cocktails together that night in the barracks, according to the statements. Later, drunk, the sergeants piled into a Humvee to bid goodbye to a female tower guard, according to testimony.
It was 3 a.m. when the group stopped at McKinney’s guard tower. Shell called her down, and she joined them in the Humvee.
The particulars of that night began to unfold after McKinney’s funeral, when Barbie Heavrin said she asked investigators for “all the details.” She learned that there was no ill-fated trip to a latrine. McKinney’s death was a criminal case.
According to Shell’s statements, made during interviews and polygraph exams, McKinney got “really drunk after drinking just one glass” of vodka and orange juice in the barracks. When the other soldiers drifted off to bed, he and McKinney had a sexual encounter, he said.
Heavrin cringed to hear such details. McKinney had violated military orders, she knew, by leaving her post and drinking. To McKinney’s mother, the sex did not fit in with her daughter’s focus on her marriage. She thought of McKinney’s low tolerance for alcohol. Her autopsy showed a .20 blood-alcohol level.
Shell told investigators he tried to return McKinney to her guard tower, but she “was in no shape” to go inside. It was about 5:15 a.m. when Shell asked her towermate, Pfc. Rachelle Anderson, to cover for them when the next shift arrived.
“I told him I would not be taking part in any of this,” Anderson said in a statement.
Shell left the tower about 5:35 a.m. with McKinney in the 10,000-pound Humvee, drove down a dead-end road, then made a U-turn after he realized his mistake. Along that road, he noticed McKinney’s door open and close, he said.
Back at the main road, he pulled into a gap in a passing convoy. In the seat next to him, he saw McKinney hunched forward. As he drove south, he heard the door open again and felt a familiar bump, where the dirt and gravel road became cement, he said.
Unexpectedly there was a second bump, he said, “like I ran over something.”
He looked. The door was open, and McKinney was gone. He tried to remember whether she had gotten out, but, he said, “I knew it was a possibility that I had run her over.”
He did not stop to check, he said in a statement.
Shell drove to the barracks and went to bed as McKinney lay in the road, her clothes disheveled and one boot missing.
It was about 5:45 a.m. when two servicemen in a Humvee spotted her. At first glance, they mistook her body for debris.
Barbie and Matt Heavrin arrived in Texas for the court-martial last spring expecting a guilty verdict. They say prosecutors told them the case was a “slam-dunk” that would probably bring a prison sentence of seven to 10 years.
On April 30, the Heavrins took seats in a small courtroom at Fort Hood, accompanied by their two sons: one, then a graduating senior at the U.S. Naval Academy; the other, a Marine. McKinney’s husband sat beside them.
Shell had pleaded guilty to drinking, drunken driving and consensual sodomy. His attorneys said he ran over McKinney. In an earlier hearing, prosecutors had said that, even with immediate medical attention, McKinney had almost no chance of survival.
The sole question, to be decided by a judge, Col. Theodore Dixon, was whether Shell’s actions amounted to involuntary manslaughter.
Prosecutors said the required degree of negligence was clear in “the totality” of Shell’s actions — driving drunk in a war zone with an underage, incapacitated junior soldier to whom he had supplied alcohol and whose vehicle door he was the last to operate.
“He failed in every single duty he owed to Pfc. Gunterman that day, and she’s dead,” said Maj. Scott Flesch, referring to Hannah by her unmarried name.
But defense attorneys framed the case as an accident that Shell could not have prevented. They brought in an accident-reconstruction expert who said Shell had not sped or swerved, as a prosecution witness had testified, and that the Humvee’s faulty door was prone to pop open.
“It wouldn’t matter if the best NASCAR driver was at the wheel of that vehicle,” attorney Neal Puckett said. “If a passenger falls out of the vehicle, what happens to the passenger after they leave the vehicle is not a function of anything the driver does.”
Puckett said it was “a horrible, a horrible accident. But that’s all it is … an accident.”
The Heavrins were outraged. To them, it was a hit-and-run in a war zone, where the military ethic says no one gets left behind. “Nobody should die like that,” Barbie Heavrin said.
The court-martial that started at 9 a.m. on a Monday ended the next day at 1:03 p.m., when the judge announced: “Not guilty.”
The Heavrins left in shock.
Barbie Heavrin had taken along a scrapbook she had created of McKinney’s life, with a lock of hair, her childhood artwork and photos of her twirling a baton, playing soccer, practicing piano. There were images of a ski trip, a prom, her husband and baby.
She had wanted the judge to know all that was lost.
But Shell was sentenced on only the three lesser charges to which he had pleaded guilty. The scrapbook had no place in the proceeding.
Shell’s attorneys called on several Army officers who praised Shell’s courage in confronting enemy forces and roadside bombs in Iraq, where he had earned a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart. One officer compared him to World War II hero Audie Murphy.
Just after 3:30 p.m., the judge ruled: Shell would be locked up for 13 months and demoted to private. He would not be discharged.
By then, Barbie Heavrin and her family had gone home.
Eight months after the court-martial, Shell is still in confinement at Fort Sill, Okla. Prisoners cannot speak to the media, officials said. Puckett, Shell’s attorney, said that with the case over he is no longer representing Shell.
With McKinney gone, Barbie and Matt Heavrin raise their grandson, now 3. McKinney’s death benefit, $500,000, went to her husband. Under military rules, nothing was required to be put aside for Todd, who was born from an earlier relationship. Christopher McKinney did not return phone calls.
Even now, Barbie Heavrin finds herself imagining the chance to stand in court and show Shell the Army beret that her daughter wore. She imagines what she would say: “Here’s the No. 1 reason you should have stopped for her. You’re a fellow soldier.”
A few weeks ago, the Heavrins received a box of Army documents they had requested. For three days, McKinney’s mother pored over the pages. She lingered when she got to Shell’s final interview with investigators. He had said nothing to the family in court, she said.
Barbie read his answers closely.
Q: Looking back on it now, do you think you should have stopped and rendered aid to Pfc. Gunterman?
Q: If you had a chance to speak to Pfc. Gunterman’s family, what would you say?
A: Nothing I could say or do would make up for the fact that the things that happened that night killed her. What do you say? Sorry? That means nothing. There is nothing I can say. It would take me a long time to figure out what to say.