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PTSD's war toll: Son didn't get the help he needed

By Timothy J. Gibbons
Published by Florida Times-Union on October 9, 2011.

"How did you find out your son ... " the visitor trails off awkwardly at the end of the sentence, but Kay Watson doesn't flinch as she finishes it.

"Committed suicide?"

Her voice doesn't waver as she lays out the phone calls, the flight to Germany, the funeral.

The details of a life cut short.

Her son, 40-year-old Army 1st Sgt. Jeffrey McKinney, took his life in Iraq on July 11, 2007.

He's one of at least half-a-dozen service members with ties to the Jacksonville area for whom the stress of combat became overwhelming, leading them to take their own lives.

McKinney's memory lives on in Watson's small Mayport apartment. On the wall hang pictures of her son that were displayed at his funeral. On the couch, a quilt made in his honor. His medals stand nearby.

Watson remembers how war changed her son. His voice was different, she said, when they talked after his deployment, about the insurgents he fought in Samarra.

One firefight, McKinney's father later told Army Times reporter Kelly Kennedy, started when McKinney's squad took automatic fire from inside a school. When the soldiers responded, children were caught in the crossfire.

"The cries of the mothers stayed with him,” his father said. "He was still talking about it a year and a half later. He said, 'After Samarra, I'll never be the same again.' "

McKinney joined the Army his junior year of high school. He signed up for an early enrollment program that let him spend his last summer at home working with the National Guard.

"He put his heart and soul into it,” Watson said.

As he rose through the ranks, he developed a reputation as a leader who would do anything for his men.

"He had them all on his shoulders,” his mother said. "He had pride in what he could do - that he could take something raw and shape it. He was raw when he went in and you could see what it did for him."

Carrying that burden became too much, though, when many of those men died. McKinney's battalion lost more men during its 15-month deployment to Adhamiya, Iraq, than any battalion since the Vietnam War.

In the aftermath of those casualties, McKinney stopped sleeping. While out on patrol, he wouldn't drink, fearing there wouldn't be enough water to go around.

Then, one hot day, it became too much. McKinney got out of his truck, put his rifle to his chin and fired. He jerked his head aside at the last moment, but the movement wasn't enough. The first sergeant died a short time later.

McKinney's mother blames the military in part for how her son died.

"He was not in the right frame of mind, and no one helped him,” she said.

Even more, though, she blames the stress and chaos going on around him. As she tells her grandchildren, "Your dad did not kill himself,” she said. "The war killed him."

She pats the quilt on the back of the couch and smiles, sadly.

All she has now is her memories.



About

This is a showcase of the work done by Timothy J. Gibbons during a journalism career now stretching back more than a decade.

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