Military Ethicist's Suicide in Iraq Raises Questions

T. Christian Miller of the Los Angeles Times discusses the suicide of Col. Ted Westhusing, a military ethics scholar, in Iraq. Westhusing's suicide note lashed out at officers and expressed despair over allegations of corruption and human-rights abuses against the contractors he oversaw.

Copyright © 2005 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This past June a 44-year-old colonel in the US Army, Ted Westhusing, was found dead in a trailer on a military base in Baghdad. The Army investigated and ruled his death a suicide. Westhusing had a single gunshot wound to the head. Weeks before, he had reported allegations about corruption by a US contractor in Iraq, a contractor he was responsible for overseeing. Los Angeles Times reporter T. Christian Miller has been investigating Colonel Westhusing's death and questions that remain.

And first, tell us a bit about Colonel Westhusing's background. Who was he?

Mr. T. CHRISTIAN MILLER (Los Angeles Times): Colonel Westhusing was a very interesting figure in the military. He was one of a handful of US officers who actually had a PhD in philosophy, and he used that PhD to return to West Point, where he was an instructor in English and philosophy and taught ethics. And it was clear from my reporting that ethics and issues of morality were very important to him.

BLOCK: He volunteers to go to Iraq. What was his specific role there? What was he doing?

Mr. MILLER: Once he got to Iraq, he took over a component of one of the most important missions in Iraq right now, and that is the training of the Iraqi security forces. His piece of that mission was to train a special squad of police officers who would do protection of high-ranking figures and would conduct raids on high-value targets.

BLOCK: And the company he was overseeing, what was that?

Mr. MILLER: Well, to do his job he took over a contract, which was--had been issued to a US company and the company actually did the training. Colonel Westhusing's role was to oversee that company and make sure the training got done. The company in question was a company based in Virginia called USIS, and they're a large security company that has contracts all over the world.

BLOCK: Let's talk about these corruption allegations. This past May, Colonel Westhusing got an anonymous four-page letter, allegations of wrongdoing by this company, USIS. What was in the letter? What were the specifics?

Mr. MILLER: There were two sets of allegations. One, essentially that the company was shortchanging the government in terms of the number of trainers that were being provided to train these Iraqi cadets. And the second were a more serious set of allegations that had to do with human rights violations by USIS officials or trainers, as it were. Those allegations were, first, that USIS trainers had actually engaged in offensive military operations during the siege of Fallujah. Under Department of Defense regulations and Iraqi law, security contractors aren't allowed to engage in offensive operations. The second concerned an incident in which a USIS contractor had apparently witnessed the killing of an innocent Iraqi and had not reported that to anybody higher up the chain.

BLOCK: So these allegations come to the colonel. What happens then?

Mr. MILLER: Colonel Westhusing, who, as I said, had made morality and ethics the focus of his life, immediately reports them to his supervisors and he, himself, confronts the contracting people on the ground--the USIS people on the ground in Iraq--and raises his concerns about what are the allegations in this letter and what truth is there to them? The FBI does the investigation and, as I understand it, is still looking into the investigation about some of the human rights abuses. The inspector general for Iraq is looking into some of these allegations as well. The Army contracting people look into some of the contract-related questions and they clear the company of any problems. The Army itself undertakes its own military investigation of these allegation, and they've also cleared the company of any problems.

BLOCK: This is not long before the colonel is found dead in his trailer, and there's a note next to his bed. What did that note say?

Mr. MILLER: This is where the whole case gets sort of murky. He reports the allegations. They begin to be investigated and then about three weeks after he receives that note he's found in his trailer. In his trailer, which was actually at the contractor's headquarters--contractor base...

BLOCK: USIS?

Mr. MILLER: Yes, the USIS base in Iraq. He's found on the floor. There is--his weapon is--a weapon is in his room and there is a note by his bed. The note essentially talks about his distress at what he sees as corruption in the activities in Iraq and he says that he came to Iraq to serve honorably and that he feels sullied, that he feels like the mission he came for is not the one which he's carrying out. And he says death before dishonor.

BLOCK: When the Army investigated this death, was there any hint that it could be anything other than suicide?

Mr. MILLER: Certainly there are family members that believe that, in part because he was a deeply devout Catholic. He was an expert in military ethics. He had dealt with issues of post-traumatic stress. So how does a guy like this end up committing suicide?

BLOCK: At the same time, you describe in detail in your story a number of incidents leading up to this death where he seems troubled. He seems quite agitated.

Mr. MILLER: He does clearly become more agitated as time goes by in Iraq. The first signs you see is he writes home some letters which say things like, `I'm not sure I could have made it through last night' and suggests that he's going through a lot of stress in his work. What worries him most, clearly, is his feeling that profit has overtaken military values like duty, honor, country in Iraq. In the final note he leaves and in his e-mails home, in his conversation with his friends, he talks about `I didn't come here to be surrounded by greedy contractors. I didn't come here to be a part of a mission that has been corrupted by concerns of money and things like that. For me, in some ways, it becomes a metaphor for the way the Iraq War has been fought, which is to outsource a lot of which has been done to private companies and so rather than having idealistic soldiers or young bureaucrats or whatever doing the work in Iraq you have people doing it for motives which are not altruistic and pure but rather for the bottom line.'

BLOCK: T. Christian Miller, thanks very much.

Mr. MILLER: Thank you.

BLOCK: T. Christian Miller writes for the Los Angeles Times.

Copyright © 2005 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.