A Drunken Night
in Iraq, A Soldier Is Left Behind
By Donna St. George
Washington Post Staff Writer
Post" -- - 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
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
"She was young, spontaneous, very bubbly, giggling, laughing,"
said Spec. Annette Mack, her roommate in Taji. Another close
friend, Spec. Nicole Cabral, said that McKinney took her son's
teddy bear to war and slept with it at night.
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 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
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. According to his MySpace page, his interests included Ohio
sports teams, women, beer games and drunken karaoke .
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.
At the tower, Shell tried to get the two female soldiers to kiss
him, but they refused, according to their statements. 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.
A Crime, Not an Accident
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
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. "I thought
that I hit her," he said, "but at the time I don't even know
that I had thought about these things."
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 said they
spotted her. At first glance, they mistook her body for debris.
An Unexpected Verdict
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
The sole question, to be decided by a judge, Col. Theodore
Dixon, was whether Shell's actions amounted to involuntary
Prosecutors said that 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
"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 that 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
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. "He was done
with her sexually. He just left her all alone, dying in the
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
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
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
from the Army.
By then, Barbie Heavrin and her family had gone home.
'What Do You Say? Sorry?'
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,
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.
Staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.
© 2008 The Washington Post Company
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