Timothy Hutton was doing well in the Army, and the new soldier was eagerly learning additional skills two weeks into his first deployment to Iraq.
Everybody said so, including fellow soldiers, commanders, his girlfriend — whom he planned to marry — and his mother.
So it was a complete shock when the 21-year-old private was found with a fatal bullet wound in his forehead at his U.S. base in Iraq. The Army concluded it was suicide.
More than two years after her son died at Camp Stryker in Baghdad on Aug. 4, 2008, the questions eat at Sonya Miller, who lives in Ewa Beach.
"I don’t believe he killed himself," she said. "I don’t believe anything points to that. Since joining the military and graduating from basic and (advanced individual training), after I saw him for a full month in Montana and before he went over there, he was on top of his world."
Classified a suicide, the loss of Hutton is one of many within the ranks that the U.S. military struggles to explain.
Army suicides, historically much lower than the civilian rate, started spiking in 2005, and in 2008 the rate topped the national average and reached a record 20.2 deaths per 100,000 soldiers, the service said. The civilian rate is about 19.2 per 100,000 people.
In June there were a record 32 potential Army suicides, including 21 from active duty and 11 from Reserve ranks. The deadly march has included 100 Army active-duty suicides in 2006, 115 in 2007, 140 in 2008, 162 in 2009 and 145 potential and confirmed soldier suicides through November, according to government figures.
Adding suicides to accidental deaths, which often result from drinking and driving and drug overdose, "we find that less young men and women die in combat than die by their own actions," the Army said in a report released in July. "Simply stated, we are often more dangerous to ourselves than the enemy."
For some the rigors of service, repeat deployments, injuries and separations from family result in a sense of isolation, hopelessness and "life fatigue," according to the report, Health Promotion, Risk Reduction and Suicide Prevention.
THE GOOD NEWS is that soldiers are seeking behavioral health care in record numbers, the Army said. The risk reduction report, the result of a 15-month effort, identified gaps in programs and an increase in high-risk behavior including illegal drug use and greater use of prescription antidepressants, amphetamines and narcotics, the Army said.
The Army said it implemented more than 200 changes, including improving access and coordination between medical and behavioral health providers, expanding behavioral health screening and recruiting more counselors and chaplains.
Hutton, however, did not exhibit suicidal indicators in the Army, according to the investigation.
He was treated for depression in high school and took Lexapro, which is used for depression and anxiety. But he was on an even keel later in life and was proud of his military service, his mother said. He had never attempted suicide, she said.
Hutton’s body was found in his housing trailer, on the floor in the middle of the room, his M-16A2 rifle next to him. An empty casing from a round fired from the weapon was recovered, the Army said.
Hutton, who was with the 54th Engineer Battalion, 20th Engineer Brigade, out of Bamberg, Germany, had been having problems with a roommate, a fellow soldier reported in a statement.
Miller postulates that her son and another soldier "could have come to blows and the gun went off or something. It looked like a struggle in the room to me" based on the Army report. Her son’s computer was on the floor next to him, she said.
The investigation was conducted by the Army’s Criminal Investigation Command from its Camp Slayer office.
"I think the military from the first get-go thought it was suicide, and they didn’t go any deeper," Miller said.
The report states, "Investigation determined the cause of PV2 Hutton’s death was a contact gunshot wound of the head, and the manner of death was suicide." "Contact" means the muzzle was touching the person when the weapon was fired.
Chris Grey, a spokesman for the Army’s Criminal Investigation Command, or CID, at Fort Belvoir, Va., said agents investigate all deaths as if they are homicides.
"Agents are trained not to go into death scenes with any predetermined theories or conclusions until they have appropriately collected and analyzed all evidence and leads," Grey said in an e-mail. "CID conducted a thorough and complete investigation into the death of the soldier and did consider numerous possibilities in this case. There was no indication or evidence to suggest that foul play was involved."
The sequence of events leading to her son’s reputed suicide does not make sense to Miller.
"Who proposes to their girlfriend, talks about picking her up on the way back when he was coming out of Iraq, and then getting married?" she said. "And talks to her for an hour and then goes to bed, gets up the next morning, e-mails her, goes to work, goes to chow at lunch, not even 24 hours later says hi to people on your way back to your containerized housing unit (and then) go into your room and intentionally shoot yourself in the middle of your forehead with your gun?"
Hutton had joined the Army in January 2008 and had just started his first deployment to Iraq. In the investigation, soldier after soldier said Hutton was upbeat.
"Hutton seemed in good spirits and looked normal," the report quoted a soldier as saying (the Army blacked out names in the report).
"All soldiers stated PV2 Hutton was a good soldier, he was eager to learn, and he was looking forward to the deployment," the investigating agent said.
His squad leader said Hutton "was completely normal when he left for lunch" the day he died.
"I have never seen him upset, cry, mad, anything," another soldier said in the report. "He seemed to like being here in Iraq and just complained about the normal stuff like the heat."
Hutton liked fishing, camping and river floating in his home state of Montana, family members said. He came from a broken home, was a runaway and stayed in foster homes, and was partly raised by his grandmother, they said. He wanted to build a cabin in the woods someday.
One soldier said Hutton admitted taking drugs on a regular basis before joining the Army.
Another said he was socially awkward. Miller said her son’s girlfriend was 17 and living in Texas when he was in Iraq.
One to two days prior to his death, he left a phone message at his grandmother’s saying he was "doing fine" and that he planned to marry the girl after the deployment, the investigation states.
In an interview with investigators, his girlfriend said she spoke to Hutton the day before he died, and the two confirmed their marriage plans.
"He was constantly laughing and joking, without a care in the world," she wrote. "He was at the happiest point in his life. He was finally making money and a future for himself. He was finally a man with pride in what he was doing."
In 2007 he had written an e-mail saying that he was "sick of life" and was going to join the Army and go on "suicidal missions so that he could die young," the girl said.
But later, he "was the happiest while serving in the Army," she said.
No mention is made of a suicide note, but the investigation said a notebook was found with a passage that "related possible suicidal ideations."
According to documents, the statement reads: "Sorry Everybody, But F— the Army. I make more money on the outside doing construction and when my great grandma died when she and my grandma raised me the Army did not let me go to her funeral. Plus civilians who come over here make more than we do. Then you got people who psychologically f— us up in the head so F— you All."
Miller said she also wants to examine the writing, and has repeatedly asked the Army for a copy but never received one. Her son wouldn’t have used the word "psychologically," and he would have had trouble spelling it, she said.
"Considering this was not a ‘suicide note’ by definition and out of concern for the next of kin due to the state of the book (covered in blood and also a possible bio-hazard), it was not released as requested," said Grey, the CID spokesman.
Miller said her son’s death "continues to affect the whole family. Christmas is never going to be the same, just for one. The empty chair at the table at the holidays makes it harder."