Pfc. Hannah Gunterman McKinney, US Army, died from non-hostile incident in Taji, Iraq on September 4, 2006. Pfc. Gunterman was supporting Operation Iraqi Freedom on behalf of the 542nd Maintenance Company, 44th Corps Support Battalion, Fort Lewis, Washington. According to the Department of Defense, the incident was under investigation at the time of the press release.
According to initial media reports, Hannah left a guard tower at a logistics base in Taji, north of Baghdad, to go to the latrine and was hit and run over by a Humvee as she was crossing the road. The DoD reported that she died from injuries sustained after she was struck by a vehicle. The driver had apparently left the scene of the accident and it would be two hours before a tank crew discovered Hannah laying severely injured on a darkened perimeter road. Hannah was rushed to a hospital where she would later die. Hannah was married to a fellow soldier at Fort Lewis and was the mother of a toddler son. Her husband, Chris McKinney, told the Los Angeles Times that the Humvee driver was intoxicated and was in custody, facing disciplinary action. Chris said that every time he talked to Hannah he could tell she was as depressed as one could get. She just wanted to come home and be with her son and her family. Later we would learn that McKinney’s last hours involved alcohol, sex and a decorated Army reservist who was responsible for looking out for junior enlisted soldiers like Hannah. Although alcohol was banned in the combat zone, one of the sergeants had managed to buy vodka. Later drunk, the sergeants piled into a Humvee to bid goodbye to friends including Hannah. The soldiers were celebrating the end of their tour. They went to Hannah’s guard tower, she left her post, and they all went back to the barracks to drink.
Hannah’s parent’s Matthew and Barbara Heavrin want the American public to know the truth. According to statements in the Army Criminal Investigation Division report, Hannah got really drunk and had a sexual encounter with one of the soldiers. Her autopsy report showed a .20 blood-alcohol level. Sgt. Damon Shell testified that he attempted to take Hannah back to the Guard tower but realized she was in no shape to go back to work. On his way back to the barracks, Shell reports that he hit a bump, Hannah’s Humvee door popped open, and she fell out. Shell eventually noticed that Hannah was no longer in the Humvee and instead of stopping to help or look for his fellow soldier, he left the scene and went back to bed in the barracks. Hannah’s death resulted from injuries suffered after she fell out of a Humvee and was struck by that same vehicle. Sgt. Damon Shell was charged with involuntary manslaughter but a military jury at Fort Hood found him not guilty of that charge. Prosecutors argued that 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 made him culpable for her death. The defense argued that Shell was not responsible for what happened to Hannah after she fell out of a Humvee known to have problems with doors popping open. They argued it was a horrible accident. Damon Shell pleaded guilty to the lesser charges of drinking, drunken driving, and consensual sodomy. He was jailed for 13 months and demoted to a private yet not discharged from the Army.
Hannah’s death benefit ($500,000) went to her husband Chris. The family learned that under military rules, nothing was required to be put aside for Todd, who was not Chris McKinney’s child. Hannah’s parents eventually testified to the House Committee on Veterans Affairs about the death benefits that went to Chris McKinney. They believe that it is an anomaly that needs to be remedied to benefit the surviving sons and daughters of deceased soldiers, sailors and airmen to assist the grandparents who raise them. Matthew Heavrin shared that the assumption was made that Chris is caring for Hannah’s son Todd, which he is not and the burden of raising Hannah’s son has been left solely to them. According to Hannah’s father, Chris McKinney never offered any of the $500,000 death benefit to the family or to Hannah’s toddler son Todd.
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 Seattle Times
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