By MEGHAN BARR, The Associated Press | Posted: Monday, August 24, 2009
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- When Adrian Wilhelm learned that his son committed suicide just four days into his deployment in Iraq, he knew right away that the facts didn't add up.
His son, 19-year-old Pvt. Keiffer Wilhelm, had been excited and upbeat just weeks earlier as he prepared to ship overseas. He was planning to buy a new car. He was exercising diligently, shedding at least 20 pounds in time for boot camp.
Then, suddenly, he was dead. Now his family is struggling to process the stunning news that four of Wilhelm's fellow soldiers stand accused of abusing him and other soldiers in his platoon with excessive physical fitness and cruelty before his death.
"They just acted like they were a bunch of street hoods," Adrian Wilhelm said from his home in Plymouth, Ohio. "They thought they were above the law."
The soldiers have been charged with cruelty and maltreatment of subordinates, among other charges. The military says there is no direct evidence that the soldiers' alleged misconduct caused Wilhelm's death, which remains under investigation.
Wilhelm died Aug. 4 of a gunshot wound to the head in Maysan province in southern Iraq. His unit is part of the first brigade to deploy to Iraq for the new U.S. mission to train Iraqi security forces.
"There's no way he could do what he did without being pushed to the limit," Adrian Wilhelm said.
In recent days, Wilhelm's family has watched as unconfirmed reports of the abuse leaked out in the media. Adrian Wilhelm says he's read that his son was forced to crawl in the dirt until his legs bled, and that he was harassed about his weight.
"We found all that out on the news," he said. "That was information that no one truly knew."
A portrait of a young, idealistic soldier devoted to the Army began to emerge from interviews with family and friends in the small northern Ohio town where Wilhelm grew up. A high school wrestler who battled weight issues, Wilhelm worked hard to get in shape before his deployment, said Linda Walker, a close family friend who encouraged him to enlist in the Army in December.
"Keiffer was the most non-threatening person you would ever want to meet," she said. "I just don't think he was ready for the brutality from his own troops."
Wilhelm had a boisterous laugh and was affectionate with everyone, his father said.
"He always gave everyone hugs, that was his thing," his father said. "He'd squeeze you until your back cracked. He'd pick you up off the ground."
The last time Adrian Wilhelm saw Keiffer alive was in early May, when the family gathered in Arizona for the wedding of his eldest son. He seemed happy, excited to begin a new chapter of his life, his father said.
The military identified the four accused soldiers as Sgt. Enoch Chatman, Staff Sgt. Bob Clements, Sgt. Jarrett Taylor and Spc. Daniel Weber of B Troop, 2nd Squadron, 13th Calvary Regiment from Fort Bliss, Texas.
Chatman, of West Covina, Calif., was charged with four counts of cruelty and maltreatment, one count of making a false statement and one count of reckless endangerment.
Clements, of Eastland, Texas, faces four counts of cruelty and maltreatment, three counts of making a false statement, one count of impeding an investigation and one count of reckless endangerment.
Taylor, of Edmond, Okla., was charged with two counts of cruelty and maltreatment, one count of making false statement and one count of reckless endangerment.
Weber, of Frankenmuth, Mich., has been charged with three counts of cruelty and maltreatment, one count of reckless endangerment and one count of impeding an investigation.
The allegations of abuse prompted the family to go public about what happened to their son, Adrian Wilhelm said.
"I felt like I couldn't protect him over there," he said. "I at least want to try and make things right here for him, somehow."
--submitted by Lois Vanderbur