The Shameful Way the Military Handles Non-Combat Deaths

What drove 1st Lieutenant Debra Banaszak of the Missouri National Guard over the edge?

It is a question her family tried to answer for a year after she committed suicide in Kuwait in 2005. Her family simply could not believe this loving mother and police officer who also had served 17 years with the Army National Guard would take her own life.

The family tried to pry more information out of the military, but what they were getting in return did not give them closure.

To this day, the Missouri National Guard still offers a press release dated October 31, 2005 -- which is just three days after Banaszak was found dead -- as the only information they can provide regarding her death. The release simply states that Banaszak “died of a non-combat related injury” on Oct. 28 in Kuwait.

“I’ve given you all the information I can on this,” said Major Tamara Spicer, public affairs officer for the Missouri National Guard, just recently to this reporter.

When pressed for anything more concrete than the 2005 press release, she continues to repeat herself and says nothing more: “I’ve given you all the information I can on this.”

Because of the military’s lax response, the Banaszak family told this reporter they have had to put the death of Debra behind them, or continue to suffer.

Pam Baragona of Ohio has unfortunately walked in the shoes of the Banaszak’s. Her family was desperate for more information about how her brother, Army Lt. Col. Dominic “Rocky” Baragona, died of what the military calls a “non-combat” death. To put it mildly, the military bureaucracy failed to deliver a clear answer to the Baragonas, and she says there are hundreds of families still seeking closure regarding the non-combat deaths of their loved ones during the past decade of war.

Now the Baragonas are in the early stages of starting a non-profit called “Defending the Fallen,” which will seek more accountability from the military when a loved one has suffered a non-combat death, which can be anything from suicide, accident, friendly fire, or murder. A venue for arbitration and an appointed family liaison to scrutinize any investigation will be two requests, for instance.

In 2003, Baragona’s brother -- a commanding officer and graduate of West Point -- was killed when a tractor-trailer owned by a foreign-based U.S. defense contractor jack-knifed into the Humvee he was a passenger in. Even weeks after the accident, the military investigators told the Baragonas they didn’t know the name of the defense contractor that owned the tractor trailer.

“You are already dealing with the loss, and then to be dealing with the shock the military is not doing their job?” asks Baragona. “Are you kidding me? How can you have a picture of the accident scene with (the tractor-trailer) ‘Kuwait Gulf Link Transport’ on the truck, and then they told us ‘We don’t know the name of the company’?”