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’?”

More inspired than enraged, the Baragonas, who are extremely pro-military, have been on an 8-year mission seeking accountability by knocking on congressional doors and hounding the heels of Kuwait Gulf Link Transport (KGL), which has become fattened beyond imagination by U.S. taxpayers, winning $1 billion in DOD contracts for removing trash on American bases, for instance. Yet while under these contracts, KGL was alleged to have business partnerships with the Iranian government, but severed them after pressure from Congress.

Due to the Feres Doctrine, a soldier relinquishes some of his Constitutional rights when he  enlists, says Baragona. The Feres Doctrine essentially denies a family the right to file a wrongful-death suit against the government when a family member dies while enlisted.

And when the Feres Doctrine is applied to a non-combat death, it immediately handicaps the investigation, says Baragona, because the process is not transparent and the Feres Doctrine does not allow the family a voice or a venue to air complaints and argue against what is found in an investigation.

“You don’t know who the witnesses are. You don’t what they’re saying. You don’t have a right to that information because it is all private. This allows for a large amount of abuse to happen,” she says.

The Baragonas and other advocates believe 9 out of 10 non-combat death investigations have faults. She blames military bureaucracy and a lack of experienced and trained investigators, for starters. Some investigations are outright cover-ups so as not to tarnish the military’s reputation, she says. And last, there is a military culture that “believes they’re doing more good for the family by not telling them what truly happened because they don’t want to add more suffering.”

In some cases, says Baragona, families have to conduct their own investigation. “And most of them don’t because they are still mourning,” she says.

In the case of 1st Lt. Debra Banaszak, after this reporter spoke to several soldiers that served under her in the Missouri National Guard, they said a significant number of male soldiers “had complete lack of respect for” a woman as their commanding officer.

“She was an outstanding officer, but I think (her unit) was full of incompetent non-commission officers and soldiers who were unwilling to accept a female commander,” said Staff Sergeant Bryan Wayne Scroggins of Sullivan, Illinois, who  is currently with the Illinois National Guard, but served under Banaszak when both were with the Missouri National Guard. Scroggins says it is a hard call as to whether it was abuse that pushed her to take her own life. “As unfortunate as it is, these things happen even when we don't expect them,” he says.

Nevertheless, Baragona says a thorough investigation may have provided answers, but the military refuses to say whether an investigation was even attempted after Banaszak apparently shot herself in the chest.

Baragona says she has studied other militaries and how they deal with non-combat deaths and found the British military’s approach perhaps a model the U.S. military might want to emulate.

The British armed forces extend to the family three different liaisons to handle each case. One liaison that works with the coroner, a second to monitor the investigation and make sure all evidence is considered and collected in a timely manner, and last, a legal representative to make sure investigators are doing their job and argue any discrepancies when the findings come out.

“Families (of a soldier who died at war) are screwed-up for the first 2 years,” she says. “Most of them can’t even think of the investigation. So they really need someone appointed on their behalf.”