Image: Keiffer Wilhelm
AP
Keiffer Wilhelm, a 19-year-old Army private from Willard, Ohio, killed himself in Iraq in August.
updated 10/9/2009 10:45:07 AM ET 2009-10-09T14:45:07

Just about everyone in Keiffer Wilhelm's life — his father, his brother, his best friends — had worn a military uniform or grew up around someone who did.

So when he decided that was his best option too, he heard plenty of advice about surviving boot camp and beyond. He ended up liking the Army so much, he wanted to make it a career. He even volunteered to join another unit so he could speed up his departure to Iraq.

Just days after arriving, everything changed.

Now his family and his friends want to know what happened in Iraq that pushed the gentle, playful 19-year-old to kill himself two months ago. His final desperate act, they say, doesn't fit with the young man who grew up in a proud military family and always wanted to please everyone.

They hope to get some answers on Friday when two soldiers who served with Wilhelm in Iraq are expected to appear at a military hearing similar to a civilian grand jury. They have been charged with cruelty and maltreatment related to Wilhelm and at least two others. Two more soldiers also have been charged and are scheduled to appear at hearings next week.

Military investigators say Wilhelm had been a target of the four soldiers, who were mistreating some of the men in their platoon. But they also concluded the alleged misconduct didn't cause Wilhelm's death.

Little information has been released about his death, which happened 10 days after he met up with his new unit . His mother said he called her twice, telling her he was being forced to run for miles with rocks in his pockets that smashed against his knees.

'Tragedy'
Those who knew him best wonder why Wilhelm thought suicide was his only option, searching for clues they might have missed. His mother thinks he did it to save others in his platoon from enduring further abuse. Others believe he was pushed until he broke.

The allegations of abuse by fellow soldiers only add to the mystery surrounding a young man who finally was finding direction in his life.

"That's the tragedy in it all," said Bob Armstrong, whose son was one of Wilhelm's closest friends. "You'd think there'd be some signs. This kid was full of life."

Armstrong said he saw Wilhelm after boot camp and thought, "He's on his way."

His family says there was no history of depression or angry outbursts.

"He would bend anyway possible to avoid a confrontation," said Wilhelm's father, Shane. "And he wasn't the type to quit."

Shane Wilhelm said he's learned in recent weeks that the men facing charges also are accused of mistreating two other soldiers and that investigators think it had been going on since June — nearly two months before his son joined the platoon.

His family and friends, though, say that still doesn't explain why Wilhelm didn't seek help or the unconfirmed reports that he'd been teased about his weight.

Boot camp
Wilhelm had struggled to keep his weight down in high school and had to lose about 20 pounds before he could join the Army. But he came out of boot camp in the best shape of his life.

"He looked good," said Armstrong, who said Wilhelm was like another son to him. "I was amazed at all the weight he lost."

Armstrong, a former soldier himself, was just one of many people who had a lot of long talks with Wilhelm about what to expect once he enlisted.

Wilhelm's grandfather retired from the U.S. Coast Guard, his father served in Iraq during the Gulf War in the early 1990s and his brother, Shannon, is a military police officer in the Air Force.

One of his best friends joined the Army a few months before he did.

All of them helped Wilhelm get ready for boot camp, which was supposed to be the toughest part. By the time he left, he knew all about the running, the mind games and the loneliness he would face.

"He could've made a very good soldier," said Linda Walker, whose son was another one of his best friends. "He was smart. He would give it his all and ... do what was needed. He never complained about anything."

She now wonders if that's why he never told others in his unit about the alleged abuse.

"I think he was fearful of being kicked out," said Walker, who was in the Army nine years.

Wilhelm wasn't sold on the military right away.

He applied for a couple of factory jobs after graduating from high school in the spring of 2008 and worked for a few months in the shipping department at a Pepperidge Farm factory that makes Goldfish crackers.

There aren't many opportunities for young, high school graduates in his rural northern Ohio hometown where the county unemployment rate is among the highest in the state and reached 18 percent in January.

Working in a factory didn't hold much appeal anyway, so he started thinking more about enlisting when his brother and others encouraged him to take a look at the armed forces.

He idolized his brother, who was two years older. The boys lived with their mother after their parents divorced when Wilhelm was 4. Shannon Wilhelm was outgoing. Keiffer Wilhelm was quiet.

"Everything Shannon did was the coolest thing in the world," said their father. "Shannon had a nice car, Keiffer wanted one too. Shannon had a motorcycle. Keiffer wanted a motorcycle."

Their mother, Kathe, said Wilhelm had a new attitude coming out of boot camp that she could see in the way he walked and in his smirking, confident smile.

"He felt good about who he was," she said. "He was excited about going to places he'd never dreamed about."

Push-ups
Wilhelm didn't tell his mother that he had volunteered to go to Iraq. Instead, he said his name had been picked randomly. "It wasn't, 'Mom I don't want to go,' " she said.

He arrived in Iraq on July 25, and five days later called home. He told her he was being forced to exercise for hours and that her his personal items were disappearing.

Another call two days later revealed that he was being forced to go on long runs that left his knees bloody, and that he spent hours doing push-ups and sit-ups in a dirt pile, she said.

"He sounded bad," she said. "He was in trouble for everything."

That was the last time they spoke.

The next day, he was dead.

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