Jeffrey Henthorn

An undated photograph supplied by Kay Henthorn, Jeffrey Henthorn's mother, of Jeffrey with a child in Iraq.

Henthorn, 25, had been sent back to Iraq for a second tour, even though his superiors knew he was unstable and had threatened suicide at least twice, according to Army investigative reports and interviews. When he finally succeeded in killing himself on Feb. 8, 2005, at Camp Anaconda in Balad, Iraq, an Army report says, the work of the M-16 rifle was so thorough that fragments of his skull pierced the barracks ceiling. (MARK MIRKO / March 17, 2006)

There is not enough guilt to go around here, so intent is each woman in Jeffrey Henthorn's life on owning a piece of the blame.

His sister, Shannon Austill, had found him in the living room, laughing at a CD he had brought back from his first combat tour -- images of Iraqi adults and children who had been shot, dismembered, burned beyond recognition.

"Jeffrey,'' she remembers chastising him, "that's immoral. That's disgraceful. Why do you have these pictures?''

He had shrugged her off. "I don't know -- because I can't believe it,'' she recalls him saying. "Anyway, c'mon, they're all dead.''

Trisha Fish, his ex-wife, had seen the anguish in his eyes when he jolted awake from a nap, grabbed her by the shoulders and appealed for absolution -- for killing a young Iraqi boy, about the same age as their son. He told family members he was tormented by memories of shoving a boy off a moving tank and watching his limp body slip under the track wheels.

"Jeffrey wasn't the same -- he was really messed up,'' says Trisha, 27, who remained close to Jeffrey after their breakup. "I knew he wasn't right, but I didn't know what I could do.''

But no one wears the guilt like Henthorn's mother, Kay, a speck of a woman who has literally seemed to shrink under the burden, her family says. More than a year after his death, she still winces as she replays the last time she saw him -- Christmas 2004, at Fort Riley in Kansas the day before he shipped out for his second Iraq tour.

When she hugged him goodbye, her brave soldier son -- the boy who had grown up respecting the uniform, in the sprawling shadow of Tinker Air Force Base -- had crumpled in her arms.

"I don't want to go back,'' he sobbed. "I don't want to go.''

She told him she loved him and that everything would be OK.

And then she did what she was supposed to do:

She left him there.

"I will never forget the look on his face when he looked at me. It eats all over me,'' says Kay, 57, who works at the deli counter of the local Wal-Mart. "Why didn't I turn the car around, bring him home, and say the hell with them, the hell with the Army?'' Her breath catches in her throat. "I didn't know.''

No one knew that Jeffrey, 25, would be flown back to Tinker less than two months into his second deployment -- in a box. Shortly after noon on Feb. 8, 2005, he shot himself through the mouth with an M-16 rifle at an Army camp in Balad, Iraq, according to the military.

While the women left behind wrestle with the clues they missed, Henthorn's father, Warren, an Air Force veteran, seethes over what the Army missed: his son's freefall into depression, including suicide warnings that were known to his Army superiors. The elder Henthorn, divorced from Kay, is an unassuming man who runs a heating and air-conditioning repair business in the back-pocket town of Choctaw, where Jeffrey spent most of his childhood.

"This whole thing hasn't felt right from the get-go,'' Warren says. "If a man is having serious emotional problems, and the chain of command knows about it, you get him out of there and get him help.''

Henthorn's case is perhaps the most egregious example of a military mental health system that is focused on retaining troops in combat, even when they exhibit clear signs of psychological distress. Since the war in Iraq began, the military has stressed the importance of treating troubled soldiers on the front lines and improving "return-to-duty'' rates -- principles that some believe are being taken too far, putting troops' safety at risk.

Henthorn is one of 11 service members identified by The Courant who killed themselves in 2004 and 2005 after being kept in Iraq despite obvious mental problems. His family agreed to speak out in the hope that "we can maybe save a couple of families from what's happened to us,'' in Warren Henthorn's words.

Warren has come by his anger at the Army the hard way. First, there was a 14-month wait for an investigative report on Jeffrey's death, despite his repeated appeals to U.S. congressmen and top Army brass for answers.