Second Of Two Parts—At the Dillard's counter in Oklahoma City, Vicki Behenna was buying a beachy canvas purse for summer when her oldest son called from Iraq.
FOR THE RECORD:
A killing in Iraq: An article in Monday's Section A about the trial of Army 1st Lt. Michael Behenna, who shot an unarmed Iraqi, misstated the age of bloodstain expert Herbert MacDonell as 88. He is 81. —
When the connection failed, she kept the phone in her hand, waiting. In the last few weeks, she had been desperately worried about him.
Michael Behenna, 25, was an Army lieutenant leading an infantry platoon on his first tour in Iraq. He had just been home to Oklahoma for a three-week leave. He was distant and withdrawn, tormented by a roadside bomb that killed two of his soldiers.
His family tried to get Michael out to reengage in his old world. They went horseback riding in the Arbuckle Mountains, hosted game nights of Scattergories and Pictionary. None of it could get him out of the storm in his mind.
In the mall during that visit, his younger brother Brett asked him a question about his platoon. Michael didn't say anything. His lips tightened and his eyes teared up. Brett had never seen him cry. He quickly put his arm around Michael's shoulder and pulled him in close so other shoppers couldn't see him. Michael struggled to say something but couldn't. He fumbled to get sunglasses out of his pocket. His mom and girlfriend rushed over, and they walked to Vicki's car, where he wept inside alone.
Now Vicki's phone rang again, and she rushed into the open mall to hear him better. Children's laughter from the play area resounded from the floor below. She could barely make out his words -- something about him being removed from his base, an investigation.
"An investigation on what?" Vicki asked.
He told her it was about the death of an Iraqi. "If they just know what happened out there it will be OK," he said.
Vicki Behenna was a 20-year federal prosecutor. As a mother, she wanted to hear every detail. But the attorney in her knew that he had to stop talking. If he made some terrible admission, there was no legal privilege protecting her from being called to testify.
"Don't tell me anything," she said.
For the next few weeks, in June 2008, Vicki and her husband, Scott, an FBI intelligence analyst, could barely eat or talk. They couldn't ask questions or get facts.
Vicki needed to see for herself how Michael was doing. She knew he needed counseling. He had tamped so much down. If only he could come home.
A dread took root like a tumor in her gut, a fear of what he might do to himself. She wouldn't form the words to give it currency. But it was there, swelling, finding resonance in the heavy hopelessness of his voice.
She asked if he was still working out at the gym.
"The person I worked out with is no longer here," he said. "I can't go back there."