(MILITARY TIMES) Before killing himself with a single gunshot, Pvt. Keiffer Wilhelm called his mother twice from Iraq and told her he was being targeted in his new unit and forced to run for miles with rocks in his pockets that smashed against his knees.
An Army carry team carries a transfer case containing the remains of Pvt. Keiffer P. Wilhelm on Aug. 6 at Dover Air Force Base, Del. Wilhelm, 19, died Aug. 4 in Maysan province, Iraq.
He told her he hated it, she said in an interview with The Associated Press on Thursday, marking the first time anyone has said Wilhelm spoke to them about the abuse.
“He said ‘Mom, I don’t have anybody to turn to here,’” said Kathe Wilhelm, recalling the last conversation she had with her son, a day before he died.
The investigation into Wilhelm’s death has led to charges against four soldiers who the military says were mistreating some of the men in their platoon. Allegations include verbal abuse, physical punishment and ridicule toward the soldiers.
The military has said there’s no direct evidence, so far, that the alleged misconduct caused Wilhelm’s death.
Wilhelm, who grew up in northern Ohio, was in Iraq with his new platoon for just 10 days before he killed himself on Aug. 4.
He had volunteered to leave for Iraq before the rest of his unit and join a brigade with the mission of training Iraqi security forces.
His family said he wanted to make a career in the military and talked about becoming a military police officer, following in the footsteps of his brother who is in the Air Force.
Wilhelm arrived in Iraq on July 25 and called his mother to tell her he had landed safely. She said he was excited to begin a new adventure.
In five days everything had changed, she said.
Wilhelm told his mother he was being forced to exercise for hours and that others in his platoon were making fun of him, Kathe Wilhelm said. He also told 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.”
His mother, whose father retired from the military, told him he’d make new friends and things would get better. “He said ‘Mom, No it won’t. I hate it here,’” she said.
That was the last time they spoke.
“I knew they’d push him,” she said. “Somebody pushed him to the point where he broke.”
Her son knew enough to expect some hazing, she said, but it must have been worse than she even imagined. He survived boot camp, after all.
The military said last week that four soldiers had been charged with cruelty and maltreatment and reckless endangerment. Three of the four were also charged with making false official statements.
The four remain in Iraq, where legal proceedings will take place.
The military has identified the four soldiers facing charges as Sgt. Enoch Chatman, Staff Sgt. Bob Clements, Sgt. Jarrett Taylor and Spc. Daniel Weber of B Troop, 2nd Squadron, 13th Calvary Regiment from Fort Bliss, Texas.
They face anywhere from eight to 25 years in prison if convicted on all counts.
There have been unconfirmed reports that Wilhelm was harassed about his weight. Family members say that doesn’t make sense because he was in such good shape coming out of boot camp.
He was always a bit pudgy as a teen and had to lose about 20 pounds before leaving for basic training. But his mother said she was proud of his transformation when she saw him at his boot camp graduation.
“Just in the way he carried himself,” she said. “The twinkle in his eye.”
No one knows with certainty why he ended his own life.
Kathe Wilhelm thinks he did it to save others in his platoon from enduring further abuse.
“In order to get somebody’s attention, he had to take a drastic step,” she said. “I would bet my life he thought he was helping protect those boys.”