Staff Sgt. David P. Senft served three full tours of duty in the Middle East with the U.S. Army as a side gunner on a Blackhawk helicopter. He was twice given an Air Medal for meritorious achievement during flight. And until he died during his fourth tour of duty, his second in Afghanistan, he had a reputation for putting others first.
Earlier this year, the Tracy War Memorial Association decided Senft’s name should be carved onto the granite memorial near City Hall, the city’s way of honoring residents who gave their lives serving their country.
But less than two months before that solemn ceremony — names are revealed on Veterans Day and carved the day before — at least one local military family says Senft’s name doesn’t belong. The reason: The staff sergeant committed suicide at Kandahar Air Base, an act that just doesn’t square with his oath to serve.
“War is awful. Anytime you lose anyone, it’s a horrible thing,” said Julie Conover, whose son, Lance Cpl. Brandon Dewey, was wounded in fierce fighting in 2004 in Fallujah and died in Anbar Province in 2006 when a suicide bomber attacked his unit.
Though she and her husband, Scott, empathize with the loss felt by the staff sergeant’s loved ones, they say there’s a line to be drawn when it comes to the memorial. There’s a difference, Conover said, between service and taking one’s own life, which is counter to the ethos of the armed forces.
“It’s horrible. And I understand that he had some issues. … And it’s unfortunate that the military didn’t address that,” she said. “But I still do not think he deserves to be put on a war memorial for people who serve honorably.”
They’ve petitioned the Tracy War Memorial Association, which meets at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the local American Legion Hall, to reconsider its decision.
The issue isn’t that Senft died away from combat. According to Sam Matthews, the former publisher of the Tracy Press who sits on the War Memorial Association board, several of the World War I vets with their names in granite died in the influenza epidemic, but were still in a war zone — like Senft — and therefore were recognized.
The issue isn’t that suicide is not recognized by the military. President Obama sent Senft’s family a letter “… in recognition of devoted and selfless consecration to the service of our country in the armed forces of the United States.” And Maj. Gen. James Terry, who oversaw the investigation of Senft’s death, concluded that Staff Sgt. Senft “died in the line of duty,” right above his signature.
The issue, as put so simply by the Conovers, is honor.
It’s touchy territory, weighing in on someone else’s integrity.
I talked to the staff sergeant’s father, David H. Senft, who provided some perspective.
He told me about a conversation he had with a lieutenant colonel, who said the Blackhawk crew chief was known for refusing to run to safety when a comrade was in danger.
According to the Army officer, he said, on at least one occasion when a wounded soldier was on the ground but the copter’s pilot wanted to take off because of heavy fire, the staff sergeant unhooked his harness and told the pilot to take off. He, however, wouldn’t leave anyone behind.
Senft hauled the casualty back to the Blackhawk — the pilot stayed, after all — and the wounded man lived.
The senior Senft recalled: “The lieutenant colonel said, ‘That’s what your son is known for. I’m not going to say it’s right or it’s wrong, but your son refused to leave anybody behind, and he never worried about himself.’”
If that’s not honorable service, I don’t know what is. And it’s worthy of remembrance.
David’s father agrees: “I think that soldier David saved would say, damn right he should be on (the memorial).”
Before killing himself in Afghanistan, Staff Sgt. Senft had his gun taken from him and was put on medication, but he was left in a war zone. He at least once had his fourth deployment delayed because of mental health troubles, but he was sent overseas anyway. He’d already been treated for mental health issues stateside while in the military.
If anything, Senft was failed by his country, not the other way around. That’s no reason to keep him off the Tracy War Memorial.
It’s not that I don’t understand the Conovers’ concern. I do. And in talking to them, I know they’re not cold-hearted. They’re good folks.
But on this one, I just don’t agree with them.
The suicide doesn’t besmirch the honor of what Staff Sgt. Senft did for his fellow servicemen or his country. Neither does having his name on the war memorial’s black granite lessen the honor of the others whose names are graven there.
I say, engrave the name. Let it stay there, in memory of a man who gave to his country until he had nothing left to give.
• Second Thoughts is an opinion column by editor Jon Mendelson. Share your thoughts at firstname.lastname@example.org.