That’s because the 27-year-old who once lived in Tracy died at Kandahar Air Base in Afghanistan during his fourth tour of duty — and some are calling it a suicide.
The U.S. Army hasn’t officially ruled the sergeant’s death a suicide — the only information made public by the Department of Defense so far is that Senft died in a non-combat related incident while on the base in southern Afghanistan. But at least one man believes it to be true.
David H. Senft, the staff sergeant’s father, said he has been told enough by military investigators to be certain his son shot himself while parked in an SUV on the airbase, with a cell phone bearing a final, unsent message at his side.
“In reading what I do know, he killed himself,” Senft said.
And while there’s no turning back the clock to Nov. 15, 2010, the day his son died, Senft believes his son wasn’t destined for such a fate.
The staff sergeant tried to take his own life while stationed at a stateside army base. He was hospitalized for suicidal tendencies and was at least once held back from deployment, only to be sent to war shortly thereafter.
While deployed, he had his gun taken from him. He was put into counseling. He was given medication. But he also remained in Afghanistan until the day he shot himself.
For Senft, what that means is simple: The decorated sharpshooter who a lieutenant colonel said never left behind an injured comrade was left behind by the country he served.
And his father is on a mission to make sure it doesn’t happen to anyone else.
The staff sergeant’s story
In 2002, the man who would one day be called Staff Sgt. Senft decided he wanted to take to the skies. So he joined the U.S. Army.
After boot camp in Fort Benning, Ga., he began military life as a member of the 82nd Airborne Division but eventually transferred to the 101st Airborne. Between the two outfits, he logged two tours of duty in Iraq and two in Afghanistan.
As a side gunner on a Black Hawk helicopter, he became a distinguished marksman. He earned two Air Medals, awarded for meritorious achievement while participating in aerial flight. According to his father, it’s a rare honor.
“They tell me the Air Medal is the highest an enlisted airborne member can receive,” said David H. Senft, who himself worked for the military in Afghanistan on a contract basis as an electrician.
But that honor pales in comparison to what Lt. Col. Brad Ninness told Senft about his deceased son.
“He’s the one who told me what David was known for,” the elder Senft said. “Their main job is to go in as a troop transport. Whenever there was a convoy or ground troops hit, Dave and his guys were the ones who went in and did the medical (evacuations). Which means they went in under enemy fire all the time.”
The lieutenant colonel, Senft said, told him simply: “Your son’s career, he never left one behind. Ever. And that’s what your son is known for.”
“He never thought about himself, he always thought about those kids out there,” Senft said. “He never left one behind.”
But no amount of heroism, Senft said, could steel his son against one experience of war.
During his first tour in Iraq, when the country had descended into chaos following the U.S. invasion, Senft said, his son switched helicopter flights with his best friend from boot camp. They both needed casts removed from their legs, and the staff sergeant’s friend wanted to go to the hospital first.
So they swapped. And Sgt. Senft watched as the helicopter bearing his friend — the chopper he was originally meant to be aboard — was shot down.
“He saw his best friend killed on the bird he was supposed to be on,” said the elder Senft.
It’s something that haunted his son, Senft said.
And in light of the staff sergeant’s apparent death at his own hands following previous suicide attempts, it’s led Senft to believe the Army could have done more to help.
Warning signs ignored
Crystal Veillette met Sgt. Senft when he transferred to the 101st Airborne and was stationed in Fort Campbell, Ky.
Veillette, whose husband is deployed in Afghanistan with the Army, said Senft was a kind man with an infectious laugh — and he was killer with a Rockstar video game guitar.
“He was a sweetheart. He’d do anything for anybody. … We were just good friends,” she said.
“He was a good guy. He just had some problems. He’d have some really weird mood swings.”
According to his father, by the time he got to Kentucky, Senft had already attempted suicide once, while he was stationed in North Carolina.
Once at Fort Campbell, he tried to kill himself again. His father said the staff sergeant swallowed enough sleeping pills to put him out for a few days.
“While he was there … David took a bunch of pills, lost two days,” Senft said.
According to both Senft and Veillette, the sergeant was admitted to a hospital in Hopkinsville for at least two weeks for, as his father put it, “suicidal tendencies and for attempting suicide.” Soon thereafter, his unit was sent overseas without him.
“He was supposed to deploy not too long after that for his original fourth deployment, and he was termed unfit for deployment,” Senft said.
But just a short while later, he was bound for Afghanistan.
Veillette said her friend seemed fine on the surface.
“His state of mind at that point seemed pretty optimistic. He seemed OK.”
But his father said he never should have shipped out.
“Nothing changed with him. … Right up to getting on the plane,” said Senft’s father, who said his son told friends he probably wouldn’t return from the deployment. “He made it clear to numerous people that he didn’t want to go back, and he wasn’t ready, and he felt bad about this whole thing inside his mind — and they made him go anyway.”
The final act
Once he was in Afghanistan, the staff sergeant was again treated in some capacity for mental distress.
Criminal Investigative Division e-mails shared by his father confirm that in October, Staff Sgt. Senft had his gun taken away from him for expressing “suicidal ideations.” The CID also confirmed he received counseling, but it did not say for how long or how often he received it.
The unclassified e-mails also say that “There is information that (Staff Sgt.) Senft was taking anti-depressants.”
Nonetheless, the staff sergeant remained at Kandahar Air Base, where he eventually picked up his sleeping roommate’s weapon, grabbed ammunition from an unguarded supply point and took his own life.
Though the Army hasn’t officially declared his death a suicide, the evidence appears conclusive.
E-mails from the CID state that the staff sergeant was found alone in an SUV with his roommate’s gun. His cell phone, with an unsent message reading, “I don’t know what to say, I’m sorry,” was found at his side. He died of a single gunshot wound, and without delving into gruesome detail, the rest of the evidence revealed by the e-mails points toward suicide.
The tale is clear enough, at least, for the elder Senft to say the military needs to do more for soldiers who show signs of being suicidal.
“Something needs to be done,” he said. “Something different.”
A father’s quest
Senft has told the story to anyone who will listen in the hope that military policy will change, so that other service members who find themselves in his son’s shoes get the help they need.
It’s a cause that isn’t just for his son’s memory.
“When generals of the military admit to the media (that) they recognize that the military has a huge problem with suicides, but that’s as far as they go recognizing the problem — when I have soldiers coming to me, through all of this, and telling me ‘You need to do something,’” he said, then something has to be done.
Nadia McCaffrey, the mother of a Tracy soldier killed in Iraq who has made it her mission to help service members returning from combat, said she sees the scars of war all the time.
“When you come home, you’re not the same person. Nobody is,” she said. “They leave as one person and come back as another.”
McCaffrey plans to soon open a living facility where discharged veterans can find solace from war and get access to the therapy they need. Because right now, she said, the support isn’t there.
“There is some debriefing that lasts a few hours (when they return), and that’s it,” she said. “Somebody should have some support, some therapy. … It’s not happening.”
Veillette has also been a witness to the affects war can have, and not just in her friend’s apparent suicide.
After her husband returned from deployment, she said, he would have sudden outbursts, something she’d never seen from him before. He had to attend anger management classes to deal with his rage, but she admitted disappointment in how her husband was treated by the military.
“They don’t give (soldiers) the support they need,” she said, adding that it’s service members who have to reach out to get treatment, not the other way around.
Veillette said the military should do more, instead of letting people with documented problems — like Staff Sgt. Senft — linger overseas.
“Common sense would tell you to send him home and get him help. Don’t let it get to the point where they feel like they have to take their life,” she said. “It’s horrible.”
It’s a sentiment shared by the elder Senft, who wants to get more help to service members struggling with suicidal thoughts. So far, he’s found allies in powerful places.
Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-California, spoke about the staff sergeant’s death on the Senate floor.
Rep. Jerry McNerney, D-Pleasanton, who attended a memorial for Staff Sgt. Senft this month in Tracy, and Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Roseville, have also talked to the grieving father. McNerney, who represents Tracy, said the staff sergeant’s story reinforces the need to get veterans the help they need to live healthy lives.
“We owe it to our service members to make sure they have access to necessary treatment and don’t fall through the cracks when dealing with these difficult situations,” he said.
“The need for an increased focus on this issue hit home especially hard for me after attending Staff Sgt. Senft’s memorial service in Tracy recently. I’ll continue to work on bringing to light the effects of post-traumatic stress and improving treatment for our service members and veterans.”
Rep. Jacky Speier, D-Palo Alto, has taken action by promoting House Resolution 26, which would expand the care and screening veterans receive when they return to the States.
“The suicide statistics are alarming — we need to act now to curtail further loss of lives,” Speier said in a statement.
“The policy of asking for help isn’t working. It’s critical that personnel in need be identified and treated in a timely manner.”
Such a shift would be music to Senft’s ears.
Because when it comes down to it, Senft just wants to make sure that no other parents have to see a casket roll down the tailgate of a C-17 transport plane, when instead they could see a soldier return with a fighting chance.
“I never thought I’d be on the other end of one of those C-17s. And it was my son who came out first,” Senft said, tears welling up in his eyes.
“So if we can do something with his story, where they send (a soldier) home on a plane, where maybe he’s messed up in the head but by God he’s still alive — because David has no chance, but that other kid might — that’s what I want to do.”
• Contact associate editor Jon Mendelson at email@example.com.
• The Press attempted to contact the side of the family of Staff Sgt. David Senft's biological mother for this article, but did not receive a response before press time Thursday.