The stories clash and confuse, composing an abstract portrait of a young mind stressed and traumatized by war.
Examine the final few of the nearly 22 years lived by Sgt. Patrick Gibbs Jr. — a newly discharged Army sniper and son of a former Davenport mayor — and there is no clear understanding of why the ex-soldier, a year removed from active duty in Iraq, wrapped an extension cord around his neck and took his life in the basement of his boyhood Davenport home on Jan. 23.
Gibbs did not leave a note.
Of the stories he told the people he loved about his Army experiences, some are true and some are not.
Key answers are lost in the Army’s privacy rules and regulations.
A clear explanation for the suicide would not lessen the sadness that follows his parents, Pat and Andrea Gibbs, his brother and sister, his fiancée Savannah Huelsman and his two toddler sons this Memorial Day weekend.
But with the open questions and conflicting stories, there can be no closure.
“When you don’t know, it’s a blank,” Andrea Gibbs said. “You just don’t know.”
Still alternatively referred to as “Peej’’ and P.J. by his mother, Gibbs loved animals as a youngster, housing a menagerie that included a python, an iguana, two parrots, dogs, cats, hedgehogs and a pair of parakeets he somehow trained to play hide and seek.
He developed an impetuous streak in high school, racing his 1998 Mustang at Cordova Dragway Park — and elsewhere.
“He plastered all his speeding tickets on his bedroom walls,’’ his mother remembered.
Gibbs ran cross country and track at Davenport West High School, but didn’t graduate.
“He was the class clown and they politely asked him to leave,’’ his father said of a son he described as a classroom underachiever.
“If he had a class he liked, he would do real well,’’ he said. “And if he had a class he didn’t like, he wouldn’t do so well.’’
A day after his expulsion, the young man went to Scott Community College and passed his GED test.
Gibbs joined the Army at age 17, and was inducted in the fall of 2005.
Upon completion of basic training in Georgia, he was assigned to the Alpha Company 321st Infantry Co., at Fort Lewis, Wash. There, he married Kayla Hillery of Bettendorf.
Four months later, the newlyweds went to Vilseck, Germany, where Gibbs spent roughly a year awaiting his deployment to Iraq.
In Germany, he became a father for the first time, earned an associate degree online and enrolled in sniper school. There, he met Staff Sgt. Sean Gaul, a 29-year-old Army Ranger and Iowa native readying for his fifth overseas deployment.
“We were all pretty tight,” said Michael Jozwiak, a former Army sergeant from Chicago who, like Gibbs, left the military in October of last year. “Gaul actually helped Gibbs out quite a bit through sniper school.”
In June 2007, Gibbs deployed to Iraq as part of 3rd Platoon Dog Company, initially settling in near Baghdad.
Exactly what Gibbs saw and endured during his 19 months in a war zone is lost in the conflicting maze of stories he brought home. But the young soldier certainly saw the kind of battle that can scar a psyche, Jozwiak said.
“He was a member of a sniper team,” he said. “There is something a little different from throwing a lot of bullets in a direction and somebody gets killed, and physically looking down a sniper scope and watching it happen.”
Opinions vary as to how, when and why Gibbs began to show signs of mental issues that at least one psychiatrist would diagnose as post traumatic stress disorder after his discharge.
Some saw anger issues before he left for Iraq.
Staff Sgt. Robert Farnsworth, who deployed with Gibbs from Vilseck, believes the problem began when Gibbs’ young marriage unraveled shortly after his departure from Germany.
Jozwiak cannot say whether Gibbs’ outlook changed drastically following an incident in which a young Iraqi girl was caught in the crossfire of a firefight with insurgents early into their deployment.
A subsequent investigation determined the bullet didn’t come from an American gun, Jozwiak said. But, two years later, Gibbs told his father and fiancée he accidentally killed the girl.
“That crushed him,” said Huelsman.
But that’s not the incident he mentioned most often.
On Jan. 9, 2008, Gibbs’ close friend, Gaul, led a five-man team into a suspected insurgent safe house in Sinsil, Iraq. All six soldiers died when the booby-trapped building exploded.
Gibbs told his father he was standing in the doorway when the building went up.
He told Huelsman that it was him, not Gaul, who was scheduled to lead a team of snipers into that house. He told her that Gaul insisted he was better trained to lead the mission, then challenged him to a game of “rock, paper, scissors” and won.
“‘My friend is dead over a (expletive) game of rock, paper, scissors,’ that’s what he always said,” remembered Huelsman.
Until recently, his father believed the trauma and survivor’s guilt resulting from that incident was foremost on his son’s mind when he phoned home from Baqubah, Iraq, in August 2008, threatening suicide.
Gaul’s death may have been a factor in that, a pair of failed suicide attempts that followed, and, ultimately, his death in Davenport, said the soldiers who served with Gibbs.
But they also said Gibbs was miles away at the time, en route from Baghdad to Baqubah.
“I don’t want to be the one to say to his family he was blowing smoke,” said Farnsworth. “But we weren’t on that mission.”
Diagnosed cases of post traumatic stress disorder among deployed members of the Army grew from 770 in 2003, when the invasion of Iraq launched, to 10,137 in in 2008, according to the Army.
The number dropped to 8,553 in 2009, but the military continues to research the causal relationship between PTSD and the growing incidence of military suicide.
Fellow sniper Jozwiak, who said he fights PTSD himself, suspects Gibbs’ invented involvement in Gaul’s death was a cry for help.
Dr. Kathleen Chard, director of the PTSD and Anxiety Disorders Division at the Cincinnati VA Medical Center, concurred.
“Sometimes people do that because they don’t feel like their story is big enough,” Chard said. “One of the sad parts about post traumatic stress disorder is that there is a lot of judgment, that your trauma is not as big as somebody else’s and therefore you should not have problems.
“They will inflame things to make themselves feel worthwhile.”
Whether Gibbs was diagnosed with PTSD while overseas remains hidden behind the Army’s privacy standard, but he was suicidal.
He spent three more months in Iraq after his August 2008 suicide threat, then returned to Germany with his unit. There in July 2009, he attempted suicide by overdose, two fellow soldiers said.
“I found him in his room and he had taken a bunch of pills,” Sgt. Alan Draft Koch said.
Gibbs spent two weeks receiving psychiatric care at a military medical center in Landstuhl, then rejoined his unit in Vilseck, Koch said. He couldn’t say whether Gibbs received additional counseling in Germany, but Jozwiak does not believe he did.
The Army, Jozwiak said, makes psychological treatment available, but as a choice. And for war-hardened soldiers, that is not an easy option.
“I don’t want to say that they instill in you that getting help is a sign of weakness,” Jozwiak said. “It’s not frowned upon, but it’s not promoted, either.”
He believes Gibbs may have told military psychologists “what they wanted to hear” during his short stay at Landstuhl.
“Then,” said fellow sniper Farnsworth, “he came back and was processed out.”
In October 2008, Gibbs met Huelsman, a 21-year-old medic for the Ohio National Guard, in Kuwait, where his unit stopped over on its way from Iraq to Germany.
They forged a relationship over five days together and she visited him in Germany in March and May 2009, for a month each time.
He rejoined her in Mason, Ohio, following his discharge in October of last year, two weeks after their son, Jayden, was born.
“He was good, very good,” Huelsman said, describing Gibbs with his second child. “Timid at times, just trying to get used to the whole father thing, I guess. But a very good father.”
The Army would not confirm the circumstances of Gibbs’ discharge, but he told his father it was a medical discharge with full disability.
In a similar situation, Jozwiak said he was given a document to present to a Veterans Affairs hospital if he chose to seek help for his PTSD.
“You get out and go home and that’s all there is to it,” he said. “If you don’t physically go to the VA and say ‘This is what I have going on,’ there is no follow-up whatsoever.”
Gibbs had no VA contact until early December, Huelsman said. But she saw signs of problems.
“He was always, always on edge and wouldn’t be able to go back to sleep,” she said. “Or he wouldn’t be able to sleep for a couple of days at a time. He would almost be afraid to sleep.”
He left home for a walk in early December, and was found by Mason police hours later, coatless and calling the names of Gaul and other former teammates lost in Iraq. He remained incoherent, making threats in military jargon at a local hospital.
Contacted in Davenport, Gibbs Sr. told the police to take his son to the VA Medical Center in nearby Cincinnati. It took four days, his father said, for doctors there to obtain his military records.
Medicated by anti-depressants following a documented diagnosis of PTSD by VA psychologist Dr. Daniel Michael Beal, Gibbs seemed to improve, his father said.
He and Huelsman came to Davenport for Christmas, and then again in mid-January for a Jan. 21 divorce settlement conference with his estranged wife. Two days later, Gibbs had his first supervised visit with his 3-year-old son since his deployment to Iraq in 2007.
On the morning of Jan. 23, Gibbs and his son built a teddy bear at the mall, said Pat Gibbs Sr., who accompanied them. The young father came home excited about the meeting and eager for a follow-up visit the next day, Huelsman said.
In mid-afternoon, his father said, Gibbs became agitated over a minor argument with his fiancée and sister. “Something stupid about a phone bill,” his father said.
Gibbs swallowed a full bottle of pills, leaving his father, a 22-year veteran of the Davenport Police Department and the city’s mayor from 1992 through 1996, no choice but to call the police.
Medics took Gibbs to the emergency room at Genesis Medical Center — West Central Park Avenue, Davenport. There, against his father’s recommendation, a psychologist’s assistant sent him home with a new prescription for anti-depressants, Gibbs Sr. said.
Genesis spokesman Craig Cooper declined comment, citing privacy laws.
Gibbs Sr. said his son remained agitated much of the day, breaking a window. About 8:30 p.m., he seemed calmer. So Gibbs Sr., developing a migraine, went to lie down.
“He came in probably 45 minutes after I had laid down,” the elder Gibbs recalled. “He said to me, ‘Dad, it’s going to be all right. We’ll get this taken care of. Everything is going to be OK.’”
At some point within the next hour or so, with his mother and father asleep in their bedroom and his fiancée, son and sister watching television upstairs, Patrick Joseph Gibbs Jr. hanged himself.
Most Sunday mornings for the past five months, the Gibbs family has visited their son and brother’s grave in a quiet corner of the Rock Island National Cemetery.
Gibbs was buried there on Jan. 28 with full military honors.
His parents may never have a full explanation of their son’s torment.
“I’m angry because the Army never said anything,” said Andrea Gibbs of her husband’s search for information. “They don’t give us answers. He has talked to many sergeants and we just keep getting the runaround.”
Do the graveside visits provide comfort?
“Pretty much, pretty much,” she said at first. And then: “No. No. It doesn’t help. Because he’s not here. And he’s not coming back.”
Pat Gibbs Sr., the formerly husky police officer and mayor, has lost 80 pounds since suffering four heart attacks in recent years. He wonders why his clearly troubled son wasn’t provided more help by the Army before and after his discharge.
“It makes you wonder how many kids are over there in that same situation,” he said.
Savannah Huelsman raises her 8-month-old son alone in Ohio, and wonders why more care wasn’t taken before and after her fiance’s discharge.
“Try to stay busy, but I can’t really do it,” she said, describing her days. “Been lonely. Confused. Trying to figure out why. But I know it is something I’ll never be able to figure out.”
Spc. Huelsman will redeploy to Afghanistan in May 2011.
Does she have new reservations?
“I do,” she said, but, “I understand that everybody deals with war differently. I just think ... I don’t know ...”
She paused, but only briefly.
“This is what I signed up for,” she said. “I think everybody who is willing and able should serve their country.”