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Day after day, on mission after mission, Jason Klinkenberg strapped on his body armor, stepped behind the wheel of his truck, and took to Iraq's dangerous roads.
It was the fall of 2005. A violent war was growing deadlier by the day. The Army was stretched thin. And so it fell to Air Force personnel like Klinkenberg, a Utah native who had been trained to drive trucks and buses on the peaceful streets of stateside military bases, to take on combat roles once assigned to Army soldiers.
Police and Air Force investigators are now trying to piece together what led Klinkenberg to kill his wife, then himself, during a standoff with law enforcement officers last Friday in North Las Vegas. But Klinkenberg's family said the Iraq war veteran was suffering from post-traumatic stress brought on by his combat experiences. And, they say, he never got the help he needed.
Officials at Nellis Air Force Base, where Klinkenberg was assigned, say their airmen are routinely evaluated for physical and mental wounds when they return home from combat. But veterans advocates say the cracks in the mental health care system intended to treat war veterans are many and large. And if Klinkenberg acted murderously after failing to find the mental help he needed, he wouldn't be the first one.
A DANGEROUS JOB
Klinkenberg had served three years in the Air Force, mainly as a driver at bases in Alaska and Nevada, before he was plucked out of his unit at Nellis for service in Iraq with a group of airmen and soldiers known as Detachment 2632. The unit, assembled from bases throughout the world to provide security for cargo trucks on Iraq's bomb-laden roads, performed a mission that the Air Force hadn't carried out since the Vietnam War. The detachment's airmen received one month of training in combat convoy operations before deploying to Balad Air Base, north of Baghdad.
"On some days it was safe, just like rolling through your neighborhood," said Adam Giran, another airman who served in Detachment 2632. "But you never forgot where you were at, and on other days there was definitely a risk."
The risks included snipers, suicide bombers and roadside bombs -- some daisy-chained to take out several vehicles at once. Even on base, safety was a relative concept. Rocket and mortar fire peppered the base several times a day during the time that the detachment served -- one of the deadliest periods in the war.
Art Klinkenberg says his son never was the same after the deployment to Iraq. He mostly blames one incident in particular for his son's troubles.
"Labor Day 2005," said Art Klinkenberg. "It changed his life."
According to Klinkenberg's father, his son was driving a truck in a convoy when a rocket-propelled grenade shot into the cab of the truck in front of him. The driver, a close friend of Jason Klinkenberg, exited the vehicle.
"He came out on fire, screaming for help. Jason tried to save him, but his commanding officer pulled him back," Art Klinkenberg said.
Jason Klinkenberg spent eight hours with his friend's body, waiting for support troops to transport the body back.
Klinkenberg wore a bracelet with his dead friend's name on it.
"He saw this guy's burning image regularly in his head," his father said.
A TROUBLED MAN
Klinkenberg's sister, Amanda Harrod, recalled her brother as a "sweet guy."
But he had also returned from Iraq troubled by what he'd experienced there, Harrod said. And when he sought help from the Air Force, she said, he was turned away.
"When my brother first went for help, they called him a liar," she said.
Air Force officials contest that claim. They say signs of post-traumatic stress disorder surfaced in an initial examination and Klinkenberg was referred to a specialist off-base, where he had been attending regular therapy sessions.
"He was very cooperative and willing to receive the support," said Nellis spokeswoman Amanda Ferrell.
In spite of the problems her brother faced, Harrod and her father are having trouble understanding how he could have taken his wife's life and then his own.
"He had so many friends, and none of them can believe what happened," Harrod said. "Everyone who met him loved him."
"Something went wrong that night," Art Klinkenberg said. "That was his soul mate. He loved her more than anything."
But it was the person who loved him most that suffered most.
AN INNOCENT VICTIM
Klinkenberg met Crystal Louise Gray, a steel fabrication worker from Henderson, Nevada, after returning to Nellis from Iraq. Family members said the couple enjoyed boating and snowboarding together. They were married in July 2007.
Last Friday, police responded to an apartment in North Las Vegas after receiving a call from a friend of Crystal, who said Jason had been holding a gun to his wife's head.
Officers said they briefly encountered Jason, who was "uncooperative" before returning inside the apartment, from where he fired at least one shot at police through the window.
Moments later, police heard several more shots. Two hours later, SWAT officers entered the home where they found the Klinkenbergs dead of gunshot wounds.
The Clark County Corner's Office ruled that Crystal's death after a gunshot wound to the head was a homicide, and Jason's death of gunshot wound to the chest was a suicide.
Police would not say if officers had been to the house for domestic or other disturbances before, saying that was part of the ongoing investigation. When reached by phone, Crystal's parents declined to comment about their daughter, whose funeral was held Tuesday.
But their loss, though tragic, was not unusual.
A SIMILAR SITUATION
In the spring of 2006, just as Klinkenberg was returning home from his deployment, another Iraq war veteran from Tooele was under investigation for the murder of his girlfriend.
Police suspected that Walter Smith was responsible for the drowning death of Nicole Speirs, the mother of his twin children, in the bathtub of a home in Tooele, but didn't have enough evidence to charge him until the former Marine confessed to the murder at the Veterans Affairs hospital in Salt Lake City. At that point, Smith's friends said, the 21-year-old former reservist had been seeking help for several years.
Wayde Broberg, Smith's former roommate and a fellow member of the Utah-based company of Marines that served in Iraq during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, said Smith "tried 100 different times" to get help from the Veterans Affairs medical system. "Probably two or four times a month, he'd go up to the VA. He didn't get what he was looking for."
A GROWING PROBLEM
Smith -- and now Klinkenberg -- are among scores of veterans who have returned home from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and committed killings, according to a report last year in The New York Times , which found that most of the killings were among family members. Hundreds more have taken their own lives, according to groups like Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, which has lobbied for increased mental health treatment for veterans.
"A lot of the problems faced by veterans can't be fixed by themselves," said Manju Varghese, a Utah documentary producer who followed the lives of several Marines from Smith's unit following their return from Iraq, chronicling their often lonely homecomings in the film Reserved to Fight. "It has to be a community effort. Everyone has to be involved. And when someone goes to get help, and doesn't find it, that leave them feeling alone and feeling as though they need to take matters into their own hands."
Veterans advocates like Varghese say nothing excuses violence. But they say military and veterans officials too often ignore a pattern of problems that has played out again and again, with deadly results.
Tribune reporter Lindsay Whitehurst contributed to this report.