Spc. Dustin Knapp's temper flared while he drank beer and argued with his uncle six weeks after coming home from a tour in Afghanistan with a Joint Base Lewis-McChord Stryker brigade.
The 5-foot-2 soldier put his relative in a choke hold, refusing to let go until his older brother broke up the fight.
Knapp stormed out of his uncle’s home and walked barefoot along a two-lane Wisconsin highway. He died moments later when a car plowed into him about 4:30 a.m. Aug. 16, according to a coroner’s report.
Knapp, 23, had been showing signs of distress ever since the unit returned to the base south of Tacoma. He was one of 29 soldiers in a platoon that’s at the center of an Army war crimes investigation unfolding at Lewis-McChord.
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Knapp survived a difficult year with his comrades in southern Afghanistan. He was on the scene of at least one of three encounters that led to charges against some platoon mates for allegedly murdering Afghans.
He was close to two principal characters in the investigation: then-Pfc. Justin Stoner, the whistle-blower in the case, was Knapp’s roommate; and Pfc. Andrew Holmes, one of the accused killers, was Knapp’s good friend.
But Knapp wouldn’t live to help in Holmes’ defense or testify about what happened during their tour.
He expressed dark thoughts on his Facebook page starting about the time the investigation began and vented about friends who were facing prison time because of their alleged misconduct.
“Everyone is an enemy,” Knapp wrote on July 17. “I must be my biggest one. All the alcohol I had. All the liquor mixed into one bottle as I’m freaking by myself. I have all my knives open and ready to go through separate arteries and main veins. Who’d miss me anyway?”
The Army last week concluded that Knapp’s death resulted from an accident, but law enforcement officials in his hometown aren’t so sure. They believe Knapp – struggling with depression and under the influence of alcohol and marijuana – purposely jumped in front of the car.
“Dustin was a very explosive individual; he was a very emotional guy,” said Curtis Green, the coroner for Manitowoc County, Wis., who changed his determination of the cause of Knapp’s death from “accident” to “undetermined” in late November.
“In my mind I feel as though it’s a suicide, but I wasn’t there, and I just can’t sign my name to that,” Green said, citing Knapp’s apparent mental state and the prevalence of injuries above his legs that suggested to the coroner that he jumped into the car.
The soldier’s family fiercely maintains that he didn’t intend to take his life when he left his uncle’s home. He had recently bought a 1965 Mustang that he planned to refurbish with his dad, and he talked about leaving the Army in a year.
“Dustin wasn’t a violent person, and he certainly wasn’t suicidal,” said his father, Tom, 51. “Whenever Dustin had a plan, he always finished the plan. He was going to get out of the Army, and we were going to open a bar together.”
Spc. Knapp’s older brother chased after him when he left the argument with his uncle. Tom Knapp, 25, is certain the death was an accident.
“It’s hurtful to have it called undetermined,” the younger Tom Knapp said, referring to the coroner’s report. “We all know it was just an accident. You can’t say anything else happened, because he just wanted to go home and the driver just wanted to go to work. They just met at the wrong place at the wrong time, and that’s what happened.”
The coroner “was thinking way too much about what happened. Me and my brother fought every single night,” the brother said.
If not suicide, Knapp’s death fits into what the Army calls “high-risk” behavior. It counted 146 soldiers who died in “high-risk” accidents in 2009, a number the Army tracks because the Pentagon believes behavior that includes alcohol and drug use can lead to suicide.
Knapp’s despondent cries on Facebook often were met with loving comments from his friends and his family. His dad would jokingly call him “slacker” and urge him to think about his future. Knapp would return the love and call his dad “old man.”
The young soldier had conflicting feelings about being in the Army, his mother, Mary Jaskolski, said. He was picked on from time to time because of his small stature, but he was proud that the military toughened him up and introduced him to some good friends.
“He was always the runt of my kids,” Jaskolski, 46, said. “When he went to the Army and he came back from basic, I didn’t even recognize him. His neck was twice as big. He was pretty proud of that.”
Knapp was concerned enough about his mental health to see a psychiatrist for a time before deployment, and the Army considered holding him back. His mother said he didn’t share many details with her about that therapy, and she hasn’t yet requested his medical files.
His family noticed that he struggled at times in Afghanistan. At one point, he was sent home to Wisconsin to recover from a burn he received in an explosion, his mother and father said.
“I know in Afghanistan there were a lot of things that bothered him,” Jaskolski said. “I supposed that’s normal.”
Knapp wasn’t among the dozen soldiers in his platoon whom the Army accused of misconduct, but some were his closest friends during the deployment.
He shared a room with Stoner, who triggered the investigation by raising concerns about drug use in the platoon at a base in southern Afghanistan, according to court records.
Knapp was in the vicinity of a Feb. 22 shooting that led to murder charges against three of his comrades, according to his Facebook page. All together, five men from the platoon in the 5th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division stand accused of murdering Afghans during patrols.
That incident, an allegedly staged killing of a civilian by Staff Sgt. Calvin Gibbs, was followed by an attack on the platoon. It was Knapp’s first experience exchanging live fire with the enemy, though he had previously been attacked with roadside bombs.
“My real first fire fight. Incoming enemy mortars and incoming enemy fire. The best feeling in the world was when I heard ‘fire back’ then bangbangbang,” he wrote on Facebook.
One of his best friends was Holmes, 20, of Boise. Holmes is one of the soldiers accused of murdering an Afghan noncombatant, and he’s expected to face a court-martial in May.
“Andy said (Knapp) was one of the guys with the most honor in the whole unit. Dustin bent over backwards to help anyone,” said Andrew’s mother, Dana Holmes.