Another tragic homecoming for a 5th Stryker Brigade soldier
It was national news when a Washington-based soldier just back from Afghanistan died in a shootout with police in Salt Lake City. That was in August. Around the same time another soldier from the same brigade also died violently. But his death didn’t get much notice. It happened on a dark two-lane road in rural Wisconsin.
Dustin Knapp is not an obvious casualty of war. He didn’t die on the battlefield. He didn’t put a gun to his head after he came home. The night Dustin died he went to a family gathering and got in an argument with his uncle. His older brother Tommy describes what happened next.
“They started actually fist fighting,” said Tommy Knapp, who said Dustin then got his uncle in a chokehold. “Wouldn’t let go. Both of them were turning red.”
Tommy got between them and broke it up. Dustin left the house on foot. He was shirtless, shoeless and angry. Tommy jumped in his car to follow his brother. Just a few feet from the driveway he came across a devastating scene. Another vehicle stopped in the road. His brother on the ground, not moving.
“I seen Dustin and I went out by him. I checked to see if he was breathing and he wasn’t. And I just started freaking out,” said his brother.
According to the Manitowoc County, Wisconsin Sheriff’s office, Dustin Knapp, age 23, was struck and killed at about 4 a.m. by a man driving to work. The investigation concluded Knapp was walking in the middle of the two-lane road when he was hit – a point his family disputes.
Toxicology reports show Knapp had marijuana in his system and was legally drunk. He had been home from Afghanistan less than two months.
Knapp's mother says when her son got home from Afghanistan he seemed “quiet.”
“I was very, very proud of my boy. I was very, very proud of him," said Mary Jaskolski. “I didn’t think too much of it. I just figured he just had to deal with things that happened over there and he’d get over it.”
Knapp was a Stryker vehicle driver. He had survived an IED blast, and had seen friends die. He watched other friends go to jail. It turns out Knapp was in the same platoon as the 12 Joint Base Lewis-McChord soldiers charged with a range of crimes including the murder of unarmed Afghan civilians, assault and drug use.
In fact, I obtained Army records that show the military investigated Knapp for allegedly using and distributing hashish. But he was never charged.
Originally, Dustin Knapp’s death was listed as accidental. But Manitowoc County Coroner Curtis Green later changed his finding to undetermined. In part because of what Dustin Knapp wrote on his Facebook page.
“He did mention a couple of times that he would kill himself. He was a very frustrated young man,” said Green.
One post in particular reads like a premonition of his death.
He writes: “Its past midnight … hoping not to get hit by a car …. I’m living with this pain not knowing why I just want to runaway please god point the way.” In another post, he says: “all my knives are open and ready to go threw arteries …. And veins … whod miss me anyway.”
At the time of Knapp’s death his leave was almost over and he was scheduled to return to Joint Base Lewis-MCchord. So did Knapp intentionally step into the path of the oncoming vehicle? Coroner Green says no one will ever know.
“But do I believe Dustin was a casualty of war, from my perspective I do believe he is,” Green said.
Knapp’s family seems to agree his death and his service in Afghanistan are connected. Through her tears, Dustin’s mother says she’s mad at the Army. She recalls her son almost wasn’t allowed to deploy to Afghanistan.
“I don’t know what kind of problems but he was having problems. And they’re supposed to take care of him you know. That’s all I have to say about it,” said Jaskolski.
But the family is also adamant Dustin did not commit suicide. On his Facebook page Dustin was excited about going home to Wisconsin. His father Tom Knapp says Dustin was looking forward to getting out of the Army. He’d bought an old Mustang to fix up. And father and son planned to open a bar together.
“Dustin was far from being suicidal. He loved his family too much,” said Tom Knapp.
Whatever happened on that two-lane highway last August, Dustin Knapp is among an increasing number of soldiers who survive war, but don’t survive the transition home.
A recent Army report shows soldier suicides, homicides and accidental deaths are all up. Because Dustin Knapp’s death is not easily categorized, he will likely be added to the military’s list of undetermined deaths, a statistic that’s also on the rise.