A Soldier's Teenage Son Kills Himself So His Mom Will Have 'One Less Mouth to Feed'

UPDATED 09/17/1984 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 09/17/1984 at 01:00 AM EDT

To the Army caseworker who was helping his family, Danny Holley was "something special, very responsible and caring, and a little shy." To the manager of the Marina, Calif. Safeway where 13-year-old Danny turned in aluminum cans for a penny apiece to earn grocery money for his mother, he was "a serious little guy, very diligent and polite. He definitely had other things on his mind than most kids his age—namely, making money."

But what really was on Danny's mind? That was the question the Fort Ord chaplain asked at Danny's funeral after the boy had hanged himself with a thin cord tied to a planter hook in his backyard while his mother and three siblings played out front. Others at the sad little gathering had questions of their own: Was Danny's death somehow the fault of an insensitive Army bureaucracy? Or was it the act of a lonely boy overcome by the responsibility he felt for his family—including kid brother Johnnie, 8, sister Erin, 4, and Christopher, 2—while his father was on assignment overseas?

Danny had repeatedly told his mother, Jennifer, 37, that "maybe if there was one less mouth to feed, things would be better." And, indeed, the family had been having a tough time financially since Sgt. Johnnie Holley, a 31-year-old MP, brought them to California from West Germany in June, en route to a new assignment in South Korea. Holley had requested the transfer last March with the understanding that Fort Ord would be his home base after a year's hitch in South Korea. He mistakenly believed that meanwhile there would be housing for his family within the compound at Fort Ord. He didn't know there was a waiting list of 2,500 Army families for just such accommodations.

In early July Sergeant Holley settled Jennifer, Danny and the others into a $750-a-month, three-bedroom house in a working-class section of Marina. Then he headed off to Korea, and the troubles mounted. A bank slipup froze the family's money in a savings account they'd had in Germany. The Army mistakenly shipped their car to New Orleans, leaving them no way to get around in a strange town. Moreover, the family owed the Army $1,300 they'd borrowed, interest free, to put up as a rental deposit, and Holley had spent virtually all of his $1,698 a month in salary and housing allowance getting his family settled. Still, said Jennifer, a quiet woman from Bangor, Northern Ireland who'd met and married Johnnie Holley some 13 years ago when she was a nanny for a family in his native Alabama, there was "always a little food in the house."

Whatever the real situation, Danny apparently began to paint a desperate picture in his mind. With little Johnnie in tow, he went to Fort Ord to request help for the family. Cynthia High, a caseworker for Army Community Services, returned home with them, toting three days' worth of groceries. She sent at least four more packages in the next month. Helen Walker, a volunteer in California's so-called Foster Grandmother program, helped out with the use of her car and taught Jennifer local driving laws so she could get a license.

But military families, used to moving frequently, are very sensitive about asking for help, says High's boss, Lt. Col. Martin Johnson. He adds, "They develop an 'I'll take care of myself attitude.' " And indeed shy Jennifer asked for far less help than she really needed and rarely spoke to her new neighbors of her troubles. Danny himself hadn't had time to make friends either. The boys on the block remember him only as "the kid with the bag slung over his shoulder." He made up to $9 a day going through trash heaps and construction sites for cans. Neighbors empathized and saved some for him.

Danny killed himself on August 27. The Red Cross in Korea apparently told his father only that Danny had died. When Sergeant Holley flew home he learned the terrible story from his family after finding TV reporters on his front lawn. "I had no idea what was transpiring while I was gone," he said. Family letters had mentioned that the budget was tight, but nothing more ominous. About his eldest son, Holley could only say despairingly, "I just don't understand. Danny wasn't the kind of kid who would keep secrets. Everything that came up, he would tell us or write me a letter."

Says Cynthia High, "It was probably a combination of so many things that we can't put our finger on what made him do it." Holley and his wife agree the Army should not be blamed. "Whenever we needed something, they got it for us," he says. "The Army takes care of its own," affirms Maj. Jeff Barber, a Fort Ord public affairs officer. "We can't expect to take a soldier into combat without gaining his trust that his family will be taken care of."

Since Danny's death, others have begun to care too. Thousands of dollars in gifts for the Holleys have poured in from all over the country. Sergeant Holley is hoping to get "compassionate reassignment" back to Fort Ord. But the family remains shattered by Danny's death. At a brief press conference, Jennifer said, in a small, tired voice, she hoped any good that came of this would be "that people realize there are people who sometimes need help, even if it's just someone to sit and talk to." Perhaps Danny might have been a "someone" if he'd had a chance to grow up. "He was just being the man of the house," she said, " 'cause Daddy wasn't there and he was looking out after us."

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