Days after learning Capt. Jonathan Wynkoop had died in a training accident, his family members had a request — they wanted to meet the soldiers involved.
So, on an April Monday at Fort Bliss, Texas, Rachel Wynkoop found herself in a room at her husband's brigade headquarters, speaking with the driver of the MATV that rolled over the father of three while he slept on a cot next to his vehicle in the early morning hours of March 31.
Rachel Wynkoop wasn't there to press for answers, to express rage, to impart or release any of the suffering she'd undergone in the six days since her husband's death.
Instead, the officer's widow had a simple goal.
"My mission was to help him," Wynkoop said of the driver, in one of a series of emails to Army Times. "He offered apologies, and I offered forgiveness, and told him that the kids and I would be OK. I also ensured that even though he faces a difficult road ahead, that he would take care of himself in the best manner possible."
The act of kindness, Wynkoop said, stemmed from her husband's long-held desire to help his fellow soldiers, one that inspired his application to the Army's Master of Social Work program. He expected to find out whether he'd been accepted in mid-April.
Rachel and Jonathan Wynkoop with their three children: Jacob, Graham and Leah.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Rachel Wynkoop
Instead, he was the victim of a mishap that his widow described as "unfortunate and largely preventable," words that echo the findings of the Army's 15-6 investigation into the incident. For a family that had been through the uncertainty of deployment — settling for a phone call once or twice a month — tragedy instead struck at home, during an exercise Capt. Wynkoop wasn't even sure he'd be required to attend, less than two days after returning from a wedding.
"I did not comprehend why two uniformed soldiers were approaching my door that morning, because I had just said goodbye to my husband the afternoon prior so that he could return to the field," Rachel Wynkoop said. "I was in such a great state of shock and disbelief that I had the chaplain call my sister and tell her the news so that I could hear it from someone close to me and begin to process it."
A well-written romance
She calls it "truly love at first sight," but Rachel Wynkoop and her husband had a bit of a head start.
The future Army officer was undergoing entry-level Air Force training in early 2007. His mother thought he could use a pen-pal, so she asked her co-worker at the Wal-Mart in Toledo, Ohio. The future Rachel Wynkoop agreed.
The two traded letters through the summer. They exchanged phone numbers and photos around August. Rachel recalled sending her first text to Jonathan on Aug. 15, to wish him a happy birthday.
Texts became phone calls that stretched long into the evening. By the time they met in person in October, they'd already agreed to date. About a year later, they were married.
"I still have all of the letters that he wrote me," she said.
Rachel and Jonathan Wynkoop became pen-pals while he was serving with the Air Force.
Photo Credit: Photo Courtesy of Rachel Wynkoop
Jonathan earned a bachelor's degree from Bowling Green State University and decided to switch services, leaving the Air National Guard as a senior airman and receiving his commission in the active-duty Army in February 2011 with an eye toward service in the war zone.
He got his wish two years later, deploying to Afghanistan as a field artillery officer in 2013.
"Communication was limited for a majority of the deployment, with the main source of communication being a phone call that would come weekly, sometimes as little as every 2-3 weeks," Rachel Wynkoop said. She called the experience a "large and scary family commitment," one that the young family would survive by relying on the old axiom, "No news is good news."
The best man
The Ohio transplants grew accustomed to the Texas heat. The family grew, too, with Jacob, now 1, joining brother Graham, now 4, and sister Leah, now 3. When it came time to crunch the family-budget numbers on a trip from Fort Bliss to Oregon for the March 28 wedding of Jonathan's longtime friend, it became clear that the officer would be making the trip himself.
His leave had been approved prior to the exercise. Because it came in the middle of the 10-day Operation Iron Focus, and because he'd already yielded his duties in Headquarters and Headquarters Battery, 2nd Battalion, 3rd Field Artillery Regiment, Division Artillery, to another captain (thanks to an upcoming permanent change-of-station), he was unclear at what level he'd be asked to participate.
But instead of finding himself in a rear detachment, he was with his team March 22, Rachel Wynkoop said, driven back to post March 25, and flying to Oregon on March 27, to perform best man duties.
When he got back to Bliss on March 29, a Sunday, "Jon was assuming that he wouldn't have to go [back into the field] because command had put a hold on the release of vehicles from the field, which meant that he wouldn't have a ride back out," Rachel said.
"On his way back from the wedding … a vehicle had been approved to leave the field to receive critical maintenance equipment on Monday, and ultimately was his final ride back."
'I had to help'
The two uniformed soldiers delivered the dreadful news to Rachel about four hours after Jonathan's death, less than a day after she'd said goodbye as he returned to the field. Soon after, she said, "I felt almost like a soldier. There were many meetings and papers to sign, decisions to be made. It was a constant flow for a few weeks on end."
Capt. Jonathan Wynkoop was laid to rest Aug. 26 in Arlington National Cemetery.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Rachel Wynkoop
She credited multiple Army organizations and individuals for supporting her during the immediate aftermath and in the months following the incident. Help has come from outside the service, as well: The Central Joint Fire District in Portage, Ohio, where Jonathan served as a volunteer firefighter during college, has raised money for the family, and a family friend launched www.gofundme.com/helpthewynkoops, where others can offer support.
But Rachel felt more had to be done, only not for herself or her family.
"After we got over the initial shock, and his parents had the opportunity to fly down and meet with me, we all had decided immediately to speak to those who were involved to extend forgiveness," she said. "I knew [Jonathan's] true heart, and how much … helping soldiers meant to him, so I just felt like I had to help those that were involved."
While the driver was not the only soldier whose actions were cited in the investigation, he was the only one the family members were able to meet. After sitting with Jonathan's parents for about 10 minutes, the driver met with Rachel. She said she could tell he was "very broken and hurting," so she did her best to maintain her composure and deliver what comfort she could provide.
"After it was over," she said, "the driver had left, and I let out a big deep breath and just cried."
Local media reported 1,500 American flags lined the path mourners took to Wynkoop's April 11 memorial service in Maumee, Ohio. He was laid to rest Aug. 26 in Arlington National Cemetery.
Kevin Lilley is the features editor of Military Times.