The family of a Fort Bragg soldier believes undiagnosed battle wounds led the former Sarasota High School graduate to kill his pregnant wife last month.
Kassandra Lewis, the sister of U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Keith Lewis, 31, says her brother adored his wife, Sarah, 34, and daughter, Callie, 3, and was excited about the birth of a second daughter, Isabelle, around Christmastime.
The Lewises made plans to celebrate the holiday with Keith’s mom, Lynda Lewis, by opening gifts over video chat.
But tragically, Keith Lewis shot his wife Dec. 20 and then turned the gun on himself. Sarah Lewis was taken to the hospital with life-threatening injuries and later died.
Their 3-year-old daughter, Callie, was not injured, according to police.
Tours in Afghanistan beginning at age 19 changed Keith, who was a known animal lover and worked for a bird rescue. His mom tried to sway him from joining the military by promising him a cockatoo.
Lynda Lewis went as far as to hide his social security card and his birth certificate, but Keith Lewis was determined to be a military man. He was in the Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps and ROTC in high school.
On his 18th birthday, a recruiter helped Keith Lewis get his social security card and birth certificate and he enlisted in the Army.
Kassandra Lewis said her family’s military roots date back to the Spanish-American War.
“Our grandfather was Coast Guard in Vietnam,” Kassandra Lewis said. “He loaded Agent Orange and worked on radio systems. His brothers were Navy and Marines.”
Keith was small but stout.
At 19, he served a year-long term in Afghanistan.
Keith’s convoy was hit by an improvised explosive device, according to Kassandra Lewis. He told his family he actually saw stars.
“He was going out on a routine mission and literally the next day he was supposed to be flying home to us on R&R,” Kassandra said. “Then they kept missing the drop off for any kind of food. They had to wait for a strike to destroy the Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle.”
The Taliban took potshots at them while they waited.
After the IED blast, Keith was sent home. He had memory problems, his sister said.
“He had flares of emotions. He would jump when a plastic bag went across the front of his car down here in Florida,” Kassandra Lewis said. “It was obvious he sustained a traumatic brain injury.”
He turned around and went back to Afghanistan after a brief respite and finished out the rest of his tour at Fort Richardson in Anchorage, Alaska.
An MRI showed he had a brain injury, Kassandra Lewis said. They requested his military file and medical record, but the military never sent it.
In 2016, Keith and Sarah were at restaurant when the name “Bowe Bergdahl” was brought up and and it infuriated Keith.
Bergdahl was an Army deserter who served in the same unit a Keith and was captured by the Taliban-aligned Haqqani network and held captive from 2009-2014, according to Kassandra Lewis.
Keith’s unit was tasked with finding him.
Six soldiers were lost in the hunt: Staff Sgt. Clayton Patrick Bowen; 2nd Lt. Darryn Deen Andrews; Staff Sgt. Kurt Robert Curtiss; Pfc. Matthew Michael Martinek, and Staff Sgt. Michael Chance Murphrey in 2009.
Martinek was Keith’s best friend in the service.
Keith left his wife at the restaurant and walked home about five miles. Sarah tailed him in the car and tried to stop him from going inside the house, Kassandra Lewis said.
“My brother barricaded himself,” his sister said. “It was written down as a domestic violence situation.”
Sarah was injured in the incident when she tried to keep Keith out of the house. She said he pushed her and she struck her head against a wall.
Once inside, Keith got a gun and pressed it to his forehead, Kassandra Lewis said.
The incident was reported to police and Keith was worried it would destroy his chance of promotions or get him booted from the service altogether. He was about seven years shy of his retirement eligibility.
A call from his mother, Lynda, calmed him.
“The emotions had washed over him and he just lost control,” Kassandra Lewis said. “It was post-traumatic stress disorder mixed with a traumatic brain injury. He had a blackout moment.”
Keith’s family said the moment was a “cry for help,” but instead of getting the necessary treatment his sister believes the Army ignored signs of a problem.
“Everything went on its way. My brother went along and climbed the ranks,” Kassandra Lewis said.
Among his accomplishments was becoming an Army Green Beret at age 25 and just before Christmas, he was promoted to lead a medical center.
The appointment stressed him out, his sister said. He became overwhelmed leading to the shooting tragedy.
Kassandra Lewis is concerned her brother will be dubbed a criminal because of his actions. Because of the shooting, the Army won’t allow Keith to be buried at a national cemetery with his battle buddies. His family won’t get a flag.
“They won’t take his medical record or service record (as proof of a stress disorder),” Kassandra Lewis said. “They won’t admit their was a sign of distress.”
Veterans can be buried in a VA cemetery if they didn’t receive a dishonorable discharge; if they died while on active duty, active duty training or inactive duty for training; they are the spouse or minor of a veteran or the unmarried adult dependent child of a veteran.
“People are portraying him as a realy bad man. He was a military man,” Kassandra Lewis said. “He gave the Army his mind, body and soul. … He gave everything. He took the PTSD and took the traumatic brain injury, he took his shoulder getting messed up. Now, he’s some villain.”
Kassandra Lewis said the military is pushing her brother to the side.
“We truly expected him to die in war,” Kassandra Lewis said. “To them (Army) he is just a criminal; a thug. That’s not who he was. He was a good man, he really was.”
Lewis put hundreds of hours into bird rescue, his sister said. And he grew to love his time in Afghanistan.
But near the end of his life, he used a dark sense of humor to deflect memories such as being surrounded by packs of growling wild dogs in the Afghan darkness after being separated from his unit during his first deployment.
“After that incident, he would call up my mom at 4 a.m. when he was rattled and talk to her and everything that happened,” Kassandra Lewis said. “He couldn’t see anything. He knew there were wild dogs there.
“He was a 19 year old kid alone and dealing with rabid dogs. That was one of the big incidents that changed things for him.”
According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in 2016, an average of 22 veterans die from suicide every day, nearly four times the rate of the average citizen.
“We aren’t giving them the support they need,” Kassandra Lewis said. “We’ve talked to other military parents whose kids have died of suicide. It is deeply staggering the mental health problems they are going through. It’s disgusting.”
While the Lewis family seeks help burying a brother, son and father, they demand the military make changes on how soldiers with mental health issues are treated. She said if her brother did not believe he would be punished for his condition by being blocked from promotions or a discharge, he would have sought help.
“They saw some sick heavy things most people will never have to deal with in their life,” Kassandra Lewis said. “He didn’t act out of hate. It was everything.”
(c)2021 Sarasota Herald-Tribune, Fla.
Visit Sarasota Herald-Tribune, Fla. at www.heraldtribune.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.