Tuesday, October 4, 2011

How a beloved son and war hero became a 'criminal' falsely accused of rape

Yesterday, we reported a story about how a young soldier was cleared of rape charges after investigators determined his accuser lied (see here). Now, the young man has spoken out about his ordeal, and we think it's appropriate to tell his story.

Heath Alan Kirk joined the army at 18, but he did it secretly because he knew his family would be upset. He enlisted to honor his late uncle, his mother's brother and best friend, who had served in the Navy for many years and had just recently died. When Heath broke the news to his mother, she was devastated, but proud.

There was someone else very upset. Heath and his little brother Ryan were closer than best friends despite the nine year difference in their ages. How close? Heath put his Camaro in storage for Ryan and gave Ryan the keys. Heath even had Ryan's full name tattooed on the inside of his left forearm so that they would never be apart.  And after he joined, Heath somehow managed to send Ryan a $1,000 savings bond every month for college.

Heath entered the army in November 2007 and was sent to Afghanistan in June 2009. He served as a driver in the 704th Brigade Support Battalion.

In September 2009, Heath made the kind of call that thousands of mothers have received from sons overseas. He told her he was going out on a mission the next day, and he gave her cause to be concerned.

"Mom, it's getting really, really bad over here," he told her.

Cpl. Heath Kirk was completing that mission in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, on September 24, 2009, when his convoy was attacked. Heath was driving a humvee. There were about 20 soldiers passing through the city in four vehicles when they noticed something strange. Instead of the usual bustling atmosphere and the sounds of commerce and children playing, the streets were virtually silent. Almost instantly, everything changed.
"All my buddies are shooting like crazy and I just realized I couldn’t get out of the truck,” he said. "I looked down and both my legs were gone." It turned out only one leg was gone, the other was badly injured.  Heath had been hit by a  rocket-propelled grenade, and he was seriously injured.

His lieutenant reached into the burning vehicle and pulled him out and threw him into a ditch. Lying in excruciating pain, all Heath could remember thinking was, "I’m not ready to die." His fellow soldiers tied tourniquets around his legs to stop the massive bleeding. There was no morphine to give him to ease the pain.

Doctors performed surgery to amputate his right leg above the knee. The attack also caused shrapnel injuries to his left leg, and eventually, doctors performed experimental surgery with only a modest chance of success to save it. But save it they did.  The attack left serious burns to Heath's face. He underwent a lengthy rehab. Months later, he still had no feeling in his right hand and only 60 percent feeling in his left.

Heath didn't let any of it get him down. He came home to Lorain, Ohio, for a motorcade parade and a party in his honor. The highlight of the evening came when Heath's mom grabbed her son’s hand as Celine Dion’s “Because You Loved Me” began playing, and the two danced. Mom rested her head on Heath's chest; Heath, with a prosthetic leg, took each step to lead his mom through the dance. Then Heath returned to the army, to honor his late uncle.

Fast forward to last week. Heath was stationed in San Antonio, just weeks away from the end of his military career. He claims that he and Danielle Marie Gates, 19, were on a date that included dinner, a movie, and consensual sex. 

Afterwards, Gates accused Heath of kidnapping her and forcing her to have sex with him near the Alamo Quarry Market, a thriving San Antonio shopping and dining center.

Heath denied the claim and accused Gates of lying. Heath, not Gates, of course, was arrested. He was charged with kidnapping and sexual assault. Bail was set at $100,000, which meant that Heath had to stay in jail because only the sons of the wealthy make bail on a false rape claim.

The news media reported it in typical fashion: it showed Heath donning an orange prison jumpsuit, with the look of a young man who simply couldn't believe what was happening to him. One news report stated: "Police say Heath Kirk, 23, kidnapped a 19-year-old woman from a career college campus on Southwest Military on Tuesday." The news report didn't bother to say that police were, in fact, investigating a claim of "he said/she said rape," and that the only evidence supporting the allegation was the accuser's word.

The police came to believe the accuser was lying after Heath produced explicit pictures on a cell phone that contradicted her story. It is a twisted irony that rape accusers no longer need corroboration, but the men falsely accused of rape had better get some if they want to get out of jail. Investigators conducted a second interview with Gates and determined she made false statements to detectives, prompting investigators to arrest her. Heath was cleared of wrongdoing.

Heath reveals that he was falsely accused of rape because his girlfriend was upset that he was breaking up with her.  "I'm leaving in three weeks to go back to Ohio when I retire, and I don't think she was really ready for that," Kirk said. So she made him pay for it.

The victim of a false rape claim has a name, and a face, and his story needs to be told.

He is a young man who honors a favorite uncle by following in his footsteps to serve his country.

He is the older brother who loves his kid brother so much he selflessly gives him everything he has, and even has his name tattooed on his arm.

He is the beloved son of a mother who rests her head on his chest, overjoyed that he is alive and safe, even though he came back to her without a leg.

He is a brother-in-arms for whom his fellow soldiers put their own lives at risk to save his.

He is a war hero, whose story inspires us to be better than we are.

He is a good man treated like a criminal for something police now say he didn't do.

Although the false rape ordeal has been tough on him, Heath said he's not bitter about what happened. "I don't want her in jail because I've already experienced what it's like," Kirk said. "If she goes, she goes. But if not, it's cool too."

Heath Kirk, you are a good man. A good man, indeed.