When Barry Winchell was a soldier at Fort Campbell, he would call his mother and stepfather in Kansas City and pretend something was awry.
"Mom, you'd better sit down because I've got to tell you something," Winchell would say, sounding melancholy. Then, he'd gush over the phone, "I've just won another award!"
Patricia and Wally Kutteles relished those calls. It seemed to them that he finally had found success.
Winchell had struggled through most of his 21 years. A dyslexic, he found school difficult and dropped out of high school his sophomore year. It wasn't until he joined the Army about two years ago that he found something he was good at, winning honors and being named best in his company at firing the .50-caliber machine gun. He was assigned to an elite unit that could deploy anywhere in the world in 18 hours.
"He was so proud of himself," said Wally Kutteles, who raised Winchell since he was 5. "People called him Top Gun."
But what Winchell didn't tell his family was the other change in his life. He finally was accepting his sexuality. He was traveling off the post that straddles the Kentucky-Tennessee border to Nashville, Tenn., where he was making friends at gay bars and dating a man. Winchell told a friend that he was starting to finally feel comfortable with himself.
But about 3 a.m. on July 5, he was brutally beaten in his barracks -- and investigators are weighing whether his sexuality could have been a factor in the killing.
A fellow soldier is accused of beating Winchell with a ball bat, allegedly encouraged by Winchell's own roommate.
Winchell never regained consciousness, and his parents hardly recognized his face, which was swollen "like a basketball," his stepfather said. Winchell died the following day at a Nashville hospital.
Pfc. Calvin Glover, 18, has been charged with premeditated murder, and Winchell's roommate, Spc. Justin Fisher, 25, has been charged with, among other things, encouraging Glover to strike Winchell. Glover's Article 32 hearing, the equivalent of a civilian grand jury, is set for tomorrow at Fort Campbell; Fisher's hearing is scheduled for Aug. 14.
Devastated by the murder, Winchell's family was then stunned to learn he was gay. Now, as the Army is about to lay out its findings, the family is struggling to understand how this could have happened.
Wally Kutteles, who served in the Korean War and had a man die in his arms, said that being killed in combat is expected, almost acceptable. But being slain in the barracks is neither.
"I really loved that boy," Kutteles said last month, his voice cracking and his eyes glazing with tears.
Pat Kutteles said her son knew early on that he was different from other children, and it troubled him.
She remembered that when he was in elementary school, he had a medical test related to his dyslexia. Afterward, Winchell told his mother, "I'm not learning-disabled. If all the world learned the way I did, then you would be learning-disabled. I just learn differently."
Because of his disability, Winchell didn't start to read or spell until the third grade, but he found ways to compensate.
In the second grade, when Barry's teacher asked him to spell "go" on the chalkboard, he walked to the front of the classroom and drew a line with an arrow at the end.
"The teacher wrote us a note about that," Wally Kutteles said. "She said that was so clever of him to do that."
Indeed, he was a bright, creative child. When he was tested before enrolling in school, his mother said he was shown pictures of a suitcase, clothes and a cow. Asked what he would pack for a trip, Barry said the cow, "in case I got hungry."
He could examine drawings or blueprints and almost instantly know how to assemble products.
A few years later, his two older brothers, Sean and Ian, were putting together a bunk bed. Barry, then 7, watched, then told them, "You've got it backwards."
He was right.
Winchell enjoyed playing the piano, starting lessons at age 9, and as a teen-ager he formed a rock band with friends. But he struggled in class.
"He was hanging out with other kids that didn't excel," his stepfather said. "Some of the kids were good kids and some of them weren't so good. . . He was smarter than they were, smarter than a lot of other kids that did excel."
After dropping out, Winchell enrolled at Pinellas Technical Education Center in Clearwater, Fla., and studied welding. He wanted to further his skills at a Texas school for underwater welding, but he didn't have the money to attend. So he earned his general equivalency diploma and joined the Army in 1997, initially to qualify for a free education under the GI Bill.
A natural athlete and runner, Winchell thrived in basic training at Fort Benning, Ga. "He enjoyed the physical training because it was a challenge," his mother said.
He arrived at Fort Campbell in May 1998 as an anti-armor weapon operator and began thinking seriously of a career in the military. Before his death, he was studying for Warrant Officers School, where he would learn to pilot helicopters.
His interest in flying had been piqued during a training mission aboard a Blackhawk helicopter that flew low to the ground and outlined the terrain. "Some of the guys got nauseated and sick, but he fell in love," his mother said.
Winchell worked diligently at being a model soldier, his family said, and for the last six months had been memorizing field manuals and illustrations of the .50-caliber machine gun. Winchell sometimes corrected his superiors when they spoke about the gun, prompting one sergeant to call him "The Encyclopedia," his mother said.
In the living room of their Kansas City apartment, the Winchells have created a shrine to their son and his military accomplishments.
A basic training photo of the clean-cut young man, gazing ahead stoically, hangs on the wall above a stuffed teddy bear, dressed in fatigues with Winchell's dog tags dangling from its neck. Winchell's family nickname was "Bear," short for Barry.
His honors -- the Army Commendation Medal, Army Achievement Medal and Air Assault Badge, among others -- sit on a shelf. An American flag, which draped Winchell's coffin, is tucked in a triangular wooden box. Shells from the 21-gun salute at the funeral are wrapped inside.
Since the death, Pat Kutteles has not slept more than a few hours at a time and has started smoking again. Last month, she sat at her kitchen table flipping through photos of her youngest son.
"He loved his ribbons," she said, pausing at a picture of Winchell at age 9 holding blue and red ribbons he won for sprinting at his school's annual field day.
"And that was him at the Blue and Gold dinner in Scouts, where he won an award," she said, pointing to a photo snapped at a Boy Scouts banquet.
Winchell's friends in Nashville also have fond memories -- of him hanging out on weekends, watching movies, listening to music. But they recall another aspect of his life.
Mark Friesland met Winchell about five months ago at The Connection, a gay bar in Nashville. Friesland, who served in the Army for 14 years, said Winchell was like many young people who are beginning to reveal their sexuality to others.
"It was neat for him to be away from home, and it was safe for him to explore himself," said Friesland, 35. "He tried to maintain a masculine and adult demeanor, but in many ways he was just a little kid."
Friesland said Winchell viewed being a gay soldier as a novelty. He would tell people satirically, "Don't ask, don't tell" -- mocking the military's policy that says soldiers are not to reveal their sexuality and commanders are not to ask.
The Army has acknowledged that it is investigating whether Winchell's sexuality was a factor in his death. The Kutteles said they are waiting for the Army to finish its work before drawing conclusions about what happened to their son -- and why.
The only certainty they have now is their belief that their son had found success and could have achieved much.
"He could have planned battles, he might have been a general," Wally Kutteles said.