Killing by elite soldiers hits home

By , Special to the Christian Science Monitor

In the middle of a protracted war on terrorists abroad, the Army is responding to a deadly kind of collateral damage emerging on an unexpected flank: the home front.

Amid the sleepy Southern towns and pine-bluffed bombing ranges that surround America's largest Army base, four military wives are dead in less than six weeks – three of them killed by spouses recently returned from tours in Afghanistan.

While military experts say it's a stretch to say that these spousal homicides are directly linked to the war, the common thread seems to be that all of the couples had marital problems that may have been exacerbated by their deployments.

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But even if the killings are indeed a tragic coincidence, the Army on Thursday kicked off an investigation here at the main deployment point for America's wars. The focus: what the Army can do to better understand – and prevent – spousal abuse, especially among families of elite front-line soldiers. It's the sixth domestic abuse investigation in the Army since the late 1980s.

"These are the biggest, baddest bears in the forest," says James Morrison, a retired military sociologist who used to teach at Ft. Bragg's JFK Special Warfare School. "It's certainly a weird coincidence that these killings have largely involved troops where violence and aggressiveness is encouraged."

Experts say that soldiers are about twice as likely as civilians to turn violent at home – though there are no studies looking specifically at elite troops who are spearheading the war on terrorism. But today, the fact that a majority of the men involved were Special Forces officers raises a specter of concern over the ability of the country's most gung-ho fighting men to make peace at home.

"This is certainly a very troubling series of events, and absolutely tragic," says Delores Johnson, chief of the Army's Family Advocacy Programs at the Pentagon. "Everyone wants to make sure we are doing what we need to do to transform these tragedies into something meaningful."

The series of killings began June 19, when a Special Forces soldier home two days from Afghanistan shot his wife execution-style and then killed himself. A few days later, an Army cook stabbed his wife and set her body on fire. On July 20, police discovered the bodies of an elite Delta Force soldier and his wife in their Stedman, N.C., home. That same day, police arrested Special Forces officer Bill Wright after he led investigators to where he had buried his wife, Jennifer.

"Until [Bill] came back from Afghanistan, I didn't worry about violence," Ms. Wright's mother, Wilma Watson of Mason, Ohio, told the Associated Press. After his return, six weeks ago, "he was getting these attacks of rage."

And in the base's most recent homi-cide, Joan Shannon was arrested last Tuesday for killing her husband, Special Forces Major David Shannon, with the help of her 15-year-old daughter.

The Pentagon points out that the vast majority of military families live normal, happy lives, even during war. Still, for the past 37 years, the Army has deployed chaplains to identify soldiers having trouble at home. Today, 1,100 counselors at 97 installations worldwide help soldiers adjust to postdeployment changes – such as a new baby or even a wife's new haircut.

"What people have to understand about soldiering is that it's fundamentally a people business, and there are human dimensions of people that you don't have 100 percent control over," says Ms. Johnson.

But Army culture, especially at the elite level, makes it hard for soldiers and their families to seek help, as home problems can be seen as a sign of weakness – and can hold up valuable promotions. Private counseling is not covered by Army insurance, and some soldiers reportedly sneak into psychiatrists' offices to get help.

"People who rise up in [Army] leadership are people selected by their not bucking the culture," says Catherine Lutz, an anthropologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who has studied the base's culture. "There's tremendous confidence and can-do-it-ness that goes with that. But it also promotes a certain view of masculinity as invulnerable, that it doesn't ask for help, and it has control over everything in the environment."

And while the military has issued several orders of "zero tolerance" against domestic violence – including one that followed six domestic killings in six months by officers at Ft. Campbell, Ky., in 1997 – civilian privacy laws designed to protect victims who report abuse don't apply to military families. "In the military," says Christine Hansen, director of the Miles Foundation, which helps battered military spouses, "victim safety is not paramount as it is in civilian life."

Another problem is that 70 percent of the 45,000 soldiers stationed at Ft. Bragg live in seven surrounding counties, where civilian authorities are not required to report spousal-abuse incidents to military authorities. Homicide Det. Sam Pennica says spousal and child abuse are commonplace in the area.

Anita, whose husband, Mike, was an Apache pilot in the Gulf War, has seen first-hand how war can exacerbate relationship strains. "I can't understand murdering the mother of your children, but ... I do know that it's hard for many of these men to reconcile God's plan after they see so much killing," she says.

"And that can have an impact on them when they return home."

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