Death In The Ranks At Fort Bragg

When 32-year-old Jennifer Wright went missing in late June, her husband, William, told neighbors he knew what had happened: she'd run off with a friend. An Army Special Forces master sergeant stationed at Fort Bragg, N.C., he'd recently returned from a tour of duty in Afghanistan, and his marriage was showing signs of strain. William Wright claimed it wasn't the first time Jennifer had up and left, eventually to return. Jennifer Wright's family was skeptical. She was a doting mother, and they didn't believe she'd leave her three sons.

They were right. On July 19 Wright reportedly confessed to strangling Jennifer weeks before. He took police to a wooded area, where he'd allegedly buried her.

The murder was grisly, but in the tight-knit military community in and around Fort Bragg, it is becoming depressingly familiar. Jennifer Wright was just one of four Fort Bragg wives allegedly slain by their soldier husbands in the past six weeks. Inevitably, the murders raised uncomfortable questions about the stress of combat and the possible effects of extreme training. For years advocacy groups have complained that the Pentagon hasn't done enough to help soldiers and their spouses deal with the enormous difficulties of military life--the long separations, fear of death, low pay and infidelities. Whatever the reason, the Army must now face a troublesome fact: a startling number of soldiers lauded as heroes for their service overseas are having a far harder time returning to life at home.

The Bragg slayings are a gruesome case in point. On the night of June 11, two days after returning from Afghanistan, Sgt. 1/C Rigoberto Nieves got into an argument with his wife, Teresa, pulled a .40-caliber pistol, shot her and then turned the gun on himself. On July 9 Sgt. Cedric Ramon Griffin, of the 37th Engineer Battalion, allegedly stabbed his estranged wife, Marilyn, at least 50 times. On July 19 Sgt. 1/C Brandon Floyd, a member of the elite Delta Force who had also served in Afghanistan, fatally shot his wife and then himself.

Statistics show that domestic violence in the military occurs at twice the civilian rate. But the armed forces are overwhelmingly made up of young men, often from unstable, low-income families--the social group most likely to commit violent acts. Among comparable civilians, the rate of domestic abuse is close to that of soldiers. Even so, the number of violent crimes in the ranks is a problem the Army hasn't fully confronted. Soldiers commit thousands of domestic assaults each year, and few are ever prosecuted in civilian courts.

Critics charge that the Army goes out of its way not to prosecute domestic abusers because under federal law those convicted would lose their right to carry a gun--and therefore become useless as soldiers. Some abused wives have quietly complained that base commanders pressured them not to bring charges. "The Fort Bragg murders may at last persuade people to wake up to the scale of the problem the military has," says Christine Hansen of the Miles Foundation, which investigates military domestic abuse. "For the commanders, unit readiness is all. Which means they will do anything rather than lose a soldier." One member of a Pentagon task force examining the issue told NEWSWEEK, "What's needed is a determination right from the top to do something."

At Fort Bragg, Special Forces soldiers and their wives told NEWSWEEK that the stresses of preserving a marriage and raising kids in the Army is just more than some people can handle. In most of the recent murders, the marriages were failing before the men went to Afghanistan. Special Forces soldiers are away from home as much as 10 months a year. The pay is scandalously low; a new Special Forces recruit--usually a soldier with five to seven years of experience--earns about $25,000 a year. "A young Green Beret who's married with two kids qualifies for food stamps," says one recruiter. Another sore spot: infidelity. "There are a lot of women who, when their husbands go, you see them out on the town running around," says one military wife.

Most learn to cope on their own. Yvonne Qualantone's husband is nearing his 20-year mark. Mostly, she says, the stress has been financial. But over the years, she developed a drill to prepare for her husband's homecoming. A few weeks before, she and the wives of her husband's A-Team talk to their chaplain about keeping tempers at bay. She buys a new dress, and tells her five kids, "Make sure the bed's made and your room's clean."

The Army says it is sensitive to these problems, and offers marriage counseling to any soldier or spouse who wants it. But privately, an official acknowledged to NEWSWEEK that a soldier "has to want to seek assistance," something the men worry will make them look weak or hurt their chances for promotion. But in the aftermath of four brutal murders, the Army may have to start watching its men as closely at home as it does in the field.