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Under the Sabers: The Unwritten Code of Army Wives, page 1


Under the Sabers: The Unwritten Code of Army Wives

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Under the Sabers: The Unwritten Code of Army Wives





  Table of Contents

  Title Page
































  Copyright Page


  This is a story about Army life, but it was death—murder, actually—that was the impetus for me to write this book.

  In the summer of 2002 I was a military reporter for the Fayetteville Observer in Fayetteville, North Carolina, the town outside Fort Bragg. The post is home to some of the Army’s most elite soldiers—paratroopers, Green Berets, and Delta Force commandos. With a density of high-performing people who thrive on adrenaline, Fort Bragg is an electrifying place to serve, a fact not missed by visiting dignitaries, government officials, and other VIPs who often note the special quality of the place. Yet that summer, in the span of just six weeks, four Fort Bragg soldiers killed their wives; then two of the men committed suicide, and a third would hang himself in jail eight months later. In a fifth case an officer’s wife was charged with killing her husband.

  It was compelling, headline-grabbing material, and I reported on those stories as well as the bigger picture that united them. As I dug deeper and deeper, I realized that there was a broader tale I wanted to tell, a story that was buried in the commotion of one tragic, overexposed summer in Fayetteville. Even without sensational murders, the lives of Army wives are the stuff of drama. These women play roles that are bound by convention in circumstances that are sometimes precarious, frequently close-knit, and too often heartrending. Yet what life is really like for Army wives has never been closely examined.

  To tell a story about the Army lifestyle, it helps to have been a part of it. I grew up an Army brat, moving from post to post. My father, now a retired colonel, served thirty years in the military. Though I had gone away to college and traveled and worked overseas, eventually I realized, a bit grudgingly, that my blood would always be tinged Army green. It raised eyebrows when I became the first female reporter at the Fayetteville Observer to cover Fort Bragg, but I didn’t give it a second thought. I felt just as comfortable talking with generals in their red-carpeted offices about training policies and deployments as I did chatting with privates in the field about why they preferred chewing one brand of tobacco over others.

  Long before “embedded media” became a common term, I was flying on C-130 airborne operations, joining helicopter search-and-rescue missions, and trudging through mud with infantrymen in foreign countries. I always strove to show the human side—perhaps because the Army had touched my personal life—of an organization known for uniformity and conformity. It helped that my background gave me credibility. I could rely on the “I’m from your world, too,” factor. Plus I liked the place.

  I had arrived in Fayetteville early in the spring of 1995 just as the dogwoods were blooming. Despite their fragile beauty, however, this was no genteel southern town. Fort Bragg is one of the largest military installations in the country and the base for 42,000 mostly airborne soldiers. If there is a trouble spot somewhere in the world, chances are good that Fort Bragg troops are in the mix.

  There’s a sense of real purpose here—a bona fide war mission and a long and proud history of belonging to something greater than oneself. Even the streets and neighborhoods are named after World War II battle campaigns: Normandy Drive, Ardennes Street, Bastogne Gables, Nijmegen, Corregidor Courts, Luzon, Bataan, and Salerno. Soon, no doubt, the campaigns of Afghanistan and Iraq will start cropping up on street signs, too.

  Within this environment a whole community—with arcane traditions and a well-defined military caste system—thrives. The senior officers’ families live in the prettiest part of post near the parade field in century-old homes, all within walking distance of the golf course and the officers club pool and tennis courts. The most junior of enlisted couples live in dowdy duplexes known as ghettos—though Fort Bragg is finally tearing these down—where nineteen-year-old brides sit on steps strewn with toys, watching their children ride tricycles on the sidewalk. They have to drive to get to their pool. And every day a bugle call to reveille and a cannon jolt at 6:30 A.M. remind you of where you are and why.

  Over the last decade I became part of the community and friends with the soldiers’ families, who were my neighbors or whom I met at church. I got to know and love the veterans, the “old-timers.” And I realized that Fayetteville’s greatest asset was its people, a hodgepodge of races, religions, and ethnic groups, both haves and have-nots, who live in one of the most integrated communities in the country. As one black Vietnam vet, who had been severely wounded in combat, once told me, “If you have to die next to each other, living together isn’t so hard.”

  For me the third week in July 2002 started off routinely enough—if writing about an AWOL soldier who claimed he had amnesia is routine. My days were generally spent juggling writing assignments and interviews that covered everything from war training to Army wives’ craft shows. By Friday afternoon, July 19, I was working on a mind-numbing account of the integration of the Army’s battle theories and doctrine with digital technology.

  Then news of a murder hit the newsroom. A man had just led detectives to the spot where he had buried his wife, whom he had strangled three weeks earlier. A few hours later the same detectives were investigating the murder-suicide of a married couple across town. During the weekend facts surrounding both cases slowly trickled in. The husbands were soldiers. This was my beat.

  I felt as if a tornado had rumbled through my stomach. There were now four dead wives in six weeks—out of the ordinary even in Fayetteville, jaded as it was by decades of violence and bad news. After all, this was a town that had had its share of extraordinary news stories over the years—including Jeffrey MacDonald’s 1970 murders of his wife and daughters, a case made infamous in Fatal Vision.

  People had barely noticed when, a month earlier, on June 11, Sergeant First Class Rigoberto Nieves, a Green Beret just two days back from Afghanistan, had shot his wife, Teresa, in the head before killing himself. The Friday after their deaths, I attended a cocktail party filled with high-ranking Fort Bragg officers and their wives. Over gin and tonic and scotch and water, the conversation focused on Italian handbags and summer sandals, new duty assignments, summer vacation plans, Osama bin Laden, and Fayetteville’s drought.

  A few weeks after that, on Tuesday, July 9, I’d been driving from Washington, D.C.—where I’d covered a White House Medal of Honor ceremony posthumously honoring an American prisoner of war in Vietnam—when the second murder took place. Sergeant Cedric
Griffin visited the Fayetteville home of his estranged wife, Marilyn. Following an argument, he stabbed her seventy times before setting her body on fire. As grotesque and unsettling as Marilyn Griffin’s murder was, it didn’t really shock me either. Nor did it garner much more than a day’s worth of media attention and a shake of the head by people in town.

  Now the body count had risen again, and no one was making any connection.

  On the following morning, I walked into the newsroom, headed to my boss’s cubicle, stepped over a pile of yellowing newspapers, sat down in the chair parked behind his desk, and stared at an assortment of neckties in various colors draped over the top of his cubicle. Mike Adams, the deputy managing editor, was a short man with a penchant for cutting his own hair. He had a quick, off-color wit, the kind that kept reporters in stitches. He also had a low threshold for bullshit, from his reporters or from the public.

  “What’s up?” He had swung around in his chair and was studying my face, as was his habit. But he already knew.

  “We gotta do something,” I said.

  “Start looking for patterns,” Mike said. “Find out how many of these guys have been deployed to Afghanistan. Figure out how much time you’re going to need. What’s Fort Bragg saying?”

  Not much. That I knew before I even made my first phone call. This was not a story Fort Bragg would want to have publicized. The Army liked to deal with its dirty laundry behind closed doors without civilians or the media poking around. It didn’t take long for me to discover that three of the killers had served in Special Operations and had been deployed to Afghanistan. Although Fort Bragg would never admit it, I was sure one of the men was in Delta Force. I had met him myself.

  As I worked on the story, events had turned even more bizarre by the next day: Police suspected an Army wife of shooting her husband to death as he slept.

  I kept at it. From the beginning I was interested in more than just the who, what, where, and when of these deaths. I started looking at couples whose history of fights and affairs turned into wife beating or worse after long separations. I investigated why wives, fearful of the repercussions from their spouses and the Army, didn’t report abusive husbands. I talked with couples who knew they could benefit from counseling but stayed away, fearing it wouldn’t be kept confidential and would ruin the husband’s career. And I talked with husbands and wives about the importance of appearances—keeping the kitchen clean and the lawn mowed and maintaining the facade that there were no problems in the bedroom.

  When my first story ran on Friday, July 26, one of my colleagues stopped me as I walked into the newsroom that morning following an interview I had at Womack Army Medical Center.

  “Where have you been?” he asked. “We’ve been bombarded with calls from around the world.”

  I looked at him sarcastically. “The world?”

  “Yeah, you’re all over the news and the wires.” I walked to my desk with coffee in one hand and a notebook and papers in the other and felt the eyes of other reporters on me. What was going on? It took a moment for everything to sink in as I saw all the e-mails and phone messages. Within hours, reporters and news crews had flown into town, and Fort Bragg officials had held a news conference to deal with the onslaught of calls it was receiving. I even started getting phone calls at home from Army wives concerned for their own safety. The calls unnerved me, because in many cases the women weren’t interested in publishing their stories; they wanted help. I began to keep a women’s hotline number in my Rolodex at work as well as on my nightstand.

  The murders and what might have caused them were big news for weeks. Then, eventually, the headlines faded, and the stories bounced from the front page to the inside sections. All that had been left unsaid ate away at me. What about the rest of the story? The events that were played out daily behind the Army’s gates, in the neighborhoods and early morning unit formations, at the military balls and the wives’ coffee groups and children’s playgroups, on the parade fields and in the bedrooms?

  We often hear about the sacrifices soldiers make for their nation, but we rarely hear about their spouses’ struggles. Army wives are bound by an unwritten code. They are expected to endure hardships with graciousness and tragedies with heads held high. Despite America’s fascination with the military since 9/11 and the war in Iraq, the media generally focuses only on the families’ tearful good-byes and tearful reunions. Or, in the case of the spouse murders, their deaths. The reality is far more complex and riveting.

  I originally planned to write an oral history featuring nine women, but the project eventually evolved into the story of Army wives told through the lives of four women who reach a crisis point in their lives at Fort Bragg. The women are from different backgrounds and social classes; their husbands various ranks. Their stories evolve during the period from December 2000 through the summer of 2002, a year and a half that encompassed both a peacetime Army and one at war.

  Finding the right mix of women with critical life turns was no easy task. Though their stories are individual, the four women in this book are emblematic. Their character traits and experiences are things all Army wives can recognize or identify with. You cannot tell the Army wife story by focusing only on a sergeant’s wife or a colonel’s. Though there are common threads, their roles, and therefore their day-to-day encounters, are too diverse.

  Each of the four women is vastly different from the others in looks, personality, and lifestyle, yet their stories are intertwined. They experience love, hardship, betrayal, tragedy, and success, all in a world steeped in tradition, with a rigid decorum and pecking order, where perfection is expected. Each comes to a crossroads that forces her to forge her own path. Not all succeed. Was the Army accountable for their fate? Ultimately the reader will have to decide.

  The women I chose are not the usual subjects profiled by out-of-town writers on a deadline. By that I mean wives who are already in the public arena, whether they are on-the-fringe Army wives speaking out at antiwar rallies or carefully screened women trotted out by the Army public affairs officers for the press hounds who “want to talk to Army wives.”

  I met the women the same way you would meet people in your own community, over time, through personal introductions, by chance, as well as from contacts made long before I ever decided to write a book.

  I shared with them my own experiences along with my vision for this project. I wasn’t going to press anyone into a cookie-cutter version of some idealized type. Stereotyping people, often based solely on rank and position, is already too ingrained within Army culture. Although some of my characters may seem at first glance to fit a general stereotype—the officer’s wife who volunteers and “does lunch” or the uneducated young enlisted wife and mother who can barely make ends meet—their stories unfold in unique ways. The women shared with me extremely intimate details about their marriages, their frustrations and insecurities, their disappointments, and their darkest pain, all the human vulnerabilities that must often be tucked away for the good of the Army and their husbands’ careers. The Army’s motto speaks for itself: Mission First, People Always.

  I met Rita Odom, the wife of Specialist Brian Odom, during Christmas season 2000. I was working on a story at the time about soldiers in the 82nd Airborne Division, who were on alert over the holidays. Rita was one of a handful of women I interviewed, and I immediately liked the way she expressed herself and turned a phrase. She was comfortable in her own skin and she was smart, with a down-home appeal. I wouldn’t hear from Rita again until 2002, when she sent me an e-mail to say hello and update me on her family.

  Rita was a new wife and as such could provide a set of fresh eyes on the Army experience. She knew nothing about the Army when she married a soldier she had met only a few times and left behind her small Alabama town and a life of poverty and abuse. Her experiences in Fayetteville open up the raunchier side of Army life, through the friends she meets while their husbands are in the field. All the while Rita struggles to establish equal fo
oting within her marriage, to make something of herself, and to find her own place, while around her other women are cheating on their husbands.

  I have known Delores Kalinofski and her husband, Command Sergeant Major Gary Kalinofski, for seven years. I first met the sergeant major—or should I say I heard him belting out, “Good morning ladies! Are you decent?”—when I was in Albania, to cover the 2nd Battalion of the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment. He was the unit’s command sergeant major. I peeked out from my sleeping bag in my new “bedroom,” a bombed-out old Soviet bunker, and saw a man standing with his hands on his hips, his feet apart, and a big grin on his face. We formed a friendship, and we stayed in touch.

  I met Delores at my surprise birthday party later in the year. She had more than twenty years of Army know-how and had spent much of that time in Fayetteville. She was a devout Catholic, frugal in her spending, and always put others before herself. Delores had to face an unthinkable event during the period of this book, and the Army community responded in good ways and, sadly, shameful ones. I always knew there was more to Delores than what was on the surface. Slowly and painstakingly, she revealed pieces of herself to me that she says even her closest friends will be shocked to learn.

  I was introduced to Andrea Lynne Cory, the wife of Lieutenant Colonel Rennie Cory, a few weeks before I left on an assignment to Vietnam in 2002. Her family’s story had actually inspired me to go to Southeast Asia in the first place, and I chose Andrea Lynne because a life-changing experience forced her to grapple with who she is, what she wants, and how she will live the rest of her life. She is also living proof that you can be in your forties, have four children, and still be glamorous and sexy.

  As a battalion commander’s wife, Andrea Lynne was an integral part of Fort Bragg’s inner circle and social scene. The oldest of the service branches, the Army as an institution has maintained the protocol, customs, and courtesies of a bygone era. At their best these can be an endearing salute to the past: The gracious homes, the parades and pageantry, the patriotic speeches, the uniforms and balls are all throwbacks to a simpler, more innocent time. Andrea Lynne’s story opens a window onto a world very different from that of the other Army wives.

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