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Death on the Home Front


Wake up, America. The boys are coming home, and they’re not the boys who went away.

On New Year’s Day, the New York Times welcomed the advent of 2009 by reporting that, since returning from Iraq, nine members of the Fort Carson, Colorado, Fourth Brigade Combat team had been charged with homicide. Five of the murders they were responsible for took place in 2008 when, in addition, "charges of domestic violence, rape and sexual assault" at the base rose sharply. Some of the murder victims were chosen at random; four were fellow soldiers — all men. Three were wives or girlfriends.

This shouldn’t be a surprise. Men sent to Iraq or Afghanistan for two, three, or four tours of duty return to wives who find them "changed" and children they barely know. Tens of thousands return to inadequate, underfunded veterans’ services with appalling physical injuries, crippling post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and suck-it-up sergeants who hold to the belief that no good soldier seeks help. That, by the way, is a mighty convenient belief for the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs, which have been notoriously slow to offer much of that help.

Recently Republican Senator John Cornyn from Texas, a state with 15 major military bases, noted that as many as one in five U.S. veterans is expected to suffer from at least one "invisible wound" of war, if not a combination of them, "including depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and mild traumatic brain injury." Left untreated, such wounds can become very visible: witness, for example, the recent wave of suicides that have swept through the military, at least 128 in 2008, and 24 in January 2009 alone.

To judge by past wars, a lot of returning veterans will do themselves a lot of damage drinking and drugging. Many will wind up in prison for drug use or criminal offenses that might have been minor if the offenders hadn’t been carrying guns they learned to rely on in the service. And a shocking number of those veterans will bring the violence of war home to their wives and children.

That’s no accident. The U.S. military is a macho club, proud of its long tradition of misogyny, and not about to give it up. One decorated veteran of the first Gulf War, who credited the army with teaching him to repress his emotions, described his basic training as "long, exhausting marches" and "sound-offs [that] revolved around killing and mutilating the enemy or violent sex with women." (The two themes easily merge.) That veteran was Timothy McVeigh, the unrepentant Oklahoma City bomber, who must have known that blowing up a government office building during business hours was sure to kill a whole lot of women.

Even in the best of times, the incidence of violence against women is much higher in the military than among civilians. After war, it’s naturally worse — as with those combat team members at Fort Carson. In 2005, one of them, Pfc. Stephen Sherwood, returned from Iraq and fatally shot his wife, then himself. In September 2008, Pvt. John Needham, who received a medical discharge after a failed suicide attempt, beat his girlfriend to death. In October 2008, Spc. Robert H. Marko raped and murdered Judilianna Lawrence, a developmentally disabled teenager he met online.

These murders of wives and girlfriends — crimes the Bureau of Justice Statistics labels "intimate homicides" — were hardly the first. In fact, the first veterans of George Bush’s wars returned to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, from Afghanistan in 2002.

On June 11, 2002, Sgt. First Class Rigoberto Nieves fatally shot his wife Teresa and then himself in their bedroom. On June 29th, Sgt. William Wright strangled his wife Jennifer and buried her body in the woods. On July 9th, Sgt. Ramon Griffin stabbed his estranged wife Marilyn 50 times or more and set her house on fire. On July 19th, Sgt. First Class Brandon Floyd of Delta Force, the antiterrorism unit of the Special Forces, shot his wife Andrea and then killed himself. At least three of the murdered wives had been seeking separation or divorce.

When a New York Times reporter asked a master sergeant in the Special Forces to comment on these events, he responded: "S.F.’s [Special Forces members] don’t like to talk about emotional stuff. We are Type A people who just blow things like that off…"

The killings at Fort Bragg didn’t stop there. In February 2005, Army Special Forces trainee Richard Corcoran shot and wounded his estranged wife Michele and another soldier, then killed himself. He became the tenth fatality in a lengthening list of domestic violence deaths at Fort Bragg.

In February 2008, the Times reported finding "more than 150 cases of fatal domestic violence or [fatal] child abuse in the United States involving service members and new veterans" since the Afghan War began in October 2001. And it’s still going on.

The Pentagon: Conveniently Clueless

In April 2000, after three soldiers stationed at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, murdered their wives and CBS TV’s "60 Minutes" broke a story on those deaths, the Pentagon established a task force on domestic violence. After three years of careful work, the task force reported its findings and recommendations to Congress on March 20, 2003, the day the United States invaded Iraq. Members of the House Armed Services Committee kept rushing from the hearing room, where testimony on the report was underway, to see how the brand new war was coming along.

What the task force discovered was that soldiers rarely faced any consequences for beating or raping their wives. (Girlfriends didn’t even count.) In fact, soldiers were regularly sheltered on military bases from civilian orders of protection and criminal arrest warrants. The military, in short, did a much better job of protecting servicemen from punishment than protecting their wives from harm.

Years later the military seems as much in denial as ever. It has, for instance, established "anger management" classes, long known to be useless when it comes to men who assault their wives. Batterers already manage their anger very well — and very selectively — to intimidate wives and girlfriends; rarely do they take it out on a senior officer or other figure of authority. It’s the punch line to an old joke: the angry man goes home to kick his dog, or more likely, his wife.

Anger may fire the shot, but misogyny determines the target. A sense of male superiority, and the habitual disrespect for women that goes with it, make many men feel entitled to control the lesser lives of women — and dogs. Even Hollywood gets the connection: in Paul Haggis’s stark film on the consequences of the Iraq War, In the Valley of Elah, a returned vet drowns the family dog in the bathtub — a rehearsal for drowning his wife.

The military does evaluate the mental health of soldiers. Three times it evaluated the mental health of Robert H. Marko (the Fort Carson infantryman who raped and murdered a girl), and each time declared him fit for combat, even though his record noted his belief that, on his twenty-first birthday, he would be transformed into the "Black Raptor," half-man, half-dinosaur.

In February 2008, after the ninth homicide at Fort Carson, the Army launched an inquiry there too. The general in charge said investigators were "looking for a trend, something that happened through [the murderers’] life cycle that might have contributed to this." A former captain and Army prosecutor at Fort Carson asked, "Where is this aggression coming from?… Was it something in Iraq?"

What Are We Fighting For?

Our women soldiers are a different story. The Department of Defense still contends that women serve only "in support of" U.S. operations, but in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan "support" and "combat" often amount to the same thing. Between September 11, 2001, and mid-2008, 193,400 women were deployed "in support of" U.S. combat operations. In Iraq alone, 97 were killed and 585 wounded.

Like their male counterparts, thousands of women soldiers return from Afghanistan and Iraq afflicted with PTSD. Their "invisible wounds," however, are invariably made more complex by the conditions under which they serve. Although they train with other women, they are often deployed only with men. In the field they are routinely harassed and raped by their fellow soldiers and by officers who can destroy their careers if they protest.

On March 17, 2009, the Pentagon reported 2,923 cases of sexual assault in the past year in the U.S. military, including a 25% increase in assaults reported by women serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, assaults committed by men who serve under the same flag. What’s more, the Pentagon estimated that perhaps 80% of such rapes go unreported.

And then, when women come home as veterans, they, like their male counterparts, may be involved in domestic homicides. Unlike the men, however, they are usually not the killers, but the victims.

Shortly after Sgt. William Edwards and his wife, Sgt. Erin Edwards, returned to Fort Hood, Texas, in 2004 from separate missions in Iraq, he assaulted her. She moved off base, sent her two children to stay with her mother, brought charges against her husband, got an order of protection, and received assurances from her husband’s commanders that they would prevent him from leaving the base without an accompanying officer.

She even arranged for a transfer to a base in New York. However, on July 22, 2004, before she could leave the area, William Edwards skipped his anger management class, left the base by himself, drove to Erin Edwards’s house, and after a struggle, shot her in the head, then turned the gun on himself.

The police detective in charge of the investigation told reporters, "I believe that had he been confined to base and had that confinement been monitored, she would not be dead at his hands." Base commanders excused themselves, saying they hadn’t known Erin Edwards was "afraid" of her husband. Even if true, since when is that a standard of military discipline? William Edwards had assaulted a fellow soldier. Normally, that would be some kind of crime — unless, of course, the victim was just a wife.

Back in North Carolina, near Fort Bragg and the nearby Marine base at Camp Lejeune, military men murdered four military women in nine months between December 2007 and September 2008. Marine Lance Cpl. Maria Lauterbach, eight months pregnant, went missing from Camp Lejeune in December 2007, not long before she was to testify that a fellow Marine, Cpl. Cesar Laurean, had raped her. In January, investigators found her burned body in a shallow grave in Laurean’s backyard. By then, he had fled to Mexico, his native country, and been apprehended there; but Mexico does not extradite citizens subject to capital punishment.

On June 21st, the decomposing body of Spc. Megan Touma, seven months pregnant, was found in a motel room near Fort Bragg. In July, Sgt. Edgar Patino, a married man and the father of Touma’s child, was arrested and charged with her murder.

On July 10th, Army 2nd Lt. Holly Wimunc, a nurse, failed to appear for work at Fort Bragg. Neighbors reported that her apartment was burning. Days later, her charred body was found near Camp Lejeune. She had been in the process of divorcing her estranged husband, Marine Cpl. John Wimunc, and had a restraining order against him. He and his friend Lance Cpl. Kyle Ryan Alden were charged with murder, arson, and felony conspiracy.

On September 30th, Army Sgt. Christina Smith was walking with her husband Sgt. Richard Smith in their Fayetteville neighborhood near Fort Bragg when an assailant plunged a knife into her neck. Richard Smith and Pfc. Mathew Kvapil, a hired hit man, were charged with murder and conspiracy.

Striking about these "intimate homicides" is their lack of intimacy. They tend to be planned and carried out with the kind of ruthless calculation that would go into any military plan of attack. Most were designed to eliminate an inconveniently pregnant lover and an unwelcome child, or to inflict the ultimate lesson on a woman about to make good her escape from a man’s control. In some of them, in good soldierly fashion, the man planning the killing was able to enlist the help of a buddy. On military websites you can read plenty of comments of comradely support for these homicidal men who so heroically "offed the bitches."

Give Peace a Chance

The battered women’s movement once had a slogan: World peace begins at home. They thought peace could be learned by example in homes free of violence and then carried into the wider world. It was an idea first suggested in 1869 by the English political philosopher John Stuart Mill. He saw that "the subjection of women," as he called it, engendered in the home the habits of tyranny and violence which afflicted England’s political life and corrupted its conduct abroad.

The idea seems almost quaint in competition with the brutal, dehumanizing effectiveness of two or three tours of duty in a pointless war and a little "mild" brain damage.

We had a respite for a while. For nearly a decade, starting in 1993, rates of domestic violence and wife murder went down by a few percentage points. Then in 2002, the vets started coming home.

No society that sends its men abroad to do violence can expect them to come home and be at peace. To let world peace begin at home, you have to stop making war. (Europe has largely done it.) Short of that, you have to take better care of your soldiers and the people they once knew how to love.

Ann Jones is a journalist and the author of a groundbreaking series of books on violence against women, including Next Time She’ll Be Dead, on battering, and Women Who Kill, a contemporary classic to be reissued this fall by the Feminist Press, with a new introduction from which this post is adapted. She serves as a gender advisor to the UN.

[This article first appeared on Tomdispatch.com, a weblog of the Nation Institute, which offers a steady flow of alternate sources, news, and opinion from Tom Engelhardt, long time editor in publishing, co-founder of the American Empire Project, author of The End of Victory Culture, and editor of The World According to Tomdispatch: America in the New Age of Empire.]

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