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Saturday, 17 August, 2002, 11:14 GMT 12:14 UK
Murders shake US military
The United States army is investigating a series of disturbing murders at one of its bases in North Carolina. Four military wives have allegedly been killed by their husbands in the last two months.
More remarkable still is that three of the soldiers thought to be responsible had recently returned from active service in Afghanistan.
Fort Bragg - America's largest military base - is surrounded by gun shops and strip joints, the trappings of a macho military culture with a heady mix of weapons and women.
The North Carolina base is the home and training ground of the US army's Special Forces - the men who perform the Pentagon's dirty work in trouble-spots around the globe.
Soldiers here claim to be the bravest and the best - the first into battle, and often the last to leave. You can almost taste the testosterone in the air.
But the events of the past eight weeks here have forced this tight-knit community to confront the violence on its doorstep.
In that time, four military wives have been allegedly brutally murdered by their husbands - three of them Special Forces soldiers who'd returned recently from the war in Afghanistan.
The details of the murders are gruesome.
Master sergeant William Wright is alleged to have strangled his wife, Jennifer, then wrapped her lifeless body in a parachute and buried it in dense woodland nearby.
Sergeant First Class Brandon Floyd, a member of Delta Force - the famed D-Boys, no less - is alleged to have shot his wife, Andrea, and then turned the gun on himself.
Then there's Rigoberto Nieves who apparently killed his wife, Teresa, in the bedroom of their family home, shooting her in the head with a 40 calibre pistol and then committing suicide.
All of the men had fought on the battlefields of Afghanistan - Nieves had returned home from combat just two days before.
'Culture of silence'
The oft-repeated line from base commanders is that there's no connection between the Afghan conflict and the killings - that these had been troubled marital relationships long before the men had ever even heard of the Taleban.
Talk to the victims whose husbands serve at Fort Bragg - those brave enough to speak up, and seek help.
They talk of military chiefs reluctant to prosecute cases of domestic abuse, because those found guilty lose their right to carry guns - making them useless as soldiers.
They tell of officers hesitant to investigate allegations against their men, for fear that their units - close-knit groups which train together night and day - will be disrupted.
They speak of husbands afraid of admitting any sign of mental weakness or stress for fear that their military careers will end up on the scrap heap.
It would be misleading to exaggerate the extent of the problem, for the vast majority of men have probably never raised a hand in anger against their wives.
But this is a problem which has to be confronted by the US military - where domestic violence occurs at twice the civilian rate.
Kit Gruelle, a women's advocate from nearby Chatham County, was a victim of domestic violence herself.
She well remembers being pinned up against the wall by her then-husband, a former US marine, who gleefully reminded her that he could snap her neck with a single jerk of his hands.
Now she helps other women cope with their abusive husbands.
"The focus is so geared towards keeping the soldier happy and not doing anything to disturb his peace," she says.
"And yet when he comes home to profoundly disturb the peace of his family, then it's the wife who's held accountable. It's not her job to unwind him on his return home," she adds.
"When she gets punched in the face, it's not her fault".
I raised her concerns with garrison commander Tad Davis, a combat-fatigue-clad colonel, with sparkling black boots, who earlier that morning had performed a parachute jump just for fun.
He's an amiable man, who defies the stereotype of the coarse-speaking, cigar-chomping, senior officer. He clearly cares deeply not only for his men, but for their wives and families as well.
Colonel Davis talks of the expanded counselling programmes, stress management classes and family advocacy.
He even says that some special forces soldiers should start weighing the benefits of an hour in therapy against an hour on the firing range.
But that kind of "touchy-feely" soldiering goes against the grain. In this rarefied macho culture, any acknowledgement of weakness amounts to an admission of failure.
Over the past few weeks, this military community has closed ranks.
Many people don't want to talk about the spate of killings, there's a feeling in some quarters that it's somehow unpatriotic.
All around town, there are flags and banners - put there as symbols of support for the men still fighting abroad. But there's a new focus here, as well, on the problems which await them at home.
27 Jul 02 | Americas
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