Americans have always been intrigued by the idea that the battlefield makes people a little crazy; it's a staple of (anti)war movies, from Paths of Glory (1957) to Born on the Fourth of July (1989). But what happened at Fort Bragg may turn out to be more mundane and in a way sadder since domestic violence remains a chronic problem in the U.S.
It's unclear how much fighting the three Afghanistan vets actually saw. One, Sergeant First Class Brandon Floyd, 30, who police say shot his wife to death and then killed himself on July 19, served with the elite and secretive Delta Force from November to January, the most intense months of fighting. Another sergeant first class, Rigoberto Nieves, who allegedly started the spate of killings in early June, was assigned to the 3rd Special Forces Group. He was deployed to Afghanistan from mid-March until just two days before he also shot his wife and himself, according to authorities.
But the other two alleged killers were not fresh from combat. Master Sergeant William Wright led investigators to his wife's strangled corpse on July 19. He had gone to Afghanistan in March with the 96th Civil Affairs Battalion, a unique unit that helps countries rebuild after war. Civil Affairs folks usually spend more time talking than shooting. The fourth alleged killer, Sergeant Cedric Griffin, who is accused of stabbing his wife nearly 50 times, had never been deployed to Afghanistan or anywhere else. He is an Army cook.
There will never be just one explanation for why Andrea Floyd, Teresa Nieves, Jennifer Wright and Marilyn Griffin are dead. Even off the battlefield, military life is stressful, but men in the military have almost exactly the same rate of spousal abuse as civilians of the same age and demographic profile, according to Richard Heyman of the State University of New York. "I do think it's odd for there to be a concentration in one locale of homicides like this," says Deborah Tucker, co-chair of a Defense Department task force on domestic violence. "But if you think about it, we have 2,000 women killed every year in America [by partners or exes]. There's going to be one or two or three a month in any larger-sized community." Fort Bragg has 20,000 troops.
Some 80% of intimate-partner homicides are preceded by a pattern of abuse. There were warning signs in at least two of the Bragg cases. Married for eight years, the Griffins had separated at least twice, most recently in May. Wilma Watson, Jennifer Wright's mother, told Time that her daughter's marriage began to unravel two years ago, just as Bill Wright's assignments were increasing. After each of his deployments, their estrangement intensified. "Mommy, he's like a different person when he comes back," Jennifer would say.
It has been 32 years since Fort Bragg's most infamous murders, the 1970 killings of the wife and daughters of Captain Jeffrey MacDonald, chronicled in the best seller Fatal Vision. Since then, the armed forces have addressed domestic violence with more counseling and support for families, but some say the Pentagon has not done enough. Confidentiality isn't guaranteed for victims who come forward, according to Tucker, and only about 30% of Army bases employ a person trained and identified as a victims' advocate. Perhaps, then, we should look closer to home than Afghanistan for the reasons four women are dead.