Sunday, July 20, 2008

Murder in the military

By Michael N. Graff and April Johnston
Staff writers

Staff photo by Stephanie Bruce
A sign welcoming soldiers home hangs above the office of Morganton Place Apartments, where 2nd Lt. Holley Wimunc lived. The apartments are home to many soldiers stationed at Fort Bragg.

It’s just after 9 a.m. at Hana’s Barber Shop and the place is still empty. Clarence Wright has abandoned his clippers to sit on a padded bench and watch the big-screen television.

Because the shop sits on Reilly Road, mere minutes from the Fort Bragg gates, it won’t be long before paratroopers file in for their weekly high-and-tight or the Special Forces soldiers drop by and ask for something with a little more style. Wright knows just what his regulars want.

And, these days, he can predict just what they’ll be talking about.

Three women — Marine Lance Cpl. Maria Lauterbach, Army Spc. Megan Touma and Army 2nd. Lt. Holley Wimunc — have been killed in the past seven months in North Carolina military towns. In two cases, Marines have been charged with murder. In another, police say a soldier is a person of interest.

They are three murders out of dozens in the state in that span, but they are among the most notorious. Two of the victims were pregnant, two bodies were burned and at least one was mutilated.

The soldiers who sit in Wright’s barber chair know all too well what this kind of attention means — lectures from commanding officers and scrutiny from the public.

The nature of the crimes and the spotlight the national media is shining on them have made that scrutiny all the more intense. People in Fayetteville and Jacksonville, living in the shadow of Fort Bragg and Camp Lejeune, are already asking questions:

Is something amiss in the military? Are the stress of war and the fatigue of deployment worming their way into military homes and igniting volatile relationships?

Or is the military being unfairly targeted because troops are trained to carry weapons and to use them?

The answers to those questions are vital to these two cities, places that rely on the military to keep them on the map.

Three flags fly in the parking lot of the Jacksonville Mall — the U.S. flag, the North Carolina flag and the Marine Corps flag.

Just north on Western Boulevard, a congested road of chain restaurants and stores, the parking lot at Hooters is jammed with motorcycles, two per space. A little farther up, dozens of close-cropped heads are buried under the hoods of their muscle cars.

By 7:30 p.m., there are lines outside every steakhouse.

Every major hotel in town is at 90 percent capacity or better.

And it’s only Wednesday.

Camp Lejeune feeds Jacksonville, keeps it living. Here, the city considers the military its brother. Sure, the locals may grumble about the noise or the traffic. But let somebody else say something bad, and Jacksonville jumps to the defense.

“We don’t want our town to be perceived like that’s what’s going on here,” said Robin Bell, who grew up in Jacksonville and is married to a Marine veteran. “Those were a couple individuals that are wrong.”

Neither Lauterbach’s nor Wimunc’s remains were discovered in the city limits. Wimunc’s were located in Sneads Ferry, a tiny community southeast of Jacksonville on the other side of Camp Lejeune.

Lauterbach’s charred body was found in the Half Moon neighborhood, a few miles northwest of the city limit, behind a humble starter home owned by the Marine accused of killing her, Cpl. Cesar Laurean.

The grass outside the Laurean home is waist-high now. The wooden fence surrounding the yard is falling apart. The shell of an above-ground pool stands in the backyard. The house next door has a sign in the yard — “For Sale.”

Steve Walters lives in a mobile home park that backs up to the yard where Lauterbach’s remains were found.

“I think about it every time I look back there,” Walters said. “What do you do with it? If you knock the house down, you still have the yard where she was burned.”

Still, Walters remains loyal to the Marines. He never joined himself, but he’s lived here 46 years. In his line of work — construction — he’d be out of a job without the military.

Not too long after Lauterbach’s body was found, Walters’ 19-year-old daughter came home with a boyfriend — a Marine.

“He’s a good kid. I can tell he’s crazy about my daughter,” Walters said. “It only takes one to make the whole group look bad. People are trying to make (the Marines) look bad. But we civilians who’ve been here know it’s not like that.”

“Fort Bragg is what keeps a lot of people’s hopes and dreams alive,” said local painter Mike Chavis.

Tucked between the two business districts, along a three-mile stretch of Morganton Road, are the modern apartment buildings where many of these soldiers live. Their parking lots are packed with a menagerie of license plates: Oregon, Idaho, Hawaii, Texas, Florida. Banners declaring “Welcome home! Thank you for serving our country” hang from the rafters. Paraglide, the Fort Bragg newspaper, is distributed out of blue boxes on the sidewalks. Here, residents are as likely to wear fatigues as they are to wear flip-flops.

So you’d expect this swath of the city to be the most defensive, to fervently rationalize this latest outbreak of violence.

But that’s not what you hear from many of the people here.

The military wives who live here admit to being a little scared, a little concerned — even if they are so shy of publicity that most don’t want to give their names. Some are buying additional locks and chains for their apartment doors. They’re worried that war has begun to take its toll, that deployments are changing their soldiers.

“Who knows what it’s like over there?” Becky Sharrow said. “We don’t know what they’re seeing; we don’t know what’s happening.”

The Miles Foundation, a nonprofit group that provides services to victims of violence associated with the military, says the deployments are hitting military families. And it’s not just because soldiers are dealing with post-traumatic stress, though that doesn’t help.

Deployments shift the balance of power in relationships. Soldiers who may already feel powerless in their jobs — subject to the whims of their commanding officers — return home to find life has gone on without them. Their wives are in charge.

Sometimes, Miles Foundation communications director Anita Sanchez says, a soldier will go to great and violent lengths to recapture that control, especially if it’s not coming easily.

Before October 2001, when the war began in Afghanistan, the foundation provided services to, on average, 50 military spouses per month.

After October 2001, that number jumped to roughly 170 per week.

And the severity of the violence appears to be escalating, too.

But it’s not necessarily the perils of combat causing the escalation. Military studies have shown that domestic violence does not correlate to the stress of the job. Someone sitting behind a desk is just as likely to be an abuser as someone fighting on the front lines.

One study found domestic violence was highest in the units that provide supplies.

“For all we know, the abuser might have been deployed to Okinawa, sitting behind a desk,” Sanchez says. “It’s not related to job stress, and it’s not surprising this has occurred in North Carolina, to be honest.”

The brutality rocked the Army base, leaving commanders stunned and scrambling for a way to stop the violence.

In the wake of the murders, the Department of Defense hired Dr. Richard Gelles, a domestic violence expert at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Social Policy and Practice, to tackle the question everyone was asking: Is the military inherently violent?

Gelles’ research showed it isn’t. In fact, when compared to similar civilian populations, the rate of violence was lower in the military.

But Fort Bragg, even after eliminating those four infamous murders of 2002, had a disproportionately high number of domestic homicides. The highest in the country.


“It’s not within my power or expertise to say if it’s a lack of social services in the community or a lack of services on the installation,” Gelles said. “It would require more research than I was allowed to do.”

Much has changed since 2002. The toll of two wars has forced the military to lower its standards for recruits and institute a policy of long, serial deployments, often with little rest in between.

But Gelles suspects that if he performed his study all over again, he’d find roughly the same result. So the recent murders in North Carolina didn’t particularly surprise him, even though he acknowledges that Fort Bragg has worked diligently to improve its support system.

Since 2002, the base has hired 12 victim advocates, 15more psychologists, added anger and stress management programs, and made some important changes to its domestic violence reporting policies.

Popular perception says seeking help within the military halts careers and stains security clearances.

Not anymore.

“That may have been true years ago,” Army spokesman Tom McCollum said. “Now our goal is to stop it, not to hide it.”

So soldiers can seek help from therapists at Womack Army Medical Center or from chaplains at the Watters Family Life Center.

Spouses can receive advice from a victim advocate or medical attention without triggering an investigation of a soldier.

And even if a soldier were to be disciplined, his family would not be left to struggle. The transitional compensation program entitles them to up to 36 months of support from the Army, including housing and health care.

It’s more support than any civilian could hope to get in the community, Army officials say.

“We don’t want to victimize family members because they decide to report,” said Esther Berrios, a family advocate.

When his tour ended, he was hardly the same person.

There were nights, when in cold sleep, he would grab his wife by both arms and start shaking her. He wouldn’t remember it in the morning.

In the strong-chinned Marines, where finding someone to talk about feelings is trying, Steer is an exception. There’s an unquestionable psychological effect of war, he says. And it’s his job to help his guys through those times.

The 26 Marines in his platoon all know his wife, to whom he’s been married 15 years. If one of his guys comes to work overweight, Steer says, he doesn’t simply order them to shape up. He asks if everything’s OK at home first.

“I tell them not to think of me as your father,” Steer said. “Talk to me like I’m your crazy uncle who showed you your first Playboy magazine.”

Steer says people in his position — the noncommissioned officers — are perhaps the most important people in preventing catastrophic circumstances among their subordinates.

He would know if one of his Marines were in a tough spot at home. That’s his job.

Still, he says, while there are some areas where military leadership can improve, the recent string of crimes probably was unpreventable.

“It’s a cop-out,” Steer said. “To sit there and say it’s the war instead of saying this little turd is a murdering, killing (rascal), we’re just giving him a cop-out.”

Her husband, 19-year-old Lance Cpl. Adam Hay, is spending the day with her. Today, for her, he doesn’t mind waiting on his wife’s pampering.

They were married May 23, six months after they started dating, adding to the heap of young married couples in Jacksonville, which is the youngest city in the country with an average age of just under 23.

Being married early is a part of military life. But the Hayses say they married for the right reasons. Adam isn’t scheduled for deployment anytime soon. And they dated for several months before being married. But, Adam said, he knows some of his fellow Marines jump for wives a little too early.

“Some guys get married just to get out of the barracks,” Adam said. “It sounds crazy, but it’s true.”

Retired 1st Sgt. Harold Rowland, the director of the Jacksonville center of the USO, a support organization, said he advises against hurried weddings before deployments.

He says it can be dicey having a soldier come home from a war zone to a wife he knew only briefly before deployment.

But he says there’s no magic formula for predicting which marriages will work out.

“You can’t put an age limit on it,” Rowland said. “You have to put a maturity limit on it. Some 21-year-olds can get married and rock it. And some 30-year-olds have no business ever getting married.”

Brown is a seamstress, co-owner of T&S Cleaning and Alterations on Reilly Road and the wife of a former Marine.

But once she was a nurse living in Vietnam, horrified by the awful images, the death, that war showed her.

She fled her native country for the United States, hoping to escape the violence that stains her past.

But she worries that the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are a case of history repeating itself.

War is necessarily violent. And it teaches violence to those who are involved.

While the Miles Foundation does not believe the military is inherently violent, it does point to studies that show the people who are attracted to the military are likelier than the general population to have a propensity for aggressive behavior.

Then it trains them, honing weapons skills and interrogation tactics — some of the same techniques domestic violence offenders use on their spouses.

Still, Brown defends the military. It gave her a good life through marriage. Soldiers who patronize her business give her a good life now. No matter the war, no matter the nature of these recent deaths, she won’t point her finger at the military.

“They’re not at fault,” Brown says. “How can they control that? How can they know each individual mind?”

Less than two months earlier, Holley Wimunc had filed a temporary restraining order against John.

She never showed up for the hearing.

Jennifer Libby, the court advocate for the Onslow Women’s Center, which aids people in abusive relationships, wasn’t surprised to hear that Holley Wimunc skipped the court hearing.

About half the women who file for restraining orders in Onslow County never show up.

“They think, ‘He hit me. But he won’t kill me,’” Libby said. “They shouldn’t think that way, because it can happen.”

Half of the calls to the Onslow Women’s Center each year are from people in military families.

The women’s center houses the most severe cases for up to six months in an undisclosed safe house. Libby said the Marine command typically doesn’t find out about the cases unless official charges are filed.

A good number of the people elect to return to their spouses or significant others before that happens. They make a number of excuses for the abuser, one of the most convenient being that the abuser is dealing with time at war.

Libby says that’s just passing the blame. It’s the easy excuse.

And, in Jacksonville and Fayetteville, the easiest target often is the military.

“I don’t want to see people getting away with domestic violence and killing their spouse and then saying it’s because of this or that,” Libby said. “The majority of the military guys don’t come back and kill their spouses.”

Gelles, the domestic violence expert, is inclined to agree.

“You can say the military attracts a different clientele, but it’s more complicated than that,” Gelles says. “It’s hard to get people to kill other people. The military can attract someone who’s all gung ho and train someone who’s all gung ho, but the leap from that to wife killer is huge.”
Staff writer Michael Graff can be reached at or 486-3591. Staff writer April Johnston can be reached at or 323-4848, ext. 384.