When I arrived at Quaker House at the beginning of 2002, work on domestic violence was not in my job description. There was already plenty else to keep a one-person staff busy: troops from Fort Bragg were already fighting in Afghanistan, and plans for invading Iraq were clearly taking shape. Besides, I had no experience in that area.
But events didn’t care about that. Two weeks after moving in, I opened the Fayetteville Observer on the morning of Monday, January 14, 2002, to this headline:
Victim Stabbed Outside Eatery
A Fayetteville woman died Sunday afternoon after being stabbed by her estranged husband in front of the Mi Casita restaurant on Raeford Road, police said.
Shalamar Franceschi died at the scene, Fayetteville police said. She was 24.
Officials said her throat was cut and she was stabbed multiple times.
A warrant has been issued charging her estranged husband, Damian Colon Franceschi, 26, with first-degree murder. Authorities were looking for Damian Franceschi on Sunday night. He is considered armed and dangerous . . . .
Damian Franceschi, who had just been discharged from the Army, was captured several days later, and is serving life. There was no immediate connection between this killing and my work. But the shock of it reverberated anyway. I knew the restaurant, a modest Mexican place in a mid-sized strip mall. I ate there a number of times, and her picture always came to mind.
The attack was unbelievably brazen: set up as a meeting with Damon Francheschi’s brother, to talk about plans for care of her toddler son. Shalamar thought her ex was still in jail, where he had been since earlier physical and sexual assaults on her.
But his mother had bailed hm out the day before. And as Shalamar approached the door, Damon leaped out from behind a pillar and raised the knife. I recalled that Sunday’s weather had been clear, the daylight bright, but the mall was largely empty, closed for Sunday. Damon Francheschi left Shalamar lying in a spreading pool of her own blood, walked to a car and drove away.
The killing was no more than local news, but it didn’t fade from my memory. In part, that was because it wasn’t isolated. Also there was a cruel kind of irony to what became Fayetteville/Ft. Bragg’s latest domestic crime wave: downtown, the city fathers (men, for sure) were busy planning an image makeover for the city they were tired of hearing referred to disparagingly as “Fayettenam,” meaning a swamp of drugs, prostitution and crime.
The campaigners, after much hoopla, generated a new brand motto for the city: “Fayetteville — History, Heroes, and a Hometown Feeling.” Besides decals and bumperstickers, this tagline went up on a dozen or so small billboards beside roads into the city.
But by the time these signs went up, the city fathers had boatloads of publicity, but of an opposite sort from what they were after. As it was summed up by author Chris McCallum, it centered on members of the Army’s heavily secret, elite units:
On June 11, Special Forces Sergeant Rigoberto Nieves, who had just flown home to Fort Bragg from Afghanistan, to deal with what he told his comrades were “personal problems,” shot and killed his wife Teresa, and then himself.
Two and a half weeks later, on June 29, Special Forces Master Sergeant William Wright clubbed his wife Jennifer to death with a baseball bat, and buried her body in a wooded area near Fort Bragg.
On July 9, Sergeant Cedric Griffin of the 37th Engineer Battalion stabbed his estranged wife, Marilyn, more than 50 times. Then he set her corpse on fire, while her two young daughters slept in an adjoining room. (The girls heard a smoke alarm and escaped.)
Ten days later, on July 19, Sgt. William Wright agreed to lead police and MPs to the spot where he had buried his wife’s body. While investigators were still there, a police cell phone rang, and an investigator called out: “We got another one.”
Another two, to be precise. East of Fayetteville, in their new “dream house,” Delta Force Sergeant First Class Brandon Floyd, also recently back from Afghanistan, had just shot and killed his wife Andrea, and then himself. Neighbors had referred to the outwardly happy and attractive couple as “Barbie and Ken.”
And still it wasn’t finished. Four days afterward, Special Forces Major David Shannon was shot and killed while he slept. His wife Joan at first said an unidentified intruder was responsible, but a week later, on July 29, police charged her with murder and conspiracy. On August 2, their fifteen year-old daughter Elizabeth was also arrested.
Thus in the space of barely six weeks, seven military-related murders and suicides occurred on and around Fort Bragg. (And that wasn’t the end of the series; nine months later, in March of 2003, Sergeant Wright hung himself in his cell while awaiting trial.)
The first four cases made orphans of a total of nine children. The only survivor of the four male shooters, Cedric Griffin, was sentenced to life in 2005. Both Joan Shannon and her daughter are likewise in prison; the daughter testified that her mother persuaded her to pull the trigger, for insurance money; at trial, Joan Shannon denied this, but did admit that she and her husband had taken part in group sex parties, complete with explicit photos; she was convicted and sentenced to life.
Two other lesser casualties fell by the wayside of this trail of mayhem: one was the “get-rid-of-Fayettenam” re-branding campaign. The city garnered plenty of national publicity that summer and fall, but of exactly the kind it was trying to overcome. When the dust settled, a dozen or so small signs bearing the “History, Heroes and a Hometown Feeling” motto, standing forlornly on roads entering the city, were about all that was left of the grand campaign put together with such hope a few months earlier. The “Fayettenam” label was stuck to the town’s image more firmly than ever.
And as if this travesty was not enough, a touch of farce was added on July 25, when the President of the Chamber of Commerce, one of the key figures in the makeover effort, was arrested near downtown, charged with soliciting an undercover female police officer to perform what was euphemistically called “a crime against nature.” He said it was all a “mistake,” but resigned less than a week later.
All this murder and its fallout were gripping and tragic, but again, not something Quaker House was prepared to deal with.
Or was it?
I was a journalist for a ling time before I got to Quaker House, and from this angle another side of the story was visible, especially close up, which was connected with something I could see happening in response to the killings. I saw, really for the first time, a full-spectrum military effort at damage-control and news management clicking into gear. A piece I wrote in the Quaker House Newsletter described this process, and an unexpected reaction it evoked:
From the Quaker House Newsletter: There was something surreal about Fayetteville’s community meeting on domestic violence on August 21 2002. The mix of victims, civilian and Army professionals were to talk about how to prevent more domestic homicides. We were all there, of course, because seven corpses had been hauled from local homes in the space of five weeks, the deadly result of murders and suicides by military family members.
This bloody outburst brought national media attention, as well it should have. It also aborted the city of Fayetteville’s latest PR campaign to change its unhappy “Fayettenam” image.
But all this was muted nearly into invisibility. A Colonel Davis, Fort Bragg’s garrison commander, spoke, but his rhetoric was almost as hard to make out as the nametag sewn on his camouflage green uniform.
This was a “great day,” he declared, in which to “come together” and “move forward” to increase “awareness” and “outreach” to “people who are hurting.” Pausing to praise Fayetteville as an “All-American City,” he insisted on “accountability” for people involved in “these situations ” as the Army worked for “more productivity” on the “issues at hand.”
He could have been talking about diabetes or drunk driving. Only when announcing a newly-scheduled seminar on post did he actually speak the “DV” words, hurrying past them to wrap up with a promise that this was not “a short-term thing.” He finished to warm applause.
Most of the rest of the session was carefully focused on domestic violence away from Ft. Bragg, as a statewide problem in North Carolina, and on pleas to get more information for families at risk, about counseling and other services. The oblique character of the event was probably unavoidable; certainly spousal murders are a scourge in this state, occurring almost weekly. But that wasn’t why we were there, nor did it explain the gaggle of reporters and TV cameras outside the door collaring anyone willing to call herself a victim or an expert.
Only in the back of the room, little-noticed on a literature table, was there a discordant, more revealing note: a stack of reprints from a newsletter, Domestic Violence Report, which presented data on the real issue, the 900-pound guerilla everyone was stepping so carefully around: the epidemic of domestic violence in the US military, and the blatant, chronic inadequacy of its responses.
One speaker could have cut through the fog of phony optimism: Deborah Tucker, who is Co-Chair of a task force on DV that was forced on the Defense Department by Congress in 1990 after earlier searing exposes of “The War At Home” on TV’s 60 Minutes and elsewhere. Tucker’s task force has issued two reports which, within reams of carefully modulated bureacratese, deliver a damning indictment of systematic denial and coverup of rampant family abuse in the military. But Tucker too pulled most of her punches, offering only the mildest of criticisms, carefully wrapped in praise for the good intentions of the Pentagon brass.
As an exercise in Army damage control, the meeting was a success: I watched a
uniformed officer shrug and tell a TV reporter that there was noting special about the recent killings “They were just an anomaly.” (Another favored term was “a fluke.”) And the Fayetteville Observer’s report dutifully headlined the event with an upbeat slant, portraying it s somehow marking the turning of the tide. The issue has since been receding from Fayetteville’s public consciousness at least until the next bodies turn up.
Given the institutional and cultural realities here, the meeting probably went as well as could be expected. But what was not said, and has not been acknowledged, is that the real news about this rash of killings and what it represents is that it really isn’t news at all.
In this regard, the experience of the Fayetteville Observer is revealing: The Observer has the makings of a good paper, but its coverage has a predictably ingrained pro-military bias. Thus its early stories on the killings reflected spoon-fed Army PR, with spokesmen expressing shock, bewilderment and the “just an anomaly” line.
But then something truly anomalous happened: the Observer’s phones began to ring, and wouldn’t stop. On the other end were military wives, dozens of them, spilling out gruesome tales, not only about beatings and abuse, but of a military culture that, despite PR protestations, remains deeply and systematically indifferent to their plight. The recent killings, these witnesses made plain, were just the bloody, impossible-to-ignore tip of a very large and otherwise submerged iceberg.
This outpouring must have been painful to listen to, and the reporters, to their credit, paid attention. While the Observer still ignores or downplays the plentiful evidence that DV rates are much higher in the military than the civilian population, it chose not to ignore the anguished testimonials of dozens of its local neighbors.
The Army clearly hated that. It works nonstop here and elsewhere to project a
wholesome, family-friendly image, for various reasons, not least as an aid to recruiting. And to be sure, many Army families are perfectly normal. But too many are in serious difficulty. Nor is this epidemic confined to “families”: the Army Times reported on August 19 that there had also been five GI suicides on Ft. Bragg thus far this year. A strong case could be made for adding them to the tally, but this report has not made it into the local press.
And there have been two other spousal killings this year which are not included in the current tally: A female officer at nearby Pope Air Force Base was killed by her estranged husband in front of their children but that happened in South Carolina; and in January, a woman was stalked and stabbed to death in broad daylight at a restaurant — but her ex-husband had been discharged from the Army a few days before, so that case doesn’t “count” in their already inadequate statistics.
What accounts for this cultural tolerance of domestic violence? This is the last question the Army brass wants to have to face. And I don’t blame them; it’s disturbing enough to contemplate even from the outside: After all, the army is the instrument of the American body politic, that is to say, us. We pay for it, the polls say we admire it, and take pride in its skill at its assigned job of killing people and breaking things in an admittedly dangerous world.
Can we really be surprised when this violence comes home, when what is sown elsewhere is also reaped in the families who live with its professional purveyors?
Deborah Tucker’s task force has come up with some constructive ideas; but even if they’re adopted by the Pentagon (a big IF in the current macho administration), I’m not convinced they’ll get to the bottom of this ongoing plague. The more I look into it, the deeper the roots seem to go, far beyond the guarded enclosures of our military bases.
I won’t pretend to have a list of solutions to this unfolding horror. But there’s one thing I am sure of:
It is not an anomaly.
No, it’s not. That was seventeen years ago. There’s a lot more that could be said about it. But the plague of military domestic violence has not disappeared, even though the pentagon has thrown some money and personnel at it. But it’s also thrown a lot of manipulative damage control at it too. This process, which was applied far beyond domestic violence, became one of my major ongoing preoccupations at Quaker House; but that’s another story. And in the years since, where I tentatively waded into this swamp, Quaker House now has made it major focus of its work. Good idea, if exhausting; as long as the war machine continues to grow and do its destructive thing, it’s hard to see when there’ll be an end to it.