When Strains on Military Families Turn Deadly

New York Times

February 15, 2008 – A few months after Sgt. William Edwards and his wife, Sgt. Erin Edwards, returned to a Texas Army base from separate missions in Iraq, he assaulted her mercilessly. He struck her, choked her, dragged her over a fence and slammed her into the sidewalk.

As far as Erin Edwards was concerned, that would be the last time he beat her.

Unlike many military wives, she knew how to work the system to protect herself. She was an insider, even more so than her husband, since she served as an aide to a brigadier general at Fort Hood.

With the general’s help, she quickly arranged for a future transfer to a base in New York. She pressed charges against her husband and secured an order of protection. She sent her two children to stay with her mother. And she received assurance from her husband’s commanders that he would be barred from leaving the base unless accompanied by an officer.

Yet on the morning of July 22, 2004, William Edwards easily slipped off base, skipping his anger-management class, and drove to his wife’s house in the Texas town of Killeen. He waited for her to step outside and then, after a struggle, shot her point-blank in the head before turning the gun on himself.

During an investigation, Army officers told the local police that they did not realize Erin Edwards had been afraid of her husband. And they acknowledged that despite his restrictions, William Edwards had not been escorted off base “on every occasion,” according to a police report.

That admission troubled the detective handling the case.

“I believe that had he been confined to base and had that confinement been monitored,” said Detective Sharon L. Brank of the local police, “she would not be dead at his hands.”

The killing of Erin Edwards directly echoed an earlier murder of a military wife that drew far more attention. Almost 10 years ago, at Fort Campbell in Kentucky, a different Army sergeant defied a similar restriction to base, driving out the front gate on his way to a murder almost foretold.

That 1998 homicide, one of several featured in a “60 Minutes” exposé on domestic violence in the military, galvanized a public outcry, Congressional demands for action and the Pentagon’s pledge to do everything possible to prevent such violence from claiming more lives.

Yet just as the Defense Department undertook substantial changes, guided by a Congressionally chartered task force on domestic violence that decried a system more adept at protecting offenders than victims, the wars in Afghanistan and then Iraq began.

Pentagon officials say that wartime has not derailed their efforts to make substantive improvements in the way that the military tackles domestic violence.

They say they have, for example, offered more parenting and couples classes, provided additional victims advocates and afforded victims greater confidentiality in reporting abuses.

But interviews with members of the task force, as well as an examination of cases of fatal domestic violence and child abuse, indicate that wartime pressures on military families and on the military itself have complicated the Pentagon’s efforts.

“I don’t think there is any question about that,” said Peter C. McDonald, a retired district court judge in Kentucky and a member of the Pentagon’s now disbanded domestic violence task force. “The war could only make things much worse than even before, and here we had a system that was not too good to begin with.”

Connie Sponsler-Garcia, another task force member, who now works on domestic violence projects with the Pentagon, agreed.

“Whereas something was a high priority before, now it’s: ‘Oh, dear, we have a war. Well get back to you in a few months,’ ” she said.

The fatalities examined by The New York Times show a military system that tries and sometimes fails to balance the demands of fighting a war with those of eradicating domestic violence.

According to interviews with law enforcement officials and court documents, the military has sent to war service members who had been charged with and even convicted of domestic violence crimes.

Deploying such convicted service members to a war zone violates military regulations and, in some cases, federal law.

Take the case of Sgt. Jared Terrasas. The first time that he was deployed to Iraq, his prosecution for domestic violence was delayed. Then, after pleading guilty, he was pulled out of a 16-week batterers intervention program run by the Marine Corps and sent to Iraq again.

Several months after Sergeant Terrasas returned home, his 7-month-old son died of a brain injury, and the marine was charged with his murder.

Deployment to war, with its long separations, can put serious stress on military families. And studies have shown that recurrent deployments heighten the likelihood of combat trauma, which, in turn, increases the risk of domestic violence.

“The more trauma out there, the more likely domestic violence is,” said Dr. Jacquelyn C. Campbell, a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Nursing who also was a member of the Pentagon task force.

The Times examined several cases in which mental health problems caused or exacerbated by war pushed already troubled families to a deadly breaking point.

In one instance, the Air Force repeatedly deployed to Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere Sgt. Jon Trevino, a medic with a history of psychological problems, including post-traumatic stress disorder.

Multiple deployments eroded Sergeant Trevino’s marriage and worsened his mental health problems until, in 2006, he killed his wife, Carol, and then himself.

The military declared his suicide “service related.”

A Call to Action

Within a six-week period in 2002, three Special Forces sergeants returned from Afghanistan and murdered their wives at Fort Bragg in North Carolina. Two immediately turned their guns on themselves; the third hanged himself in a jail cell. A fourth soldier at the same Army base also killed his wife during those six weeks.

At the beginning of this wartime period, the cluster of murder-suicides set off alarms about the possible link between combat tours and domestic violence, a link supported by a study published that year in the journal Military Medicine. The killings also reinvigorated the concerns about military domestic violence that had led to the formation of the Defense Task Force on Domestic Violence two years earlier.

National attention to the subject was short-lived. But an examination by The Times found more than 150 cases of fatal domestic violence or child abuse in the United States involving service members and new veterans during the wartime period that began in October 2001 with the invasion of Afghanistan.

In more than a third of the cases, The Times determined that the offenders had deployed to Afghanistan or Iraq or to the regions in support of those missions. In another third, it determined that the offenders never deployed to war. And the deployment history of the final third could not be ascertained.

The military tracks only homicides that it prosecutes, and a majority of killings involving service members are handled by civilian authorities. To track these cases, The Times used records from the Army, Air Force and Navy — the Marines did not provide any information —and local news reports.

It is difficult to know how complete The Times’s findings are. What is clear, though, is that these homicides occurred at a time when the military was trying to improve its handling of domestic violence.

The Pentagon’s domestic violence task force, appointed in April 2000 and comprising 24 military and civilian experts, met regularly for three years to examine a system where, they found, soldiers rarely faced punishment or prosecution for battering their wives and where they often found shelter from civilian orders of protection.

When the moment arrived to explain their findings and recommendations to Congress, however, the timing could not have been poorer. Deborah D. Tucker and Lt. Gen. Garry L. Parks of the Marines, the leaders of the task force, presented their final report to the House Armed Services Committee on the very day that the Iraq war began, March 20, 2003. Ms. Tucker called it “one of the more surreal experiences of my life.”

“Periodically, members of the committee would call for a break and there would be some updated information provided on the status of our troops’ entry into Iraq and how far they’d gotten,” she said. “There was a map on an easel to the side.”

“I knew that while we were at war all other considerations would push back,” she added, “and I hoped that Operation Iraqi Freedom would be a quick matter on the order of Desert Storm.”

The task force was disbanded, and its request to reconvene after two years to evaluate progress was rejected. But the Defense Department embraced most of its 200 recommendations and gradually made many changes, from the increase in advocates to domestic violence training for commanding officers.

“The services have taken huge strides to implement the recommendations,” said David Lloyd, director of the Pentagon’s Family Advocacy Program, starting with sending out “a strong message across the department that domestic violence is not acceptable.”

Further, after the killings at Fort Bragg, Congress passed a law that made civilian orders of protection binding on military bases, and the Army gradually slowed the transition from war to home to help soldiers adjust.

Mr. Lloyd said he could not verify or comment on The Times’s findings on domestic killings. But, he said, domestic fatalities do not provide a complete picture of the incidence of domestic violence in the military.

“You have a pie, a nine-inch shell, and you have a slice of that pie, but there are other slices: verbal abuse and psychological control and assault that didn’t result in a homicide,” Mr. Lloyd said. “Even if the fatality slice has increased and it would look larger, the other numbers have gone down.”

According to the military, the number of general spouse and child abuse incidents reported to on-base family advocacy programs began declining in 1998, before the special effort to address the issue began, and continued to decline significantly through 2006. But whether those numbers reflect a genuine decline is a matter of debate, given that large numbers of service members have spent considerable time away on deployments and that the strengthening of sanctions for domestic violence has made some women more reluctant to report abuse.

The accuracy of the military’s domestic violence data has also been questioned, by advocates, the Government Accountability Office and military officials themselves.

Last fall, in a statement released during domestic violence awareness month, Mike Hoskins, a Pentagon official, said, “We shouldn’t necessarily take comfort in reduced rates of violence.” He said they probably reflected “good news” but urged caution in interpreting the numbers.

Dr. Campbell, the former task force member, said the task force had recommended periodic anonymous surveys to ascertain the full extent of domestic violence. She also said that she believed the “true incidence” of domestic violence had probably increased as a result of service members returning from Iraq with combat trauma, which can exacerbate family violence.

“It’s sort of like, on the one hand, they’re improving the system, and on the other hand, they’re stressing it,” she said.

Others agree, noting that wartime places a burden on the military as a whole, even on those who do not deploy to combat zones but absorb additional duties at home.

Christine Hansen, executive director of the Miles Foundation, which provides domestic violence assistance mostly to the wives of officers and senior enlisted men, said the organization’s caseload had tripled since the war in Iraq began.

And John P. Galligan, a retired Army colonel who served as a military judge at Fort Hood and now represents military clients in private practice, said he, too, had seen a “substantial” increase in military domestic violence cases in his area.

“Sometimes I just sit and scratch my head,” he said.

The separation of deployment, in and of itself, often causes marital strains.

“Even with a healthy marriage, there is a massive adjustment,” said Anita Gorecki, a lawyer and former Army captain who represents soldiers near Fort Bragg and is married to an officer currently in Iraq. “Add on to that combat stress and injuries and sometimes it can create the perfect storm.”

Some researchers draw a fairly firm connection between post-traumatic stress disorder and domestic violence. A 2006 study in The Journal of Marital and Family Therapy looked at veterans who sought marital counseling at a Veterans Affairs medical center in the Midwest between 1997 and 2003. Those given a diagnosis of PTSD were “significantly more likely to perpetrate violence toward their partners,” the study found, with more than 80 percent committing at least one act of violence in the previous year, and almost half at least one severe act.

Pamela Iles, a superior court judge who was permitted by the Marines to set up a privately financed domestic violence education program at Camp Pendleton in California, views much of the domestic abuse on the base as “collateral” from the war. She sees the domestic violence committed by marines, many of them young, as a reaction to jumping back and forth between the dangers of war and the trouble at home.

“One minute you are in Baghdad waiting for a bomb to go off and the next minute you are in Burger King,” Judge Iles said. “There is a lot of disorientation.”

A 9-Year-Old Witness

It was a little before dawn on Feb. 20, 2006, in a bedroom in Edwardsville, Ill. Carol Trevino and her 9-year-old son, sleeping deeply after watching “Wayne’s World,” were startled awake by a series of booms. “What was that?” Carol Trevino asked her son.

In seconds, Sgt. Jon Trevino, her estranged husband, barged through the door, according to a police report. Mrs. Trevino had just enough time to reach for her pepper spray before he shot her five times, the last time in the head. Then he shot himself.

Their son, wide-eyed, sat in bed watching his life explode, bullet by bullet.

Few details escaped the boy’s notice. His father used a silver gun and it “didn’t have a wheel on it, like the cowboys used,” he told the Edwardsville police. The boy could even name the precise time of his mother’s death: 4:32 a.m., as the glowing clock read.

Outside in Mr. Trevino’s car was the immediate motive for the murder-suicide: divorce papers, evidence of a marriage destabilized by multiple deployments to war zones and by Sergeant Trevino’s own increasing instability.

T. Robert Cook, his brother-in-law, said he believed Sergeant Trevino’s domestic violence was triggered by his combat trauma. “I’m 100 percent sure it was the war,” said Mr. Cook, who is raising the Trevinos’ son along with his wife, Cheryl Lee, who is Carol’s sister. “I don’t have any doubt their marital problems placed a burden on him, but I am quite sure that, but for the war, he would have taken a different approach. When you see people being shot every day, death is not a big thing.”

Sergeant Trevino, who had endured childhood sexual abuse and a difficult first marriage, suffered psychiatric problems long before he was dispatched to war zones to perform the highly stressful job of evacuating the wounded.

And the Air Force knew it.

Air Force mental health records show that Sergeant Trevino, who was 36, had been treated twice for mental health problems before the war: once in 1995 for serious depression as his first marriage crumbled, and then in 1999 for post-traumatic stress disorder stemming from the childhood abuse and marital problems with his new wife, Carol. He was counseled and treated with medication both times.

As a result of these problems, the Air Force insisted that he secure a medical waiver for a promotion that he sought to become an aeromedical evacuation technician. And military doctors certified that he could handle the job, despite research that shows that pre-existing post-traumatic stress disorder is exacerbated in a war zone.

Col. Steven Pflanz, a senior psychiatrist in the Air Force, who was not involved in the Trevino case, said the Air Force considered the stress disorder to be treatable and therefore was willing to deploy an airman with a history of it. But the decision is not taken lightly, he said.

“It’s not an exact science,” he said. “You try to make your best prediction. We spend a lot of time with our customers.”

In Sergeant Trevino’s case, the prediction was wrong. He had trouble shaking off the carnage that he experienced so viscerally while evacuating injured service members. After one deployment to Afghanistan and two to Iraq, his mental health and his marriage deteriorated. When he returned from his second tour in Iraq, Sergeant Trevino acknowledged in a health assessment that he had “serious problems” dealing with the people he loved and that he was feeling “down, helpless, panicky or anxious.”

The Air Force acted quickly. He was abruptly restricted from “special operational duty.” An Air Force doctor diagnosed “acute PTSD,” calling it a reaction to the war and marital problems. Sergeant Trevino began taking a cocktail of antidepressants and underwent therapy. According to doctors’ notes, he did not express thoughts of homicide or suicide. By the time Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in August 2005, he was considered well enough to be deployed domestically.

But his wife’s family, which had taken him under its wing, found the once affable, quick-witted sergeant to be profoundly altered. His temper flashed unpredictably, white-hot. He acted threatened and paranoid, his behavior so erratic that he frightened his son. One late night, he took his son on a rambling drive to nowhere, ranting to the boy about his mother.

At least one time, he struck his wife. A friend gave Carol Trevino the pepper spray that she reached for the night of her murder. But she never considered his abuse serious enough to report him to the authorities.

Four days before the murder-suicide, Sergeant Trevino bought a gun.

“This is just one of those things that unfortunately happens,” he wrote to his son in a suicide note. “I love you, and I know I let you down.”

Justice Delayed

The Pentagon task force had one overarching recommendation: that the military work hard to effect a “culture shift” to zero tolerance for domestic violence by holding offenders accountable and by punishing criminal behavior.

There was, members believed, a core credo that needed to be attacked frontally: “this notion that the good soldier either can’t be a wife beater or, if they are, that it’s a temporary aberration that shouldn’t interfere with them doing military service,” as Dr. Campbell put it.

The way the military handled several cases involving the deaths of babies and toddlers indicates that this kind of thinking has been difficult to demolish at a time of war.

In October 2003, four months after Jose Aguilar, 24, a Marine Corps sergeant, returned from the initial invasion of Iraq, his infant son, Damien, wound up in the intensive care unit of a local hospital with bleeding in his brain and eyes.

Sergeant Aguilar, a mechanic based at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, acknowledged to the local police that he had been rough with the 2-month-old baby, shaking Damien to stop him from squirming during a diaper change. He said that he had been abused himself as a child and that he did not mean to hurt the baby.

After the marine was charged with felony child abuse, he and his wife completed a parenting program.

The following summer, while the felony charge was pending, Sergeant Aguilar was deployed once more to Iraq, this time for nine months. His court case was delayed, which did not surprise local prosecutors.

Michael Maultsby, the assistant district attorney in Onslow County, N.C., who prosecuted Sergeant Aguilar, said that such frustrating delays in justice sometimes occur in his county, home to Camp Lejeune.

“It depends on the needs of the unit,” Mr. Maultsby said. “We can’t overrule them.”

In April 2006, a year after Sergeant Aguilar returned from Iraq but before his felony case was resolved, Damien, who by then was 2, died of a brain injury. His father claimed that the boy had been injured by a fall in the bathtub. The medical examiner disputed that explanation. The marine was arrested, pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and felony child abuse, and was sentenced last fall to 28 to 35 years in prison.

Marine officials would not comment on individual cases. Elaine Woodhouse, a Marine Corps social services program specialist, said that “the family advocacy program does not recommend or advise deployment of a marine when domestic or felony child abuse charges are pending.” Still, that decision, she said, is left to the discretion of the commanders.

A conviction for domestic violence, unlike pending charges, almost always renders a service member ineligible to go to war, but that restriction has not always been considered binding, as is clear in the case of Sergeant Terrasas, who was stationed at Camp Pendleton.

One night in late December 2002, Sergeant Terrasas, drunk and angry over a telephone conversation about the looming war in Iraq, vented his anger by punching his wife, Lucia, in the face.

“He seemed to just lose it,” Mrs. Terrasas told the police in Oceanside, Calif., who arrested him on misdemeanor charges.

But Sergeant Terrasas was deployed to Iraq before his case was heard. It was not until his return seven months later that he pleaded guilty, was placed on probation and was ordered to complete a 16-week batterers intervention program run by the Marine Corps.

Sergeant Terrasas attended a few classes. But the Marine Corps, facing a runaway insurgency in Iraq, pulled him out of the batterers program and shipped him off to war for a second time in early 2004.

This deployment was illegal. A 1996 law bans offenders who are convicted of domestic violence misdemeanors from carrying firearms, with no special exception for military personnel. The ban is referred to as the Lautenberg amendment after its sponsor, Senator Frank R. Lautenberg, Democrat of New Jersey.

Army and Marine regulations, formulated in response to the weapons ban, explicitly prohibit deployments for missions that require firearms, and extend the policy to felony domestic violence offenders, too. The Marine Corps would not comment on Sergeant Terrasas’s deployment, citing confidentiality rules.

When Sergeant Terrasas returned from war, he completed his batterers program, said his lawyer, Philip De Massa. But his anger, tested by two tours in Iraq, still surfaced. In September 2005, when the police responded to a domestic argument, he broke down crying and told one officer that he suffered from “postwar traumatic syndrome.” There is no record that he sought or received mental health help.

Nearly two weeks later, the Terrasases’ 7-month-old son, Alexander, died from a powerful blow to the head. Mr. Terrasas was charged with murder. Last August, after a deal with prosecutors, he was sentenced to seven years in prison for felony child endangerment.

He never admitted to abusing his child.

Broken Promises

Sgt. Erin Edwards, emboldened by a year in Iraq, returned to Texas with the courage to end her troubled marriage.

“Being apart for such a long period of time enabled her to realize she could survive without him,” said Sgt. Jami Howell, 28, who was her best friend.

When Erin Edwards told her husband that she wanted a divorce after four years of marriage, he responded as she had long feared.

On June 19, 2004, he followed her to their baby sitter’s house to hand her a written proposal for a custody arrangement. When she did not immediately respond, he beat her so badly that she wound up in the emergency room.

Even before the assault, William Edwards’s troubles had so badly affected his performance at work that his commanding officer, Capt. Brian Novoselich, took the time to meet with him weekly to check on his welfare. After the assault, it was the captain who confined him to the base.

But William Edwards repeatedly left unescorted and often stayed with his brother, who lived across the street from Erin Edwards in Killeen. On several occasions, she alerted the police and his superiors that he was lurking.

On July 21, 2004, Erin Edwards went to court to make the temporary protection order permanent. At the hearing, William Edwards told the judge that he had enrolled in alcohol and domestic violence classes after the June assault, according to a transcript.

“I had hit rock bottom when I touched my wife, man,” he said in court. “That was the worst day ever in my life. I had always told my wife that I would never touch her, ever, physically.”

William Edwards also acknowledged that when the police showed up that day, he begged his wife not to press charges, saying: “Don’t do this to my career. Don’t do this.”

Erin Edwards spoke of the effect on their children, who witnessed the assault. “Since the incident happened, all my son talks about is how his father hurt his mother, and that ‘Daddy is going to kill Mommy,’” she said.

She also stated, and her husband learned for the first time, that she was transferring and moving with the children. William Edwards was “visibly upset” by this, according to Army documents turned over to the police.

The following morning, after reporting to an exercise session with other soldiers, William Edwards left the base alone one final time. After the murder-suicide, local police officers securing the scene noted that both bodies were dressed in military camouflage clothing with nameplates that said Edwards. Both were 24.

At Erin Edwards’s funeral, her boss, Brig. Gen. Charles Benjamin Allen, who was killed in a helicopter crash in late 2004, eulogized the soldier with a cracking voice. More than three years later, her relatives note that not even he, with his high rank, was able to ensure that the military was doing more than taking a troubled soldier “at his word,” as Mary Lou Taylor, Erin’s aunt, said.

“He couldn’t or failed to help her be safe,” Ms. Taylor said.

William Edwards’s former commanding officer, Major Novoselich, said in a recent interview that he was “shocked by the end result.” Now a professor at West Point, he said he had assumed that William Edwards’s immediate supervisors were monitoring him.

Near Fort Hood, Detective Brank of the Killeen police said soldiers continued to defy restrictions to the base.

“I am surprised,” she said. “Fort Hood is not enforcing these orders.”

The Army examined Erin Edwards’s death as part of a fatality review program recommended by the Pentagon task force “to ensure no victim dies in vain.”

A one-paragraph summary of the review seemed to discount the findings of the civilian police investigation. The summary noted that Erin Edwards had refused the assistance of the base’s family advocacy program, while William Edwards had enrolled in it. It added that William Edwards had “appeared to comply” with his restrictions. Until the day he “eluded his military escort” and killed his wife.

Alain Delaquérière and Margot Williams contributed research.

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