US Army Specialist Megan Lynn Touma was killed in June 2008 in a motel room in North Carolina. (Photo: AP)
"My daughter's dream became a nightmare," sadly said Gloria Barrios, seven months after her daughter, US Air Force Senior Airman Blanca Luna, was murdered on Sheppard Air Force Base, Texas.
On March 7, 2008, Senior Airman Luna, 27, was found dead in her room at the Sheppard Air Force Base Inn, an on-base lodging facility. She had been stabbed in the back of the neck with a short knife. Luna, an Air Force Reservist with four years of prior military service in the Marine Corps including a tour in Japan, was killed three days before she was to graduate from an Air Conditioning, Ventilation and Heating training course.
When she was notified of her daughter's death, she was handed a letter from Major General K.C. McClain, commander of the Air Force Personnel Center, which stated that her daughter "was found dead on 7 March 2008 at Sheppard Air Force Base, Texas, as the result of an apparent homicide." When her body was returned to her family for burial, Barrios and other family members saw bruises on Blanca's face and wounds on her fingers as if she were defending herself. One of the investigators later told Mrs. Barrios that Blanca had been killed in an "assassin-like" manner. Friends say that she told them some in her unit "had given her problems."
Seven months later, Luna's mother made her first visit to the base where her daughter was killed, to pry more information from the Air Force about her daughter's death. Although the Air Force sent investigators to her home in Chicago several times to brief her on the case, she was concerned that the Air Force would not provide a copy of the autopsy report and other documents, seven months after Luna was killed. The Air Force says it cannot provide Mrs. Barrios with a copy of the autopsy as the investigation is "ongoing." Mrs. Barrios plans to have an independent autopsy conducted.
She was accompanied by her sister and six persons from a support group in Chicago and by several concerned Texans from Dallas, Fort Worth and Denton. The Chicago support group, composed of long-time, experienced social justice activists in the Hispanic community, also included Juan Torres, whose son John, an Army soldier, was found dead under very suspicious circumstances in 2004 at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan. Because of his battle to get documents from the Army bureaucracy on the death of his son four years ago, Torres has been helping the Barrios family in their effort to gain information about the death of Luna.
When Mrs. Barrios and friends arrived on the Air Base they were greeted by five Air Force officials. Mrs. Barrios requested that her support group be allowed to join her in an Air Force-conducted bus tour of the facilities where her daughter went to school and the lodging facility where she was found dead, but the request was denied. Mrs. Barrios then asked that her friend and translator, Magda Castaneda, and I be allowed to go on the bus and attend the meeting with the base commander and investigators.
After consultation with the base public affairs officer, Deputy Wing Commander Colonel Norsworthy decreed that only Mrs. Barrios' sister and Mr. Torres could accompany her. Mrs. Barrios, her sister and Mr. Torres are not fluent in English. Mrs. Barrios told the Air Force officers she did not feel comfortable with having translators provided by the Air Force and again asked that Mrs. Castaneda be allowed to translate for her as Mrs. Castaneda had done numerous times during Air Force briefings at her home. She asked that I be allowed to go, as I knew the military bureaucracy.
In front of the support group, the Air Force public affairs officer, George Woodward, advised Colonel Norsworthy not to allow Mrs. Casteneda and me to come on the base and attend the meetings as both of us were "outspoken in the media and their presence would jeopardize the integrity of the meeting with the family."
Mrs. Castaneda countered that during a previous meeting with the Air Force investigators in Chicago, she had been told by one investigator that she asked too many questions. Could that be the reason that she was unable to accompany Mrs. Barrios, she asked? Mrs. Barrios also reminded the officers that after she was interviewed for an article about her daughter that was published in July in the Chicago Reader, "Murder on the Base", she was warned by an Air Force official not to speak to the media again.
Mrs. Castaneda demanded that Woodward provide her a copy of the article on which he based his decision to recommend to the deputy base commander that she not be allowed on the base to translate for the family. Several hours later, Woodward gave Castaneda an article from Indy media in which she was quoted as the translator for Mrs. Barrios, and in which she had translated Barrios' statement: "Luna a four year Marine veteran."
While Colonel Wright (the author of this article) has written numerous articles concerning the rape and murder of women in the military, she reminded the officers that she holds a valid military ID card as a retired colonel, that she had not violated any laws or military regulations by writing and speaking about issues of violence against women in the military and that most families of military members who have been killed are at a disadvantage in dealing with the military bureaucracy in finding answers to the questions they have about the deaths of their loved ones. She reminded the officials that the parents of NFL football player Pat Tillman, who after three Congressional hearings on the death of their son in Afghanistan in 2002, still don't have answers to the questions of who killed their son and why the perpetrator of the crime hasn't been brought to justice. Families of "ordinary" service members, and particularly families with limited knowledge of the military and with limited financial means find themselves at the mercy of the military for information.
The base Catholic chaplain and the staff Judge Advocate, both colonels, were silent during the exchange. One would have thought that perhaps a chaplain who watched as Mrs. Barrios, a single mother whose only daughter had been killed and whose English was minimal, broke down in tears and sat sobbing on the curb as the public affairs officer described her friends as "outspoken and a threat to the integrity of the meetings" would have been sensitive to a grieving mother's need for a family friend who had translated in all the previous meetings with the Air Force investigators - but he was silent. Likewise, the senior lawyer on the base, who no doubt had handled many criminal cases, would have recognized that a distraught mother would need someone who could take notes and understand the nuances of the discussion in English during the very stressful discussions with the investigators - but he was silent. Instead, the colonels bowed to the civilian public affairs officer's advice that "outspoken" women were a threat to the "integrity of the meeting."
Eventually, Mrs. Barrios, her sister Algeria and Juan Torres met with Brigadier General Mannon, commander of the 82nd Training Wing, and with three members of the Office of Special Investigations. Mrs. Barrios said they were given no new information about the investigation and questioned again why her friends, who over the past seven months have been a part of the briefings from the Air Force, had been kept out of meetings where the Air Force officials knew they were not going to provide any new information.
Since 2003, there have been 34 homicides and 218 "self-inflicted" deaths (suicides) in the Air Force, and in 2007-2008 alone, five homicides and 35 "self-inflicted" deaths according to the Public Affairs Office of the 82nd Training Wing at Sheppard Air Force base.
On the same day that Mrs. Barrios went to Sheppard Air Force Base, October 3, 2008, the US Army announced that a US Army woman sergeant had been killed near Fort Bragg, North Carolina, by a stab wound in the neck. Sergeant Christina Smith, 29, was stabbed on September 30, 2008, allegedly by her US Army husband Sergeant Richard Smith, who was accompanied by Private First Class Matthew Kvapil.
Smith was the fourth military woman murdered in North Carolina in the past nine months.
On June 21, 2008, US Army Specialist Megan Touma, 23, was killed inside a Fayetteville, North Carolina, hotel, less than two weeks after she arrived at Fort Bragg from an assignment in Germany. She was seven months pregnant. Sergeant Edgar Patino, a married male soldier assigned to Fort Bragg, whom Touma knew from Germany and who reportedly was the father of the unborn child, has been arrested for her murder.
On July 10, 2008, Army 2nd Lt. Holley Wimunc, an Army nurse at Fort Bragg, was killed. Her estranged husband, Marine Corporal John Wimunc of Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, has been arrested in her death and the burning of her body and Lance Corporal Kyle Alden was arrested for destroying evidence and providing a false alibi.
Marine Lance Cpl. Maria Lauterbach had been raped in May 2007 and protective orders had been issued against the alleged perpetrator, fellow Marine Cpl. Cesar Laurean. The burned body of Lauterbach and her unborn baby were found in a shallow grave in the backyard of Laurean's home in January 2008. Laurean fled to Mexico, where he was captured by Mexican authorities. He is currently awaiting extradition to the United States to stand trial. Lauterbach's mother testified before Congress on July 31, 2008, that the Marine Corps ignored warning signs that Laurean was a danger to her daughter.
On Wednesday, October 8, at 11:30 a.m., a vigil for the four military women and all victims of violence will be held at the Main Gate at Fort Bragg, followed by a discussion on violence against women at the Quaker Peace Center in Fayetteville, North Carolina, and by a wreath laying at Lafayette Memorial Park. The events are sponsored by the Coalition to End Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault in the Military, Veterans for Peace and the Quaker Peace Center.
Ann Wright is a retired Army Reserve colonel and a 29-year veteran of the Army and Army Reserves. She was a diplomat in Nicaragua, Grenada, Somalia, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Sierra Leone, Micronesia, Afghanistan and Mongolia. She resigned from the Department of State on March 19, 2003, in opposition to the Iraq war. She has written several articles on violence against women in the military, including "Sexual Assault in the Military: A DoD Cover-Up?", "U.S. Military Keeping Secrets About Female Soldiers' 'Suicides'?" and "Is There an Army Cover Up of Rape and Murder of Women Soldiers?". She is also the co-author of the book, "Dissent: Voices of Conscience."