Under the Sabers is a groundbreaking narrative detailing the complex personal challenges Army wives face, presenting a provocative new look at Army life. Tanya Biank goes beyond the sound bites and photo ops of military life and shows what it is really like to be an Army wife—from hauling furniture off the rental truck by yourself at a new duty station when your husband is in the field, to comforting your son who wants his dad home from Afghanistan for his fifth birthday—she takes readers into the hearts and homes of today's military wives.
In the summer of 2002, Army wives were in the headlines after Biank, a military reporter for the Fayetteville Observer, made international news when she broke the story about four Army wives who were brutally murdered by their husbands in the span of six weeks at Fort Bragg, an Army post that is home to the Green Berets, Airborne paratroopers, and Delta Force commandos. By that autumn, Biank, an Army brat herself, realized the still untold story of Army wives lay in the ashes of that tragic and sensationalized summer. She knew the truth—wives were the backbone of the Army. They were strong—not helpless—and deserved more than the sugarcoating that often accompanied their stories in the media.
Under the Sabers tells the story of four typical Army wives, who, in a flash, find themselves neck-deep in extraordinary circumstances that ultimately force them to redefine who they are as women and Army wives. In this fascinating and meticulously researched account, Biank takes the reader past the Army's gates, where everyone has a role to play, rules are followed, discipline is expected, perfection praised, and perception often overrides reality. Biank explores what happens when real life collides with Army convention.
Biank describes what it means to be a wife and mother in a subculture that is in a constant state of readiness for war. In this hard-hitting and powerful book, Biank takes a close look at the other woman—the Army itself—and its impact on wives, marriages, and home life. This story of strength and perseverance is an eye-opener for those who have never experienced military life and an anthem to those women who each day live the "unwritten code."
|Publisher:||St. Martin's Publishing Group|
|File size:||343 KB|
About the Author
Tanya Biank is a Fulbright Scholar, an award-winning journalist, and a former reporter for the Fayetteville Observer. Her coverage of the Fort Bragg Army wife murders in 2002 led to Congressional inquiries and changes in Army policy. The daughter of a career Army officer, she lives in the Washington, D.C., area with her husband, an Army officer assigned to the Pentagon.
Tanya Biank is a Fulbright scholar, journalist and syndicated columnist. She is a contributing writer to several military-related publications and is a frequent guest speaker. Her book Army Wives was the basis for Lifetime TV's hit show. The daughter of a career Army officer, Tanya lives in Virginia with her husband, an Army officer assigned to the Pentagon.
Read an Excerpt
Christmas 2000 had been a slower news cycle---but not so slow that I didn't have to cover the cop beat well after eleven on a Sunday evening the week before the holiday. As I parked my car and ran into an adjacent parking lot, I sank deeper into my coat.
"Hi, excuse me, I'm with the Fayetteville Observer. Is it a man?" I yelled out to a group of policemen walking toward me with yellow crime-scene tape.
"Yeah," an officer cop answered back, as he went to cordon off the business office parking lot. It was so cold and so quiet. Who would be around here on a Sunday night? It was an odd place for a random shooting, I thought. The weekend cop beat was a rotating duty all the reporters shared and most, like myself, dreaded. The paper had been getting ready to go to press, and I was about to go home, when news of someone being shot multiple times buzzed across the scanner.
"Just confirm it's a man and find out if he's dead," the weekend editor, Steve Coffman, had called out to me as I headed to the door. "And get back here as soon as you can."
I had arrived in time to see medical personnel load a body into the back of an ambulance.
"Just one more question, and I'll leave you alone. Is he dead?" The policeman didn't answer. I knew I was like a cockroach to this guy, feeding off any morsel of information I could get.
"Please, that's all I need. I'm not asking for a name, and I swear I'll leave. Please help me, I'm on deadline. Is he dead?"
"Yes," the cop said, a little amused at my desperation. I didn't care. I'd take an amused cop over a derisive one any day, and I'd gotten what I needed.
"Thank you so much."
"Yeah. Merry Christmas."
And with that I dashed back to the newsroom. Like most of the reporters at the paper, I hated being a weekend ambulance chaser, covering fires, murders, and car wreck fatalities, and in the summer, drownings, but there never seemed to be a shortage of those things in Fayetteville, especially around the holidays.
"He's dead," I yelled, running back into the newsroom.
"Good. You've got literally three minutes, Tanya, and then I need it. Just a graph." A follow-up story the next day would give more details. The dead man turned out to be a thirty-two-year-old Air Force pilot named Marty Theer, stationed at nearby Pope Air Force Base. He had been shot multiple times by his wife's lover, Army Staff Sergeant John Diamond, who was convicted of murder at a court-martial in August 2001. A civilian jury convicted Captain Theer's wife, Michelle, for his murder and conspiracy to commit murder in December 2004. Both are serving life sentences.
It had been a bloody Sunday. That afternoon I had walked across a yard littered with beer bottles and tried to peer into a rusty trailer with broken windows, some boarded up with plywood. A man had been shot dead inside, with a bullet to the head, as he napped on the living room couch. His fourteen-year-old son was already a suspect.
I finally got home around midnight, glad that my run as "cops girl" had ended. Most Decembers were quiet times for Army news. Soldiers were on "half-days," an annual truncated schedule that allows them time off they miss out on much of the year. For me half-days meant it was difficult to get in touch with people or set up stories, and as far as training there wasn't much of that going on---until the world came unhinged nine months later. In December 2000 the attacks on the Pentagon and the Twin Towers would have seemed like an outlandish plot in a Christmas blockbuster release, and most Americans couldn't pronounce Osama bin Laden. Terrorism, anthrax, jihad, and weapons of mass destruction were not yet part of the everyday vocabulary.
A month later eight hundred Bragg soldiers would deploy for a six-month tour to Kosovo as "peacekeepers," but for the most part this Christmas was a time when the Army spent its days training for war rather than going to war. Some soldiers were able to take leave. For those who stayed at Bragg, there were lots of holiday festivities and parties, including battalion Christmas buffets at which one of the soldiers always dressed up like Santa with a sack full of presents for the kids. Andrea Lynne Cory, wife of Lieutenant Colonel Rennie Cory, had planned her own big party, despite her husband's initial reservations.
Under a crescent moon and dark night sky, the Corys' Fort Bragg quarters at 11 South Dupont Plaza radiated with twinkling lights and candles, and their three Fraser fir trees were lavishly decorated with ornaments collected during twenty years of marriage. Garlands of greenery and handmade Victorian lace adorned the mantelpiece and windowsills. It was four days after Christmas 2000, and Andrea Lynne steadily carried a carnival green punchbowl filled with spiked eggnog from the maid's room through the kitchen, where a huge vat of glhwein, mulled red wine, was simmering on the stove. Both were popular drinks with the ladies. Andrea Lynne used the maid's quarters---an anachronism from the days when officers' families had hired help---as a keeping room for extra dishes and kitchen sundries.
Outside, guests strolled up the sidewalk and passed a wrought-iron lamp holding a Plexiglas nameplate that announced the officer of the house in black letters: LTC R M CORY JR.
Andrea Lynne placed the punchbowl on the dining room table and called to her husband, "Rennie, the door!"
It was precisely seven o'clock. Military people always showed up on time or early for social functions. Arriving late was considered rude and undisciplined.
This Christmas party was a chance for Andrea Lynne to show off her home---and her husband. Rennie Cory had finished commanding the 2nd Battalion of the 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment (the White Devils) that summer at Fort Bragg and was now spending the year in Vietnam as a detachment commander, searching for the remains of men missing from the Vietnam War. He arrived home December 4 and was on leave for a month. So many people had asked about him that Andrea Lynne thought it would be a grand idea to throw a huge party. Her guest list included everybody who was anybody---even members of the "Bragg mafia," the insiders who ran the post and handpicked officers for important positions.
That kind of networking wasn't her husband's style. Rennie was a straight-shooter. A well-built man of forty-three, who walked with a swaggering gait (the result of too many parachute jumps), he had little patience for officers who put their own desires above the needs of the Army. Though he enjoyed having friends over to the house for drinks and dinner, Rennie wasn't out to impress or make contacts with anyone who outranked him. He certainly didn't relish these big affairs. When Rennie saw the names of generals and brigade commanders on the list of invitations, he hesitated, but Andrea Lynne wasn't about to budge.
"Rennie, let me explain three things," she said. "One, everybody always asks about you, and with all the press on Clinton's visit to Vietnam, it's a great opportunity for you to update people. Two, think of all the invitations we've received. It's only right to reciprocate at least once. And three, it's my party, and I'm making a command decision."
Rennie laughed, his eyes turning into half-moons as deep creases at the outer corners arced downward. "Baby, whatever you want."
So here he was, standing in the foyer under the mistletoe-hung chandelier, greeting guests as they streamed through the door bearing flowers, boxes of candy, and bottles of wine or Gentleman Jack. Rennie was a Jack-and-Coke man, a detail not overlooked by the company commanders who had worked for him. They brought him only the best.
I met Lieutenant Colonel Cory just one time, the previous spring at the traditional Army airborne ritual called Prop Blast. He struck me as serious-minded. His face still bore the remnants of camouflage paint, partially worn off from a day that had started at 2:00 a.m. with a rucksack march, a river crossing, and a parachute jump. Although the Prop Blast activities by tradition were raucous---including a fair amount of drinking and joshing and a mock airplane jump where inevitably some boneheads wore only a parachute and a helmet---Rennie had been in a solemn mood. He had come in late from the hospital, where one of his lieutenants had been taken after being gravely injured on the morning's parachute jump.
It's funny what you remember about people. From that night, sitting behind Rennie, I remember the deep creases that looked like a roadmap on the back of his neck, not an uncommon feature for a lifelong infantryman.
Rennie had a strong handshake, and as he greeted his party guests, he looked people in the eye. He often touched his men when he talked to them; now he gave them a hug and a slap on the back. He had an uncanny sense of right and wrong, and he never lied, no matter what. His temper might flare up every now and then, but he wasn't afraid of anybody and told it like it was, damn his career. Sometimes that scared Andrea Lynne. She feared he'd get into trouble, but instead he just earned respect. His men loved him.
Exactly six feet tall, Rennie wore his dark hair short on the sides and only slightly longer on top, just long enough for a side part, as was the custom of many field-grade officers in the 82nd Airborne Division. His pale skin had long ago turned ruddy from too much sun. For the party he wore Levi's and the green Irish sweater that was a Christmas gift from Andrea Lynne. The jeans were Rennie's standard outfit, no matter the occasion. Besides, this was his house.
For their part the generals and their wives were coming in at seven right on cue---so they could exit first, an unspoken courtesy that allowed lower ranks to kick back and relax later in the evening.
The Corys were a popular couple, at the center of their social set and well known to many of the officers on the post where they had spent four tours of duty---ten of Rennie's twenty years in the Army. The men respected Rennie, and the women loved to see Andrea Lynne's latest decorating projects. The couple had a reputation for throwing great parties. Before long everyone had arrived: Colonel and Mrs. Cerrone, Colonel and Mrs. Roberson, Lieutenant Colonel and Mrs. Mayville. Lieutenant Colonel Mike Ellerbe, Rennie's best friend from childhood (both were Army brats), and his wife, Lucille, the daughter of a retired two-star general, slipped in through the back door an hour late. Soon the house was filled with laughter and chatter as guests balanced wineglasses or bottles of beer and plates of food.
Lieutenant Colonel Mike Garrett came up to Andrea Lynne in the living room, where she was standing near a table of food talking with some wives, and introduced himself. Rennie had met Garrett, a new neighbor, that afternoon on the golf course and invited him and his wife, Loralei, to the party. The Corys' second oldest daughter, Caroline, seventeen, a senior in high school, had agreed to babysit for them during the party, a testament to how quickly relationships formed on Army posts.
"You are just a wonder woman," said Garrett, a good-looking black commander.
Andrea Lynne cocked her head to one side. "What do you mean?"
Garrett looked around. "All this. Your home. It's right out of a magazine. The food is fabulous, everything. And look at you, you're gorgeous!"
"Okay, what do you want?" Andrea Lynne said matching his grin with her own big smile.
"No, Andrea, this is amazing. Rennie is a lucky man."
It was true that Andrea Lynne never did the minimum when it came to food and drink. She wanted guests to feel as if they never wanted to leave her home.
Social gatherings have always been an integral part of Army life. They date back to isolated Old West outposts, where Army families lived on an austere and often hostile frontier and where they had only one another for protection and companionship. The post came to symbolize security and community. And many Army couples enjoy the military tradition of entertaining in their homes. The coffees and parties offer a chance to get to know one another despite a constant state of flux. Every month there are "hails and farewells" for officers and their spouses who are joining a unit or leaving it.
The Corys' toffee-colored, stucco Spanish Colonial Revival--style house was part of Fort Bragg's Normandy housing area, which was named, like all the streets and neighborhoods on the post, for the great battle campaigns of World War II.
Fort Bragg itself---home to the 18th Airborne Corps headquarters, the 82nd Airborne Division, the Green Berets, and the secretive Delta Force---has more than 42,000 soldiers and is mammoth, with almost four times the land area of the nation's capital. The post had been named for Braxton Bragg, an arguably inept and indecisive Confederate general who was despised by his men and had been relieved of his command but was nonetheless a Civil War hero in the Old South. All the necessities of urban life are there: a post office, hospital, schools, churches, day care, movie theater, florist, shopping, gas stations, two Class VI (liquor stores), sports bars, fast food restaurants, pools, bowling, two golf courses, gyms, fishing, parks, you name it. It is possible to stay on the post and never leave. I grew up hearing my parents and others casually refer to life on the outside. The world beyond the gates is known as precisely that---the outside---a foreign place populated by slack civilians.
At Fort Bragg I found that many of the senior officers wanted to live in Normandy, which seemed happily suspended between the present---the high-paced operation tempo that governed life on a combat-ready post---and a bygone era in which Army wives wore hats and gloves, and in which calling cards were part of their social etiquette. Normandy surrounds the Main Post Parade Field, which had been built in the shape of a chevron when "Camp Bragg" was a mule-powered field-artillery post during World War II. The trees are older than Andrea Lynne; and the houses, constructed between 1928 and 1931, belong, like old quarters on military posts everywhere, to Army tradition.
And like everything in the Army, the houses are arranged and awarded according to rank. Captains and majors live in the redbrick ranch duplexes in Lower Normandy. The quarters may be small and cramped, but there is still a waiting list to get one. The single ranches nearby are slightly bigger. You have to know someone or be willing to wait a year or two to get in. The one-story bungalows and the two-story duplexes are for lieutenant colonels. Full colonels live in two-story homes, which are upgraded for generals by adding awnings on the windows, putting an ice maker in the fridge, and maybe building a privacy fence in the backyard. Behind the quarters are small garages used in the old days to house polo ponies or Model T's. Most people use them as sheds. Rennie kept his Harley in theirs.
Rennie had lived in several Normandy homes and even helped build the quarters in Biazza Ridge as a teenager, when his father, retired Colonel Rennie Cory Sr., was stationed at the post. The duplex at 11 South Dupont Plaza sat on the upper end of a horseshoe-shaped street that was home to officers---mostly lieutenant colonels---holding key positions. A short walk down Totten Street led to the officers' club, the pool, tennis courts, and Ryder Golf Course.
Andrea Lynne loved everything about her house---the hardwood floors, the winding staircase with its black handrail, the fireplace, the corner cabinets with glass doors in the dining room, the built-in bookcases in the living room, the high ceilings, and the deep windowsills on which she displayed treasures gathered during a lifetime in the Army. It was Andrea Lynne's dollhouse, and she decorated it in English country style with Victorian overtones.
At Christmastime she really went all out. The previous December, in 1999, the Cory home was one of twelve quarters featured on the Normandy Housing Tour of Homes, a huge annual holiday fund-raiser sponsored by the Fort Bragg Officers' Wives Club. The word on the street that night was, You just need to go see the Cory home.
Tonight everything was again on display. Around the lamppost Andrea Lynne had wrapped North Carolina grapevine, spray-painted white, and entwined the vines with crocheted snowflakes. The outside entrance twinkled with icicle lights and an arch of more grapevine and snowflakes. In the dining room Rennie's grandmother's silver tea set (she, too, had been an Army wife) sat on the buffet surrounded with fruit---pineapples, apples, kiwis, figs, clove-studded persimmons, filberts, and cinnamon sticks, which gave off a heavenly scent. In one corner of the dining room a mantelpiece from Georgia displayed Andrea Lynne's angel print collection. The antique went with the Corys from home to home, a wooden tribute to the military, signaling: Home is where the Army sends us. Poinsettias, German nutcrackers, Christmas stockings and throw pillows, a collection of Santa figurines---no space was left untouched.
Andrea Lynne looked over at her husband as he welcomed their guests. She and Rennie had made love that morning after breakfast, as they always did on the day of a party or social engagement. It was sort of a quick "Hello, I love you above all else," and a "See you at the finish line at the end of the day" ritual. For Andrea Lynne it was also a great secret to a happy marriage. She knew Rennie could get a little jealous sometimes. The sex was her way of boosting his confidence and reassuring her husband how much she loved him.
She still loved looking at him. He had a broad forehead, framed by archless eyebrows that extended a good inch beyond his eyes, which were blue with specks of green that Andrea Lynne thought gave them a touch of sadness. His eyes were the exact same color as hers. But Rennie's eyebrows were his trademark feature and could make him look intimidating, depending on his mood.
Andrea Lynne adored seeing her husband naked. He was all man, not skinny---Rennie's weight fluctuated from 185 when he was happy to 180 when he was away from home---just right. He wasn't broad shouldered, but he made up for it in muscle, a tribute to his daily workouts. As for her husband's chest, her girlfriends joked that he had more cleavage than she did.
The sex before a party was just one of their rituals. Each morning Rennie made coffee for his wife and brought it to her bedside before kissing her good-bye. On weekends they would make love after breakfast, their kisses tasting of coffee and pancakes. And each night he'd rub Andrea Lynne's feet and shoulders. He was always touching her.
This morning, instead of cuddling and talking, it had been: On your mark, get set, go! They were off to orchestrate a successful party. Nothing had been left to chance, including Andrea Lynne's outfit. She wanted to look casually beautiful and sexy, and she wore a long black velvet skirt with a form-fitting baby blue velvet scoop-neck tee. Her silky black bra strap kept peeking out. She had let her shoulder-length blond hair air-dry that morning so it would stay in ringlets.
The Corys' oldest daughter, Natalie, home from college, had dressed up, too, to serve hors d'oeuvres from a silver tray. The Corys' other children were little Rennie, who had turned fifteen two days earlier and their youngest, Madelyn, age ten. Natalie, an intelligent, feminine girl with fair skin and long dark hair, liked to stay near her father. Andrea Lynne could tell Rennie enjoyed having such a beautiful daughter. He introduced her several times as his "dean's list girl." Now, in the kitchen Natalie watched like a little girl as her mother pulled trays of bubbling Gouda from the oven.
"I wish I was as pretty as Mommy," Natalie said giggling, loud enough for her mother to hear.
Rennie looped his arm around his daughter's waist and pulled her close. "You're not doing too bad." He squeezed her. "You look like your dad!"
At forty Andrea Lynne still possessed the razzle-dazzle that had turned men's eyes when she was young. She was a petite woman with sparkling eyes, a panoramic smile, and the confidence that beautiful women possessed---which could be both a blessing and a curse in the Army. Tonight, though, it was working its magic as she greeted officers and their wives.
"You look gorgeous, dahling," said Alice Maffey, as she hugged Andrea Lynne. Both had been snookered---each had been told the other had already agreed to do it---into serving on the PTA board, with Andrea Lynne as president and Alice as treasurer. The wife of Colonel Tom Maffey was a striking woman, tall and incredibly thin, with long blond hair. She sipped a glass of hot glhwein and moved on. The two friends never chatted much at parties. Being an officer's wife meant being onstage, working the crowd. They would talk later, when they were alone.
Andrea Lynne had her part down perfectly. She circulated constantly, giving everyone the same smile and an "I'm so glad you came!" She welcomed Command Sergeant Major Gary Kalinofski and his wife, Delores, one of the few noncommissioned officer couples at the party, then checked the CD player.
The music for the evening had been carefully planned. Andrea Lynne had chosen a Mannheim Steamroller CD as background during the formal greetings. That was followed by an assortment of Irish Christmas music and, for after the stuffed shirts were gone, some classic rock---Tom Petty, Jackson Browne, Aerosmith, John Mellencamp, Led Zeppelin, and REM. Rennie loved classic rock and often whispered lyrics in Andrea Lynne's ear. Toward the end of the party, when there were just a few couples left, Andrea Lynne would play something to heighten the romance, Sade, perhaps, or Fiona Apple and Dido.
But right now there were fifty-eight people in the house. Andrea Lynne was pleasantly surprised by the turnout. A party that big was bound to be successful. There was no room to sit---death to a party---everyone had to stand and move around. And since the bathroom was upstairs---these quarters had no lavatory on the first floor, the biggest complaint of those who lived in them---her guests got to admire more of her decorating.
The floor of the bathroom, for example, was covered in small spring-green square tiles (another frequent complaint), but Andrea Lynne had just worked with the color scheme. She covered the walls with framed photos of Rennie with the children and thought of it as a Father's Day bathroom. Everyone at the party got to see another side of her husband and commented on the pictures.
She loved displaying images of friends and family. One window ledge held photographs of Andrea Lynne's friends from past Army assignments. She liked to say that her friends were with her wherever she moved. The wall along the curving stairway had all old black-and-white photos in silver and gold and wood frames. She irreverently called it her dead people wall, even though several of the photos were of the couple and their parents as children. At the bottom of the stairs was a beautiful charcoal drawing of Rennie's mother, Patty, who had died of breast cancer when he was eight. It was the only thing he had inherited from his mother's side of the family, and Rennie adored it.
Every house Andrea Lynne lived in, she decorated from floor to ceiling, painting and wallpapering the house like a three-dimensional canvas. Some wives found her decorating excessive, but then, they didn't view themselves as artists, as Andrea Lynne did. We live here three years of our lives, Andrea Lynne told herself. We can never get those years back. Why not make them beautiful? Each corner had to be fabulous. She put an old-fashioned screen door on her youngest daughter's bedroom entrance, for example, and added a doormat, a battery-operated wrought-iron lamp, and a sign announcing: MADELYN'S COTTAGE. She herself made all the curtains (heavy red velvet with rich flower valences that she carried from quarters to quarters) and most of their bedspreads with her Sears sewing machine, a Christmas present from early in her marriage. Of course when moving time came around every few years, the house had to be put back the way it originally was.
As the space filled with people, Linda Jefferson, the wife of Lieutenant Colonel Dick Jefferson, a battalion commander, found Andrea Lynne and suggested a rendezvous outside with a pack of cigarettes. Whenever she saw Andrea Lynne at any function, she'd grab her to sneak a cigarette. Linda, who had short brown hair and wore glasses, was a closet smoker---and a hoot. At wives' gatherings, when it was time to say good-bye, she'd tell Andrea Lynne that she had to get home to "her Dick," and then she'd wink.
Andrea Lynne located Rennie's older sister, Stephanie, another smoker, and the three women slipped out the front door. The air was cool, cool enough for a shiver but bearable without a coat. Andrea Lynne only smoked occasionally, sometimes with her girlfriends, more frequently out of loneliness when Rennie was away. She had never smoked when she was in her twenties, when she was having babies or nursing them. And Rennie never touched a cigarette, but he encouraged her. He'd pour her a glass of wine before dinner, and on warm nights he'd ask her to come sit with him out back. "Why don't you have a drink with me? You could smoke a cigarette." It was his way of getting her to relax and spend time with him, and it would get Andrea Lynne every time.
Smoking a cigarette now, with the sounds of the party muffled by walls and windows, Andrea Lynne reflected on just how close---and effective---a team she and Rennie had become. Army life had taught Andrea Lynne well. She felt as if she helped turn a wheel in a great military machine. As far as she was concerned, it was really the wives who ran Fort Bragg. She had a definite role to play and could play it expertly---but then she'd had years of experience. That was the only way you could learn the lessons of an Army wife; it wasn't as though the military gave you a manual to prepare you for the dos and don'ts of socializing, politicking, fund-raising, group dynamics, juggling---or curtain making, for that matter. Army Family Team Building (AFTB) classes aside, you had to count on your husband and perhaps a close friend or two to get by.
Smart women eventually shed their naïveté for military savvy, learning from their mistakes. What an officer's wife did affected her husband's career, and just as Rennie had mastered his command and risen through the ranks, Andrea Lynne, too, had had to take on increasing responsibilities and figure out how to fight her own battles and marshal her forces---the other wives. It wasn't always easy.
When Rennie was a young lieutenant in the early eighties, another lieutenant's wife had spread a rumor that Andrea Lynne had said a superior officer and his wife were prejudiced. The rumor was completely untrue, but it was picked up by a captain's wife, and Rennie got called into his superior's office and asked why his wife would make such a statement. Of course she never had, and as far as Rennie's career was concerned, that was that. But the story reached the superior's wife. One morning the woman arrived unannounced at the Corys' door. Without asking if the rumor was true, she began berating Andrea Lynne, who was still in her robe and without any makeup.
Hurt and embarrassed, Andrea Lynne stayed in seclusion for a while. They were leaving the post within the month, and since Rennie had no more problems over the incident, that was all Andrea Lynne cared about. Yet at their farewell, Andrea Lynne found herself next to the captain's wife who had helped set the rumor mill in motion. Andrea Lynne was scared about confronting a superior's spouse, but she took a deep breath and weighed in. "You don't even know me," she said calmly. "Yet you repeated hearsay. If you felt it needed to be addressed, why didn't you confirm it with me first?
"You could have made my husband's situation terrible," she went on, "all based on a lie. Please think of something you can do to make it better." And with that Andrea Lynne walked away. The experience had left its mark. In time Andrea Lynne had learned when to battle back and when to let things take their course.
At its best the Army community has tremendous camaraderie; in a crisis no group pulls together better to take care of its own. I've witnessed it many times. Officers' wives still have to be careful. Andrea Lynne had seen it all. The women---who can be as gossipy as rival sorority girls---are always sizing each other up. They will say a wife is a snob if she is quiet, a slut if she talks to the guys, and vain if she wears fashionable clothing. If she works and doesn't participate in unit functions---well, then the word is, She's got her own life and that marriage is not going to last.
Much of the scrutiny is reserved for the commander's wife, and it starts even before a commander and his wife are transferred to Bragg. As soon as the news hits, the questions start flying: How does she act? Where is she from? How many kids? Does she work? What does she look like? Is she overweight? What does she do? Thrift shop, PTA, or AFTB? Is she a Board Warmer? And the very first time she appears across Pike Field at the change-of-command ceremony, the rest of the wives are already guessing the bottle number her hair color comes from, wondering where she bought her dress, and assessing how she carries herself. If she isn't smiling, why not? If she was, what does she have to smile about? Being a commander's wife is fishbowl living, and there is no escape.
These days, when any of her friends' husbands took command, Andrea Lynne gave the couples sympathy cards at their ceremonies. They would need the sense of humor. If the wife was pretty, her role was even trickier. Andrea Lynne knew that firsthand. There were no hard-and-fast rules. Your husband might get hired because you were pretty. Or not: One of Rennie's peers had turned down a major who was lobbying for a job because the major's wife seemed a bit too friendly and showed a little too much cleavage. "What does this major's wife have to do with his ability to do his job?" Rennie said angrily to Andrea Lynne later. "So she's friendly and pretty. When is that a bad thing?"
"Can you imagine" Andrea Lynne asked a close friend, "your husband not getting a job because you wear a low-cut blouse and show a few too many teeth to the boss?" No, if you were attractive and wore a size 4, it was best to underplay those assets and focus on the group. Find some volunteer job no one else wanted and do it well.
And learn to manage your group of wives as well as any commander. A significant number of the 750 soldiers in the battalion are married with children. The commander's wife has the responsibility, with her husband, of leading the unit's Family Readiness Group (FRG), which means keeping soldiers and spouses informed of events and issues affecting the battalion. In addition commanders' wives have to keep up with pregnancies, births, and miscarriages; the number of families in need of frozen turkeys for Thanksgiving; women who can't get their sick child a doctor's appointment; and the frantic 6:00 a.m. calls from young wives whose electricity has been turned off because their husbands didn't pay the electric bill before going into the field.
Each battalion also has its own officers' wives' coffee groups, which meet at a different house each month. The coffees are mostly social, and sometimes have a theme and some business on the agenda. The commander's wife---the leader of the coffees---introduces new wives and bids farewell to those departing, discusses upcoming events and battalion news, and passes along the men's field and jump schedules. She also has to address any concerns the ladies have.
Andrea Lynne tried to get to know each woman, find out her talents, and pull her into the group. She never let the business feel like business. Instead she'd joke with all the girls, highlighting each person at least once throughout the meeting, and introduce two or three ladies that she thought might become friends. She'd focus on the wives who were soldiers themselves, asking them about their jobs, and zero in on the new mothers when she talked about who must really be tired.
Rennie was a master at this kind of thing. She'd watched him clap some young new lieutenant on the back and tell the battalion what the guy's major in college had been, that he was the one they should ask for advice on such and such. Like him, Andrea Lynne tried never to leave anyone out, so all the women felt special, as though each one had a place.
Andrea Lynne's coffees were famous. She always brought out the china and crystal and had fun with the themes. For Valentine's Day she served aphrodisiacs: lobster chunks with Green Goddess dressing, "White Devil" eggs and caviar, shrimp cocktail, Cupid cherry-cheesecakes, chocolate-covered cherries, marinated mushrooms, sugar-frosted grapes, and pink champagne. She got the women to make Valentines for their guys, then had Rennie hand-deliver them at his next morning's meeting. The women loved it. Once, after the operations officer's wife left, they doctored the outside of her card, so that the next morning the major, in front of the staff, received a Valentine addressed to "My Stud Muffin."
The wives enjoyed the coffees at Andrea Lynne's so much that eventually they just brought food to her house and piled in till midnight. If the men were in the field, it was ladies' night out---also at Andrea Lynne's house---with music, margarita mix, dip, chips, cookies, and cake.
But it took hard work to create such a close-knit coffee group. Andrea Lynne remembered her first coffee as the commander's wife. She attended an evening pajama party and greeted the other wives wearing Caroline's footsie pajamas with her lovey (the family name for a small cotton throw) draped over her shoulder. The women drank mimosas and got down to the business of the evening: discussing a new phone number for the Robinson Health Clinic. It should have been easy. This coffee group was already well established---and the former commander's wife, Melissa Huggins, who would become Andrea Lynne's good friend, was well loved. This gathering was really about checking out Andrea Lynne---footsie PJs and all.
Most of the wives were just waiting for her lead, but one outspoken lieutenant's wife, the ringleader of a troublesome threesome, challenged everything Andrea Lynne said. Only a few weeks earlier the younger woman had caused a huge flap, because Andrea Lynne, placating some other wives, had excluded officers' girlfriends from the coffees. It seemed like a small issue, but the repercussions had spilled into Rennie's office with such force that he actually thought he'd lose his new command over it. He didn't hang any pictures in his office for a month, thinking he'd be gone.
Now here the young woman was again, challenging Andrea Lynne's authority. Such a thing would never have happened in "the old Army," in which junior officers' wives rose to their feet when the commander's lady entered the room, but that tradition, happily, had gone away with girdles and white gloves.
As Andrea Lynne began talking about using the new phone numbers to get health care at Robinson, the lieutenant's wife, a nurse, interrupted: "Andrea, everyone just calls me if they need to get in."
"Well, that's great," Andrea Lynne continued, "but we need to make sure we have these numbers because, you understand, these are the numbers that the soldiers are going to be using. Aaand"---here goes, Andrea Lynne thought---"it's a good idea, too. I make the time to use these numbers myself, so I can understand how long you are put on hold, how rude the appointment clerk might be, et cetera. And I can complain at command and staff, if I have to. We need to make sure our system works, you know?"
The lieutenant's wife shrugged her shoulders, got up, and started talking to some friends.
Andrea Lynne plunged ahead. "I can pick up the phone and call my husband to make something happen---and believe me, I have---but sometimes I wait in line just to see how long it takes. That way, when I hear a frustrated enlisted wife explain to me what she's been through, I can help her."
The room got quiet. The lieutenant's wife sat back down. "I know what it's like not to have your sick child taken care of in the emergency room," Andrea Lynne said. She had the wives' attention now, and she told them how, at Fort Bliss, Texas, when Rennie was away, she had had to take Madelyn to the hospital. The pediatrics section was closed, and after waiting for hours, neither her daughter nor the child of the enlisted wife behind her were even screened.
Andrea Lynne raised hell that night, and eventually the clerk at the emergency room counter was reprimanded and transferred. When Rennie got home and checked on the matter, he took the enlisted father with him to make his point.
The wives were now hanging on every word.
"I feel that it's unfair for me," Andrea Lynne said, "to take advantage of my husband's rank only for myself and not use it to benefit the troops. If I can help the White Devils, I will. If I have to work at Robinson Clinic to make sure our families get the best care, I will."
Let the lieutenant's wife resent me, she thought. It wasn't about power to Andrea Lynne, it was about what was best for the soldiers. She loved the battalion, and so did Rennie. The huge turnout at their Christmas party bore witness to that.
Back inside the house, Colonel Maffey was standing near the CD player. He spoke in serious tones, mostly about work. Andrea Lynne chatted with him but kept an eye on the dining room table, which was covered by a burgundy chintz tablecloth and laden with food from her collection of special recipes: hot crab dip, marinated cheese, pineapple meatballs, tortilla wraps, Gouda bread, hot ryes, New Orleans hot wings, and party sandwiches. She had made so much there was no way she could run out of things to eat. She surveyed the assortment of sliced breads---pumpkin, zucchini, and banana---and another tray of everyone's favorite cookie, apricot amaretto chews. There were also several tiered platters of petits fours, Russian teacakes, pound cake cookies, and homemade chocolate candies. When You Give a Party, Go Big, was Andrea Lynne's motto.
She was surprised to see that Lieutenant General Dan McNeill and his wife, Maureen, were still at the party. It was their anniversary, and Maureen, a kind, sincere woman, had originally telephoned to say they couldn't come. But her husband had called back to say they would stop by after all. Andrea Lynne had spied the general a few times from the kitchen, apparently enjoying the hors d'oeuvres. He had a full head of salt-and-pepper hair and light blue eyes in a handsome face creased by life in the Army. Andrea Lynne found him likable and charming, and she could see him smiling at the quote she had painted over the china cabinet in the otherwise formal dining room: All's well that ends in a good meal. Perhaps he is seeing us as individuals for the first time, Andrea Lynne thought. He seemed to appreciate the hospitality.
Ten months earlier, after Rennie received his orders for Vietnam, he had gone to McNeill and asked to stay on at Fort Bragg. After two grueling years in command, Rennie didn't want to leave his family for a year. Plus he had already been separated from his family for twelve months during a hardship tour in Korea. But Rennie's presence in Vietnam had been requested by name, and the general had slotted two other lieutenant colonels for the only two O-5 jobs (lieutenant colonel rank) available at Bragg. McNeill stood firm in his decision.
It was a disappointment for the Corys and others who knew them, but Rennie, as usual, set his own desires aside and concentrated on his job. For someone so attached to his family, he had tremendous fortitude. When Andrea Lynne ended up in intensive care, ill from complications of diabetes, the spring before he left, her ordeal was all the more difficult since she knew Rennie would be leaving in the summer. Andrea Lynne considered her invitation to the general a way to show she had no hard feelings. Perhaps, she thought, that was why McNeill called to accept personally.
Near the food Andrea Lynne noticed Brigadier General David Petraeus, balancing himself on crutches. He had broken his pelvis during a recreational free-fall parachute jump one weekend and ended up in intensive care himself. For a man who had once been accidentally shot in the chest by one of his own soldiers during a field exercise, the crutches were no big deal.
As she came closer, the general stiffened a bit. Andrea Lynne liked Petraeus's wife, Holly, a lot, but she didn't care much for the general. Petraeus may have been a brilliant man with a Ph.D. from Princeton, but he was too straitlaced and opinionated for Andrea Lynne's tastes. Still, that didn't keep her from her job.
"Hi, I'm so glad you could come," she said warmly.
"Thank you for inviting us," the general answered formally. "Holly sends her regrets. She really wanted to come, but she is picking up a friend at the airport as we speak."
"So you're out on the town tonight?"
He got Andrea Lynne's humor, and for a fleeting moment seemed to appreciate being treated to the same teasing as the other men. But only for a moment. Andrea Lynne quickly turned the conversation to his injury. That was her style. Flirt a little and then get serious about something. She never really gave men time to respond to her flirtating. She talked to the brigadier general for only a couple of minutes, then she moved on to the McCardles.
"Hi, it's so good to see you. Thank you for coming."
Copyright © 2006 by Tanya Biank