Under the Sabers: The Unwritten Code of Army Wives by Tanya Biank (February 7, 2006)

Army Wives Lifetime

Army Wives, a Lifetime television series based on the non-fiction book written by Tanya Biank.

In Their Name:
Colette, Kimberley & Kristen MacDonald, Fort Bragg (Feb. 17, 1970)
Michael James & Jackie Burden, Fayetteville, NC (December 7, 1995)
Captain Frank ‘Marty’ Theer, U.S. Air Force (December 17, 2000)
Lt. Col. Rennie Cory, U.S. Army, Fort Bragg (April 7, 2001)
Pfc. Gary Shane Kalinofski, U.S. Army, Fort Drum (March 4, 2002)
Army Spouse Teresa Nieves, North Carolina (June 11, 2002)
Army Spouse Jennifer Wright, North Carolina (June 29, 2002)
Army Spouse Marilyn Styles-Griffin, North Carolina (July 9, 2002)
Army Spouse & Veteran Andrea Floyd, North Carolina (July 19, 2002)
Major David Shannon, U.S. Army, Fort Bragg (July 23, 2002)
Sgt. Erin Edwards, U.S. Army, Fort Hood (July 22, 2004)
Sgt. Ronna Valentine, U.S. Army, Fort Bragg (May 21, 2005)

Under the Sabers: The Unwritten Code of Army Wives or Army Wives by Tanya Biank was an excellent read. I first heard about the book when I was researching the 2002 Fort Bragg murders of Teresa Nieves, Jennifer Wright, Marilyn Griffin, Andrea Floyd and Major David Shannon. I ordered it from Amazon and threw it in a pile with all my other military crime books until I saw a Forbidden: Dying for Love episode about the murder of Army spouse Jennifer Wright. The show didn’t mention it but I knew Jennifer’s murder was one of five homicides at Fort Bragg that occurred within a two month period in 2002. I learned more about Jennifer Wright from Investigation Discovery than what’s available on-line. And at the time, the national media was quick to speculate whether war & violence, frequent deployments or anti-malaria drugs were to blame. But after the Army investigated itself, it determined that the high operational tempo after September 11, 2001 placed a great strain on already troubled marriages.

In other words, some form of domestic abuse, financial issues, and adultery in some cases were to blame for stained marriages. I researched the five murders and the motives were similar in four of the cases. Arguments were a pre-cursor to the murders and three out of four of the spouses wanted to leave the relationship. Was rejection the trigger? Domestic violence experts agree leaving the relationship is the most dangerous time. In Major Shannon’s case, it appears that the motive was greed, pure and simple, as greed is one of the most common motives for female killers. Major Shannon’s wife Joan stood to gain a large amount of money from his Serviceman’s Group Life Insurance (SGLI) if he died. This time the Army was most likely correct but unfortunately things haven’t changed to this day. There have been many more victims of domestic violence in the military since 2002 and this book inspired me to honor each and every one of them.

The author Tanya Biank grew up in a military family and covered military issues at Fort Bragg as a reporter for the Fayetteville Observer. Tanya was able to give us a realistic perspective of what was going on at Fort Bragg during the time period right before and after September 11, 2001. Tanya was the one writing about the rash of homicides for the local newspaper during the summer of 2002. As a result of Tanya’s reporting, the main stream media picked up the story and it went national and international. Fort Bragg was forced to answer to a frenzied pack of media outlets and in typical fashion, the Army investigated itself and found themselves not responsible. Although Tanya reported in the book that Congress authorized $5 million for domestic violence programs in the military that year. And on December 2, 2002, President Bush signed into law an act that makes domestic violence protective orders enforceable on military installations.

Tanya was the perfect person to write about Fort Bragg. She had a great understanding of the various perspectives and this was revealed in the book. She talked about how September 11th changed things for both the service member and the families. I found myself feeling thankful for the education about Fort Bragg’s missions and how they fit into the big picture. They train hard for a reason. They are some of the first on the front lines and some of the families have no idea where they are going or how long they will be gone. Unexpectedly, I experienced a myriad of emotions as I read along. Emotions about 9/11, emotions about what was happening at my own squadron, and emotions around the notifications of death. My Commander and a Chaplain informed me of my father’s unexpected death. And my colleagues helped me get home safely. I realized this was standard protocol while reading this book.

I couldn’t put the book down once I started, despite the emotions and memories it triggered. Tanya Biank did a great job of enticing the reader to learn more about the individual and the family, and just when you least expected, the unexpected would happen. It reminded me of my own life and how hard it was to put mission before self year after year when all one was doing was stuffing down the pain. But like those in the book, we don’t seek counseling because it’s considered a career ender. We don’t trust the system so most of us just keep our troubles to ourselves. And for those who want to maintain a security clearance, we know they are going to ask the question about mental health treatment. I understand why the question has to be asked because it’s important to identify someone with suicidal tendencies or anger problems but it prevents the rest of us from asking for the help we need, until it’s too late.

Tanya talked about the unusually high crime rates in Fayetteville and she said its civilians who commit most of the crime. She admitted Fort Bragg was under the shadow of the the murders of Colette, Kimberley & Kristen MacDonald in 1970 because former Captain Jeffrey MacDonald, despite being found guilty, swears he’s innocent. As recently as December 2018, MacDonald was denied a new trial by a federal appeals court and he continues to be the subject of both media and true crime programming. Tanya also talked about the racially motivated murders of Michael James & Jackie Burden in 1995. Army privates James Burmeister and Malcolm Wright were found guilty of the crime. This too made national news and the Army was forced to weed out any perceived Neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and skinheads. The media speculated the Army was full of them; turns out this random attack by Fort Bragg soldiers was an isolated incident.

After researching the five Fort Bragg murders in 2002 on-line, I realized that Tanya’s book was the most comprehensive discussion of the incidents. The book gave us an inside look at the people involved and the way it unfolded real-time. Tanya shared that the military likes to keep their problems under wrap because of the way the media speculates. I can see why they would be annoyed with how scandals are reported. Once the information is out there, it’s hard to fight off the perception. But the bottom line is the acts of a few don’t represent the whole. Unfortunately, I could write book after book about clusters of domestic violence related homicides in the military since 2002. This book made me realize how long the military has known about the problems and that throwing money at the problem doesn’t fix it. We need real solutions that save lives.

Editor’s Note: Tanya Biank’s book Under the Sabers inspired the creation of Army Wives on Lifetime television. After reading the book, I can understand why the series was created in 2007. I included links to the show below if you are interested in watching the series. It was cancelled after seven seasons. 

Related Links:
Tanya Biank (Official Website)
Under the Sabers | Tanya Biank | Macmillan
Under the Sabers: The Unwritten Code of Army Wives
Under the Sabers: The Unwritten Code of Army Wives
Under the Sabers: The Unwritten Code of Army Wives Kindle Edition
Under the Sabers by Tanya Biank (Kirkus Review)
Season 1 | Army Wives | Lifetime Television | Amazon (2007)
Season 2 | Army Wives | Lifetime Television | Amazon (2008)
Season 3 | Army Wives | Lifetime Television | Amazon (2009)
Season 4 | Army Wives | Lifetime Television | Amazon (2010)
Season 5 | Army Wives | Lifetime Television | Amazon (2011)
Season 6 | Army Wives | Lifetime Television | Amazon (2012)
Season 7 | Army Wives | Lifetime Television | Amazon (2013)
‘Army Wives’ Deployed as Lifetime Series
Lifetime embraces ‘Wives’ amid show cuts
A Sneak Peek at “Army Wives”
Home front key to “Army Wives”
‘Army Wives’ Still Holding Down The Fort
Lifetime’s popular ‘Army Wives’ has a local ties
Lifetime Cancels ‘Army Wives’ | The Wrap
‘Army Wives’ cancelled by Lifetime | Entertainment Weekly
‘Army Wives’ canceled by Lifetime; retrospective special planned
Lifetime’s ‘Army Wives’ Cancelled After Seven Seasons, Will Wrap Run With Special
Fort Meade: Military spouse writes book about servicewomen
Army Wive: Where is the Cast Now?
Army Wives | ABC | Season 1-7

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