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A military wife's battle is lost here at home

Boredom, frustration and loneliness on a remote Marine base sent Nicole Woody down a dangerous path with her young children.

March 03, 2007|Maeve Reston | Times Staff Writer

Twentynine Palms, Calif. — IT was the final day of Marine Sgt. Travis Woody's second tour in Iraq when the sergeant major pulled him aside.

"Do you know your wife has a drug problem?"

Travis sat back, stunned, as the sergeant major showed him an e-mail sent from Twentynine Palms, his home base.

Travis' wife, Nicole, was in jail, accused of helping a drug dealer rob, torture and imprison a man over several days in late August in her home on the base. Detectives seized hypodermic needles from a kitchen wastebasket, a police baton and a spoon crusted with methamphetamine.

The Woody children -- 7-year-old Cody and 2-month-old Austin -- were in protective custody.

Travis couldn't fathom how 25-year-old Nicole -- who had filled his mailbox with love letters and whose worst offense had been a speeding ticket -- could be involved.

He reached her by satellite phone.

"What the hell were you thinking?" he asked. She was crying so hard he could barely understand her. After seven minutes, the connection went dead.

He got an expedited flight home -- from Kuwait to Amsterdam to San Francisco to Palm Springs. When he opened the front door of his military-issue duplex in Twentynine Palms, black fingerprint powder was scattered across the countertops. Every drawer in the master bedroom was turned upside-down.

Three days later, he finally saw Cody and Austin at the San Bernardino County Department of Children's Services office. Cody ran outside and hurled himself into his father's arms.

"When are we going to Disneyland?" Cody demanded. "You said when you got home we could go to Disneyland."

In her first week at the county's West Valley jail in Rancho Cucamonga, Nicole Woody spent hours on her bunk, facing the wall, crying and murmuring unintelligibly to guards about "her babies."

Travis, on his first visit, tried to calm her. She begged him not to leave her.

"I'm here," he told her. "Everything is going to be fine."

Three weeks later, Nicole signed over custody of the children to her husband. It was the easiest way to keep them out of the labyrinth of child protective services, she said.

But the next morning, beneath the fluorescent lights of the jail visiting room, she was pale and remorseful, worried she might never see her family again.

"I've made mistakes, but I don't belong here," she half-whispered. "They don't care that you hurt and that you want to change. I didn't have to have everything stripped away from me to see what I had."

Her eyes welled up.

"Being in here," she said, "is like being deployed."

THE strains on military families have increased dramatically in the last five years. Some Marines have been deployed three or four times to Iraq. The potential for trouble is heightened for those left behind, often young families isolated at such remote bases as Twentynine Palms.

"There are all these ladies with all these talents, and there's nothing for them here," said Beth Edwards, a military spouse who said it took her six months to find a job, even though she has an MBA.

When spouses get into trouble, whether it's drugs, credit card debt or extramarital affairs, they are often reluctant to seek help, said Dennis Orthner, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who has studied the pressures faced by military families.

"There's a worry that anything on your record -- even your medical record or help-seeking record -- will somehow influence your career or your spouse's career," Orthner said. "That means there's a tendency to be silent, to grin and bear it. That's why, for this woman, trying to find help within the military is not always the safest thing to do."

Marine counselors at Twentynine Palms say that mental health records are protected by privacy laws and that they often make referrals to civilian counselors off the base.

Twentynine Palms Chaplain Michael Taylor noted that his one-on-one conversations with spouses and Marines were protected even from subpoenas. "There's an incredible support network available," Taylor said. "If the spouses choose to isolate themselves, there is only so much we can do."

NICOLE and Travis grew up in the Burlington, N.C., area. Nicole's mother worked in the garment mills, and Travis lived on his grandfather's farm.

Travis' mother came from a military family. He never thought seriously about any other career.

Travis met Nicole when he was 19 and on leave after Marine boot camp at Parris Island in South Carolina.

She was 16 and had just testified against her stepfather, a Navy man, for sexually abusing her beginning when she was 12. He was sentenced to four years in the Norfolk brig, according to Navy records.

Travis recalled that Nicole seemed fearless, with the maturity of a woman twice her age. Around Travis, Nicole said, she felt safe for the first time.

They stayed in close touch after he got orders to report to Kings Bay, Ga., and then to the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center at Twentynine Palms.

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