The Marine Corps prides itself on many things, including the stirring credo that it never leaves a body on the field. Certainly this has often been true; in the long, illustrious history of the corps, there is many a tale about men returning to the kill zone to retrieve their injured and mortally wounded compatriots, sometimes enduring life-threatening attacks as they did so. Even long after peace has arrived, men return to war theatres to look for those missing in action.
Alas, there are far too many times that certain bodies are not retrieved, and are sometimes abandoned before they have been killed. This is what may have just happened in the sad story involving the murdered pregnant Marine Lance Corporal Maria Lauterbach and her unborn child. After reporting that she had been raped by a fellow marine,** she apparently became a dead woman walking until shortly before she was due to testify at a December hearing regarding the alleged incident, at which point she disappeared and was subsequently killed in a bloody incident at the home of the man who allegedly raped her.
Over ten years ago, while writing my book Twentynine Palms: A True Story of Murder, Marines, and the Mojave, I met a woman named Tammy Watson. She had recently suffered a physical and emotional breakdown. The daughter of a sergeant major in the Marine Corps, she was raped by a Marine shortly after he had returned from the Gulf War in 1991. Marines (and their families) have another code, in addition to the one mentioned above; for the most part, they take care of their own. So rather than calling police, she went to her father - one of the highest-ranking black NCOs in the Corps at that time. He assured her that the situation would be handled. From then on, she kept a low profile, enduring harassment from some Marines that she knew whenever she ventured into town, and, she told me, even ridicule within her own family. At the time, there were fewer women in the military than there are now, and the Corps itself - the most extreme branch of the military - did not make a point of discussing sexual assault and domestic violence to the degree to which it does now. Here is part of a Gulf War marching cadence that reflected the culture:
...I wish all the ladies were bells in the tower.
If I was the hunchback I'd bang 'em on the hour.
Singin' hey boppa-ree-ba, hey bobba row...
Six weeks after Tammy Watson reported that she had been raped, the man who assaulted her raped and killed two girls in an apartment near the base. The two girls were not Marines, but they were closely associated with them: their family members had married them; they cooked for them, they babysat their children, they saw them off to war, and greeted them with hugs and kisses and more when they came home. These are the girls who live in military towns and take care of soldiers and they are among the many unknown patriots around the country.
When Tammy saw the faces of Mandi Scott and Rosalie Ortega on the front page, she collapsed. (And let me say here that it was Marines who helped break the case, providing information that led to the killer's arrest and subsequent conviction. Some were also very helpful to me in my own exploration of this story). But that was just the beginning of her ordeal. A few weeks after the double homicide, she was on a double date. She and the other woman began talking and the woman remarked that her sister had recently been killed by a Marine. "Is his name Valentine Underwood?" Tammy asked. Krisinda said yes. "I have something to tell you," Tammy said. "He raped me. I thought my father was taking care of the situation. I guess that didn't happen and I'm sorry. I should have called the cops." The last time I spoke with Tammy was in 2001, ten years after both incidents. Barely able to get through a day, she still blamed herself for the murders of Mandi and Rosie.
Like Tammy Watson, lance corporal Lauterbach was reportedly harassed after she reported that she had been raped.*** The harassment was so severe that she moved out of base housing at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, and was living in the town of Jacksonville while waiting for the Corps to hear her case. But the investigation was evidently moving so slowly that a week before she disappeared she was ready to drop the case. Why the Corps didn't move more quickly is already the subject of heated debate. Reports that she appeared to have a friendship with the Marine who is accused of raping and killing her are said to have indicated that she was not in danger. But this so-called friendship was probably borne out of fear and even duty, not desire or a change of mind or heart; after all, in the Marines, there's another code - semper fi - and, for better and worse, it trumps everything.
Lance corporal Lauterbach was not in Iraq or Afghanistan when she was killed. But she was serving in a sexual and cultural war zone, as her murder indicates. In coming forward to report a rape, to speak up in a culture steeped in the belief that whatever happens, you should suck it up, she exhibited Marine qualities such as courage, fortitude, and integrity. Like the girls I came to know while writing Twentynine Palms, and dozens of other women across the country who have come into fatal contact with the US Marine Corps, she died in service to her country. I hope the Marines give her and her unborn child a proper burial, and begin to take the female casualties of a different kind of war off the field.
**As of the afternoon of January 15th, Marine officials have stated that according to Lauterbach herself, she had two sexual encounters with Lance Corporal Cesar Laurean, her alleged killer. The first, she said, was consensual. The second, she said, was also consensual, although at some point, she asked Laurean to stop and he did. But the episode was still being looked into as a possible rape.
***See note above.