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Murder on the Base?

Air force reservist Blanca Luna was found stabbed to death in her room at Sheppard Air Force Base in early March. Her family still knows nothing more than that.


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When Gloria Barrios made the risky journey across the U.S.-Mexico border in the early 1980s, she had to leave her only child behind. Five-year-old Blanca Luna arrived a few years later with relatives. Thanks to the "amnesty" law of 1986, she and her mother were both able to become U.S. citizens.

Barrios, who works at a factory that makes dog collars, watched with pride as her daughter quickly mastered English and got As and Bs in school. "She was always working toward something, always wanting to improve, to be someone," she says in Spanish, still the only language she speaks. She couldn't help her daughter with homework, but the two would take walks in the park or the neighborhood, cook together, and go to restaurants. "She was a striver, always moving forward," says Barrios. "She was friendly, intelligent—I never had a single problem with her."

At the magnet Curie Metro High School, where she graduated in 1997, Luna was approached by marine recruiters. She was receptive: Luna's best friend and former roommate, Denise Figueroa, says she had been intrigued by the military since seeing army commercials on TV as a child. Barrios fretted at first, but her daughter assured her she wouldn't be fighting in any wars—and that she'd get to travel and learn marketable skills. She joined up and served for four years, including one in Japan, doing graphic design for marine corps publications. Figueroa says she loved it.

After her tour of duty ended Luna returned to Chicago to study graphic design at the International Academy of Design and Technology, working as a security guard in a Michigan Avenue office building to pay tuition and bills. But as her expenses mounted and she realized how competitive the graphic design field was, says Figueroa, she decided to enlist in the air force reserves and learn a trade. Early last year Luna trained with the 434th Civil Engineering Squadron at Grissom Air Reserve Base in Indiana, and last September she began an HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning) systems program at Sheppard Air Force Base in Texas.

She was scheduled to graduate March 10, after which she planned to head home to Pilsen for some family time before being reassigned for more training. On April 27 she'd turn 28.

But none of that happened. On the morning of Friday, March 7, Blanca Luna was found stabbed to death in her room on the base.

Around noon that day, Gloria Barrios got a phone call. The caller told her he was outside her house and needed to talk to her about her daughter. Her heart sank. At the door stood an air force representative in uniform, along with a Spanish-speaking Chicago police officer.

They handed her a short letter in which a Major General K.C. McClain called the death "an apparent homicide" and promised that a letter from her daughter's commander would arrive providing "additional circumstances."

Barrios's parents and siblings also live in Chicago, and over the next few days her brother Robert called the air force base numerous times asking for more information. So did Figueroa. They say they had such a hard time getting straight answers they couldn't even find out for sure when Luna's body would be returned to Chicago.

Accompanied by a military escort, it finally arrived at O'Hare on the afternoon of Thursday, March 13. Manuel Martinez, director of the Sagrado Corazon funeral home in Gage Park, says it came to him already embalmed and dressed in Luna's air force uniform.

"All we did was the makeup," he says. He did notice that "there were cuts on her fingers, like classic signs she was defending herself, and a bruise on her forehead like she had fallen down." But in the rush to prepare for the next day's visitation, he says, he didn't consider removing the uniform to investigate the rest of the body.

The next day Luna was buried in Woodlawn Cemetery.

Wracked with grief, Barrios was by now desperate for more information. She says the air force representative who'd come to her home had told her the letter from the commander would arrive in about 45 days. At press time she was still waiting.

"Every day I think maybe they will come," she said, "but they never do."

Figueroa has helped Barrios negotiate the air force's English-speaking bureaucracy, and she claims the service has offered inconsistent accounts of Blanca's death. "They said she had a stab wound on her back on the right side, then they said she was stabbed in her neck on the left side. Why are there no police reports, no pictures?"

Barrios wants her daughter's body exhumed and an independent autopsy done. Funeral director Martinez, who has continued to counsel Barrios, says this would cost about $3,500. "If financially she could afford it and it would give her peace of mind, she should do it," he says. "She probably won't rest for the rest of her life until she has some answers."

Melody Muhs has many Latino colleagues in the insurance office where she works; she listens to their unhappy stories about the immigration system and passes them on to her activist mother, Joleen Kirschenman. Kirschenman, an investment manager by trade, supposed her daughter's latest story would be another tale of la migra. "But it turned out to be different," Kirschenman says. It was the story of the death a couple weeks earlier of Blanca Luna, which Muhs had heard from a friend of Barrios's. "You can help her, right, mom?" said Muhs.

Kirschenman set up a meeting between Barrios and activists from the Chicago Committee Against Militarization of Youth (CCAMY), a small, grassroots, mostly Latino organization that opposes military recruitment in high schools. They met at the Decima Musa restaurant in Pilsen.

This small, tight-knit group included a kindred spirit. In 2004 the army had told Juan Torres that his son John had committed suicide in Afghanistan, but he couldn't accept that. Torres visited Afghanistan in 2005 to investigate, and afterward his son's case was taken up by Louis Font, a Boston attorney and West Point graduate who specializes in military litigation. Filmmaker Shaun McCanna is working on a documentary about Torres's death.

Barrios "was still pretty much reeling, dumbfounded almost," says Kirschenman. "An institution her daughter had looked to as a stepping stone of career mobility, a way to get ahead in this society, was clearly not cooperating at all."

On April 4, Kirschenman and the CCAMY arranged for Barrios to speak at the annual conference of the Illinois Coalition for Justice, Peace & the Environment. Kirschenman's a member.

"It took her a long time to get her words together, there was some silence from the stage, then she started to tell her story," says Kirschenman. "There was incredible interest on the floor and lots of questions and support."

The CCAMY helped set up a meeting between Barrios and Congressman Luis Gutierrez, hoping he could find information about Luna's death that her mother was being denied. The committee has also found Barrios a pro bono lawyer and is helping her raise funds to disinter and autopsy her daughter's body.

Barrios says that a few days after Luna was buried, investigators asked if she'd been right- or left-handed. Her brother Robert asked why they wanted to know, and he was told the air force was looking into the possibility she'd committed suicide.

Figueroa finds it impossible to believe that her friend would have killed herself. She says she talked to Luna on the phone almost every day, including the evening before she was found dead. "She loved her job, she loved what she was doing, she loved the military," says Figueroa. "And she was so excited about coming home in a few days."

The day after Barrios was notified, air force investigators visited Figueroa at her apartment in Gage Park. She says she felt like a suspect, and that investigators called her workplace—a DHL facility near O'Hare—to find out if she'd been working the night before her friend's death and asked her about Luna's acquaintances in Chicago.

She and Barrios don't understand this, because they think all the answers are in Texas. They point out that Luna was the only woman in her unit and had a leadership role and wonder if male soldiers resented her authority. Barrios's sister Lilia had visited Luna in Texas and reported back that some people there didn't like her, "maybe," says Barrios, "because she was Hispanic and knew more than them."

But Figueroa says that if Luna had made any enemies, she never mentioned it in their conversations. "She wasn't hard on them, she didn't like ordering people around, that wasn't her," says Figueroa. "But she had to tell them what to do, who should clean the bathrooms and take out the trash."

Retired army colonel Ann Wright heard about Luna's death during a visit to Chicago in April. She says the broad details sounded disturbingly familiar. A veteran of 29 years in the army and army reserves, Wright ended a 16-year career as an American diplomat in 2003 by resigning to protest the invasion of Iraq. Since then she's also become a spokeswoman on the issue of violence against women in the military and women who live near U.S. military bases. She claims the military has failed to adequately investigate the deaths of a number of servicewomen despite reason to suspect they were raped and murdered.

"The military has no sense of timely responsibility for keeping the family informed," says Wright. "They don't set up strong enough liaisons with the family. Someone should be calling the family every week to say 'this is where we are in the investigation.' It really is a lack of professional responsibility in my opinion. They're the big dog, the military, and these poor little families have little recourse unless they get a lawyer. But most of these families don't have any money—that's often the reason the kids joined the military in the first place."

Wright says Luna's family is right to be suspicious.

"Is there someone in the chain of command that the army is covering up for? Are there senior people who may be involved in this? Or [the killer] might be a friend of someone in the military police who is supposedly investigating this."

The air force should at least give Barrios a preliminary summary of its investigation, including "whether or not they have found persons of interest or fingerprints on the knife that stabbed her," Wright says. "And was she sexually assaulted prior to her death? Because there are so many incidents of sexual assault and rape, I'd say that's one of the very first questions to ask."

Barrios says her brother did ask, but got no answer. Air force officials in Washington, Illinois, and Texas did not return multiple calls for this story.

In 2003 the Department of Veterans Affairs sponsored a study of women veterans from the Vietnam era through the gulf war. A cross section of those vets was interviewed about their military service and 30 percent said they'd been raped.

This finding, and others like it, have encouraged critics such as Wright to argue that women in the military live in an environment much more violent and perilous than the services have any wish to acknowledge.

In a commentary written for the progressive news site in April that has circulated widely on the Internet, Wright detailed a series of troubling deaths:

"The military has characterized each of the deaths of women who were first sexually assaulted as deaths from 'non-combat related injuries,' and then added 'suicide,'" she wrote. "Specific US Army units and certain US military bases in Iraq have an inordinate number of women soldiers who have died of 'non-combat related injuries,' with several identified as 'suicides.'"

Those bases include Camp Taji in Iraq, where eight women soldiers deployed from Fort Hood, Texas, reportedly died of non-combat-related injuries.

"Two were raped immediately before their deaths and another raped prior to arriving in Iraq," reported Wright. "Two military women have died of suspicious 'non-combat related injuries' on Balad base, and one was raped before she died. Four deaths have been classified as 'suicides.'"

The alleged suicide of army private LaVena Johnson in Iraq in July 2005 seemed suspicious to her parents and acquaintances, as Johnson had called home daily and always seemed to them in good spirits—a description echoed by her commanding officer. When the Johnsons received her remains, according to Wright, they found that the white dress gloves she wore had been glued to her hands, hiding burns on one of them. Using Freedom of Information requests and with help from their congressman, two years later the Johnsons finally received photos of the death scene.

According to Wright's article, LaVena "had been struck in the face with a blunt instrument, perhaps a weapon stock. Her nose was broken and her teeth knocked backwards. One elbow was distended. The back of her clothes had debris on them indicating she had been dragged from one location to another."

The photos showed burns, "bruises, scratches, and scrapes all over her face," says her father, Saint Louis psychologist John H. Johnson, "My daughter's vaginal area is torn to hell, and there is a lumpy substance leaking out of it which we believe is lye they poured in to destroy DNA evidence." And much of her right side and right hand were severely burned as well.

The family was told by an army liaison that LaVena had killed herself with an M16, but Johnson, a veteran familiar with weapons, believes an M16 bullet would have blown off her face, which wasn't the case. "This was a bullet hole from a handgun," he says. "Evidence suggests it was not only a murder but a bizarre, brutal murder."

Army private first class Tina Priest died in Iraq in March 2006. According to her diary, Wright writes, she'd been raped 11 days earlier. Her death was labeled a suicide despite the near physical impossibility of a five-foot woman shooting herself with an M16 at the angle from which Priest had been shot. The army concluded that she'd pulled the trigger with her toe. Another woman at the same camp, not named in Wright's account, was shot to death ten days later, and again the army concluded she'd killed herself; her diary also indicated that she had been raped during training, after unknowingly ingesting a date rape drug. According to Wright, "Many who knew her did not believe she shot herself, but there is no evidence of a homicide investigation by the Army."

Another of Wright's subjects is Massachusetts national guardsman Ciara Durkin, who was found near a church on the Bagram air base in Afghanistan last September, dead from a single shot to the head. Durkin's family was told by the national guard that she'd died in combat, but then told by the Defense Department she had died on the base in a non-combat-related incident. During a visit home several weeks before her death, Durkin had told her family that she'd seen things on the base she didn't like and that if anything happened to her they needed to investigate.

During a CCAMY meeting in mid-May, Barrios struggled to hold back tears. Her lips were tight and her eyes were wet. "Glorita," said one of the committee members affectionately, hoping to comfort her. The meeting was to plan a May 31 fund-raiser in Pilsen to help the Barrios and Torres families pursue their inquiries and legal appeals. Juan Torres described the prizes he intended to contribute to the raffle—hats he'd picked up in Afghanistan of the type worn by both Afghan president Hamid Karzai and Taliban fighters.

With help from local Latino bands and artists, the committee ended up raising about $3,000. At the event Barrios looked not only radiant in a lacy white shirt but happy; she smiled as a skit ridiculed military recruiters, portraying them as luring high school students with empty promises. But afterward she said she didn't have much hope that the campaign to discover the truth about her daughter's death would lead to any answers.

"The government is the government," she said. "But at least we are sending a message, and the community is listening."



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