Deanne Stillman is a bold, brave, compassionate writer. Twentynine Palms is about a troubled marine who savagely attacks and kills two teenaged girls and how his action tore apart a town. The book was recently re-issued as an e-book, its fourth edition. It was an LA Times “best book of the year” and Hunter Thompson called it “A strange and brilliant story by an important American writer.Her latest book is Desert Reckoning, winner of the 2013 Spur Award for best western nonfiction, contemporary. ” Deanne also is the author of the award-winning Mustang, currently under option for a film starring Wendie Malick. For more, see www.deannestillman.com. I asked Deanne to write something more for the blog, and I am thrilled to have her here. Thank you, Deanne.
In recent months and days, there has been much talk of sexual assaults in the military. The situation is so dire that there have been Congressional reports, panels, and investigations in all branches of the military. Recently, even President Obama issued a statement. Those who commit such acts, he said, should be “prosecuted, stripped of their positions, court-martialed, fired, dishonorably discharged.” As a result, the Pentagon just fired sixty army troops for violations – and among those let go were recruiters, drill instructors, and, not surprisingly, sexual assault counselors.
This is a deep-seated problem and it doesn’t stop at the perimeter of any particular base. In fact, there is another aspect of this story and it involves sexual assaults in military towns, a generally under-reported story because the people who are the victims of it are generally deemed not worthy of coverage – unless something that must be reported to the authorities is involved. I speak here of one incident in particular, a double rape and homicide which I wrote about in my book, Twentynine Palms: A True Story of Murder, Marines, and the Mojave. It’s about two girls who were raped and killed in that scenic military outpost two hours east of Los Angeles. The incident happened after the Gulf War in 1991, and was carried out by a Marine several months after he had returned from Saudi Arabia. This month is the 23rd anniversary of the sad event.
I first learned of it in the Josh Lounge, where I sometimes went after hiking in Joshua Tree National Park. Some patrons were talking about two girls who had been “sliced up” by a Marine. “Who were they?” I asked. “Just some trash in town,” came the reply. I had been a regular in the area for many years, not just as a pilgrim in the park, but exploring the many treasures of the area – its backroads, its geologic wonders, its unexpected emporiums such as a bookstore run by an ex-biker who served espresso.
Some of the people in town were my friends and so were some of their kids – and I would get to know others very soon. I knew that there was more to the story of the two girls than “just some trash in town,” but it wasn’t just because I had been hanging out in Twentynine Palms. It resonated on a personal level mainly because of my riches to rags childhood in Ohio, during which my parents’ divorce propelled my mother, sister, and me from upper middle-class comfort to the wrong side of the tracks, at which point we suddenly became nameless and voiceless, at least to those in our original world. Many in our circle stopped talking to us, including some relatives, and from then on, I became quite familiar with America’s dirty little secret – our class system.
When I heard about the two girls – Mandi Scott and Rosalie Ortega, I soon learned - I knew that I was going to tell their story. It took me on a ten-year journey into the shadowlands of the American dream. With the help of Mandi’s mother Debie McMaster and her friends, and Rosalie’s sister Jessielynn and her friends as well, I traced their family histories back for generations, in Mandi’s case to the Donner Party, and in Rosie’s case, to a shack in the Philippines. And then I followed the families into the Mojave, to Twentynine Palms, where each of them – affiliated with branches of the armed services themselves - hoped to start over amid the extreme beauty and promise of our great wide open. They joined other families who were doing the same thing, only to find that it was just not possible.
Many of these families were like Mandi’s, headed by single mothers fleeing a decades-long legacy of violence and poverty, military camp followers seeking a toe-hold in the shifting desert sands. They found jobs at local establishments such as bars, fast food joints, bowling alleys, adjacent mega malls, and so on. Their kids formed fast and fierce connections, taking care of each other, each other’s babies, and often, Marines – many of them, after all, boys on the verge of manhood, heading off to war. Intrinsic to their preparations was a marching cadence that is probably rooted in ancient conflicts, perhaps still uttered today in far-flung districts. It surfaced American-style during the Gulf War, and here’s an excerpt:
…I wish all the ladies was bells in the tower.
If I was the hunchback, I’d bang em on the hour.
Singin’ hey bobba-ree-ba, hey bobba-row . . .
In the end, Mandi and Rosie were raped and killed in what had become a sexual war zone on the home front, their bodies left on the field. How this happened and why are the questions I explore in my book. The incident happened on dollar-drink night in Twentynine Palms, an evening that occurred every two weeks on Marine pay day. That’s when the violence in town would spike. The man who killed Mandi and Rosie was a star on the Marine basketball team. He had a history of violence towards women before he joined the Corps and while in it, shortly before the attacks on Mandi and Rosie, he had raped the daughter of a sergeant major. But the incident had been overlooked and then came the night that Mandi and Rosie were killed. Mandi would have turned sixteen on the following day; Rosie was almost twenty-one. Her parents – long-haul truckers - had picked up her baby daughter shortly before the murders, fearing trouble in town. Mandi’s mother had just picked up a refurbished Camaro, wheels to help a girl celebrate her birthday – and then one day, get out of town.
When my book was first published, some in Twentynine Palms waged a campaign on amazon to discredit it, suggesting that I didn’t like the town or was attacking the military. To this day, in some quarters, the controversy continues. Yet neither assertion was true. I have written extensively about the area, urging people to visit for example – and also have written about radical Islamic presence in the military.
And, as I mention in the acknowledgments section of my book, I could not have written it without the help of certain Marines, who served as guides through the nooks and crannies of their world, and to this day remain good friends. I am in awe of what they volunteer to do for our country, and I will never forget them. Often, I think of the Marine who testified for the prosecution in the murder trial of Valentine Underwood (who received a mandatory life sentence without parole). He had trouble speaking and he had the shakes. It was painful for him to travel anywhere and flying across country and then heading to the courthouse in Victorville had worsened his condition. Later he told me he had Gulf War Syndrome – a condition that the government has yet to acknowledge. I would like those who may not know that many who enlist in the armed services do so out of honor and tradition, and this man was one of them.
And now, back to our class system. Violence is routine in the lives of the girls I wrote about. It is routine in the families of some of the Marines I met along this particular trail. Rough legacies cannot easily be shaken and it is citizens bearing such legacies who often cross paths in military towns. Sexual assault inside the military and in military towns is not going to vanish. It is a result, in part of these histories – and the things that do not heal the wound. Listening to the wounded – the voiceless, the young cast-aways in military towns, the people who toil in the hold of our ship – is my task as a writer. That’s what I learned to do in the desert, amid the Joshua trees and bobcats and ravens. I got quiet and then a story came through and it was called Twentynine Palms.
At this time of year, on the anniversary of their deaths, I always think about the two friends who went down together as they tried to take care of each other and their friends. RIP, Mandi and Rosie, and thank you for your service. And thank you to all who take care of those in the military, sending them off to war and welcoming them when they return. To some they are “the trash in town.” To others, and all of us, they are essential.