By Jill Smolowe
Updated August 12, 2002 12:00 PM

Sgt. First Class Brandon Floyd and his wife, Andrea, were so much the picture-perfect couple that after they purchased a home last year near Fort Bragg, outside Fayetteville, N.C., their new neighbors fondly dubbed them Barbie and Ken. “They were both so attractive,” says Andrea’s mother, Penny Flitcraft. “Brandon was very handsome; Andrea looked the all-American girl next door.” The Floyds were also a poster couple for post-Sept. 11 patriotic duty. While Brandon, 30, went to Afghanistan to serve with the elite Delta Force, Andrea, 29, minded their three small children and supplemented his $35,000 income by working at a sporting-goods store.

On July 19 the perfect picture shattered. After a loud argument that was overheard by neighbors, Brandon shot his wife, then turned his gun on himself. The double slaying was the fourth domestic tragedy at Fort Bragg in recent weeks. On June 11 Sgt. First Class Rigoberto Nieves, 32, shot himself and his wife, Teresa, 28, two days after returning from Afghanistan. Over the next six weeks Master Sgt. William Wright, 36, allegedly strangled his wife, Jennifer, 32; Sgt. Cedric Griffin, 28, allegedly stabbed his estranged wife, Marilyn, 32, and set fire to her home; and Maj. David Shannon, 40, was shot while sleeping in his home, a killing in which police have said that the wife remains a suspect.

The troubling epidemic of domestic violence has left Fort Bragg officials fumbling for an explanation. “It’s a little more stressful with special operations simply because they’re gone so much of the time,” says Army spokesman Brian Sutton. But Griffin, an Army cook, and Shannon, an active-duty Reserve officer, had served neither in the Special Forces nor in Afghanistan. Several Special Forces wives dismiss any such link between the killings and battlefield stress. “Most of my friends are in very strong marriages,” says Suzanne Blatt, 33, whose husband has been away all but one month this year. Lt. Sam Pennica, the detective in charge of homicide for the Cumberland County Sheriff’s office, also sees no war connection. In the marriages, he says, “there were numerous problems. They just happened to come to a head around the same time.”

According to Jennifer Wright’s parents, their daughter’s 14-year marriage had been unraveling for two years. “They had their ups and downs, and lately there were a lot more downs,” says her father, Archie Watson, 62. “I thought they had come to an agreement about a divorce.” Watson says that an officer at Fort Bragg showed him copies of three pleas for help that William, a Green Beret, had sent to the Army’s Judge Advocate General’s office upon his return from Afghanistan in May. “He’d said in them that he was upset and didn’t know what to do,” says Watson. “I think they failed him, and the result was my daughter’s death.” William has been charged with first-degree murder. Sons Jacob, 9, John 6, and Ben, 13, who heard his mother crying the night of her murder, are in Ohio with Jennifer’s sister.

The Floyds’ seven-year marriage began showing strain after Andrea, serving as a surrogate mother, gave birth to twins 20 months ago. “She wanted to bring joy to someone else’s life,” says Flitcraft, 51. Brandon had agreed to the arrangement, and the couple subsequently became the twins’ godparents. But after the delivery, Brandon’s long absences began to take a toll on the marriage. “With Brandon gone and her having to handle it all on her own, it got hard,” says Flitcraft. “They stopped being sweet to each other.”

Andrea, a retired soldier in top-notch physical condition, insisted that Brandon was not physically abusive. But Flitcraft grew concerned over what she perceived to be Brandon’s verbal abuse. “I said, ‘You need counseling,'” says Flitcraft. “She told me she had it under control.” When Andrea asked for a divorce in June, Brandon agreed. But after he returned in early July from a two-week special training mission, their fights grew so rancorous that Andrea packed their kids off to her mother in Ohio. Days later the Floyds had their last fight.

At Andrea’s funeral, Flitcraft and Brandon’s parents, Arthur and Charlotte Floyd, hugged each other tight. “We share three beautiful grandchildren,” says Flitcraft. She will now raise Harlee, 8, B.J., 5, and Garrett, 4. “I told them the truth,” she says. “I told them Daddy wasn’t himself for one brief moment in time.” Convinced that Andrea might still be alive had Brandon received counseling upon his return from Afghanistan, Flitcraft has another mission: to persuade the Army to enforce compulsory counseling for soldiers newly returned from battle. “I don’t want my daughter’s death to be in vain,” she says. “If this results in other military families getting the help they need, it won’t have been in vain.”

Jill Smolowe

Lori Rozsa in Miami and Laura Morice and Steve Ellman in Fayetteville