By Nina Burleigh
December 15, 2008 12:00 PM

The marriage between 2nd Lt. Holley and Marine Cpl. John Wimunc was never a match made in heaven. After a whirlwind romance and civil wedding in 2007, the military couple were separated from the start, with Army-nurse Holley stationed at Fort Bragg, N.C., and John assigned to Camp Lejeune, 2 1/2 hours away. John left for a seven-month stint aboard a ship in the Persian Gulf, after which “the relationship went to pot,” Holley’s father, Jesse James, told PEOPLE. By May the big, blond Marine had turned violent, allegedly beating his wife and holding a gun to her head, according to a complaint Holley filed with the courts.

But Holley never went to court to follow up on the protective order she sought. John “would talk his way back into her life,” James said. Shortly before her death, 24-year-old Holley called her dad: She’d sent her two children from a previous relationship to stay with their father so she could leave John, 23, for good. Only she never got the chance. On July 14, after finding her charred body in a shallow grave near Camp Lejeune, police charged John with Holley’s murder.

The romance between Spc. Megan Touma, an Army dental tech, and Sgt. Edgar Patino was also troubled. The two got involved while stationed together in Germany, and Patino proposed to Megan—without informing her that he already had a wife, Spc. Amanda Stephenson, Megan’s friend, told PEOPLE. In June, 23-year-old Megan followed Patino, 27, back to Fort Bragg, seven months pregnant and sporting a marquise-cut diamond engagement ring. But when Stephenson phoned Megan the night of June 13 to meet for dinner and a poetry reading, her friend never called back. Eight days later an employee of a local motel found Megan’s decomposing body in a bathtub in her room; authorities have charged Patino with killing her. “She was so smart, a beautiful spirit,” Stephenson said. “She didn’t deserve this.”

What’s happening at Fort Bragg? Holley and Megan were two of three female soldiers from the nation’s largest Army base murdered in the past six months, allegedly killed by spouses or boyfriends who had served time in Iraq—homicides that echo the Fort Bragg murders of 2002, in which four Army wives were killed by their soldier husbands—three recently returned from Afghanistan. And it has again raised questions about how the military handles domestic violence.

“They should be asking, ‘What went wrong?'” says Col. Ann Wright (ret.), who oversaw a Special Ops unit at Fort Bragg in the 1980s and attended an Oct. 8 rally near the base, along with retired servicemen and women and others protesting domestic violence in the military.

As the war ends its sixth year, pressures on soldiers at Fort Bragg—the most heavily deployed base in the country—are particularly intense, but Fort Bragg officials say they are taking action. “Violence against women is abhorrent and not tolerated here,” said Maj. Gen. Arthur M. Bartell, in charge of Fort Bragg when the most recent murders occurred, in a statement to PEOPLE. Since 2002 the base has doubled its mental-health counseling staff, hired victims’ advocates and started a confidential reporting system for domestic violence complaints. Over the past year Fort Bragg investigated about 550 domestic violence incidents, up about 38 percent from the previous year; base officials say that higher number reflects their including unmarried couples in the statistics and their efforts to encourage people to report domestic violence.

The last to die was Sgt. Christina Smith, who was fatally stabbed Sept. 30, allegedly by a man hired by Sgt. Richard Smith, her husband, according to police reports. Both Smith and Patino had served in Iraq as members of a Psych Ops unit, which aims to win over Iraqis to the U.S. cause; their attorneys declined comment. But D.W. Bray, a lawyer for John Wimunc, who saw action in Iraq for eight months in 2006, says he hasn’t ruled out a PTSD defense. “He was a normal teen,” he says. “The only change Johnny had in his life was going into the Marines and seeing combat.” Last spring Wimunc was treated for psychological problems at Fort Bragg. According to court documents, he had recently overdosed on drugs. A Camp Lejeune spokesman declined comment.

Back in Holley’s hometown of Dubuque, Iowa, James hopes his daughter’s death won’t be in vain. “This is an issue,” he says, “the military has to tackle.”