cillla McCain

Cilla McCain, Baker Company And A World Of Military Homicide

Episode #8

She’s a deceivingly genteel southerner with a sharp wit and a will of steel. Cilla McCain has taken it upon herself to fight alongside families of this nation’s fallen when they are faced with loss that does not fit the conventional manner of death.  Hear her tell her story of how she became involved in helping these families navigate the bureaucracy of “Non-hostile” deaths, and how she is working to protect other families from enduring the same pain.

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Cilla McCain is a sassy Southern beauty with a deceivingly genteel exterior. Her sweet drawl and full smile belie the formidable opponent she makes when challenged. Once upon a time she worked in the land of fiction writing, creating characters and charting their destinies as she saw fit. It’s fun to be in that zone, to feel the characters come to life as their stories pour through you and become words on a page. “I liked it there,” Cilla laughs, still seemingly surprised at the shift in her trajectory – and for good reason, because the world she inhabits now could not be more different.

The former fiction writer/author is now thoroughly entrenched in the world of military homicide and the painful challenges facing families of soldiers whose deaths are shrouded in misinformation or unclear facts. “It came about quite accidentally,” Cilla recalls. Having grown up at Fort Benning, Cilla was very familiar with the military culture. When a shocking crime rocked through the military and her community, Cilla could not look away.

Murder In Baker Company

richard t davis

Specialist Richard T. Davis

In July of 2003, Specialist Richard T Davis returned from Iraq, where he’d been deployed with Baker Company. Within two days of his return, and before he made it home to his family, Davis vanished. His parents were highly concerned to learn of Richard’s disappearance and positively denied the Army’s assertion that their son was a deserter. When the military stubbornly refused to initiate an investigation into Davis’ whereabouts, Lanny drew upon his own military experience to investigate his son’s disappearance.

Lanny drove to Fort Benning, Georgia, to interview members of Baker Company. He met with military and local officials,  persisting in his belief that his son was not a deserter. It took months before Lanny discovered the truth he’d been dreading; Richard’s body had been found not far from base.

The pain of Richard’s death was compounded by the details as they emerged: Lanny’s son had been viciously stabbed, tortured, and set on fire.

As if that was not bad enough, four members of Baker Company were found guilty of committing this Valley of elahcrime. The case landed in national headlines and stayed there throughout the judicial process. Hollywood jumped in. Tommy Lee Jones portrayed Lanny in the 2007 movie, In the Valley Of Elah. The story found its way into Cilla’s life, initiating the dramatic shift in her own future.

“It touched me,” she remembers. “What happened to Richard Davis will stay with me forever.” This crime in her community, so full of rage and betrayal, pulled at her. Learning of the military’s treatment of the frantic parents who now were in such grief struck her as very wrong. Cilla reached out to Davis’ parents. Still grieving and reeling from events, the Davis’ openly shared their story with Cilla. She paid attention.

“Theories abounded,” Cilla says, about the truth behind this case. People could not  – did not want to – believe that soldiers could murder other soldiers. Soldiers don’t do that to one another. He (Davis) must have done something to cause it to happen. People simply could not wrap their minds around the betrayal of soldiers killing other soldiers. Cilla was also trying to wrap her own mind around the cruelly dismissive attitude the military displayed toward Davis’ family.

Months passed and Cilla maintained regular contact with Lanny. She was determined to help tell the whole story in a way the movie did not, for so many details did not make it to the big screen. Setting aside her land of fiction, Cilla headed straight into the world of crime and justice.

Through research, interviews, and court transcripts, Cilla painstakingly wrote a book about Richard Davis’ murder and the agonizing ordeal his parents went through to find justice. During this process she became close to Lanny, who found it cathartic to speak about what had happened to his son. Still, Cilla recognized a greater need for the bereaved father.

As work on the book concluded, Cilla began looking for a support group her new friend may find some relief in. She, “fumbled around the internet and found a subculture of military families dealing with similar things.” Hoping this group would be the right place for Lanny to feel comfortable, Cilla made the introductions. “Talking to someone who knows what it’s like to be grieving and fighting your own government to acknowledge mistakes that may have occurred,” could be important in helping Lanny heal, she hoped.

Murder In Baker CompanyCilla had done all she could do. She published Murder in Baker Company, developed a friendship with Lanny, and attempted to find him some help navigating his pain. Her job was done, she thought. But she was wrong.

Members of that military subculture began reaching out to her with their own stories. Families still pleading and arguing with the military to investigate suspicious circumstances surrounding their loved one’s death sought her help in doing so.

They came in droves – families in grief, families in disbelief, reeling from the death of a father, son, brother, sister, husband, wife. They told Cilla their stories of misinformation received from the military. Causes of death they disputed. Missing items, missing answers.

It’s easy to make assumptions about the military and all who serve. I know I did. So did my husband. And so do all the men and women who become victims of assault or even murder at the hands of fellow soldiers, as do their families. It’s easy to believe that everyone who wears the uniform is worthy of respect and trust. It’s easy to assume that the military would take a proactive approach to preventing crime among the ranks, that it will mete out swift justice to anyone who slips through the cracks and dishonors that uniform by betraying others. Therein lies the difference between Cilla’s foreign fiction world, and the world she inhabits now.

The truth is, not everyone who serves is a good person. The truth is, the military does not always do its best to protect our troops from unnecessary harm. The truth is, even the military makes mistakes, and even the military lies.

We’re going to pause here for just a moment, because I can hear people who have not gone through this beginning to get their hackles up, perhaps under the impression that this story is about bashing the military. Let me assure you that quite the opposite is true. In fact, no one in their right minds would spend hours or even years of their lives submerged in the emotionally draining world of crime in the military without a compelling reason. And I can assure you, the knee-jerk angry responses aren’t super fun, either.

But here is another truth – No one who serves honorably should ever face the risk of danger from within their own ranks. No family member of a service member whose death raises questions should ever be dismissed.

Cilla McCain is not at all about bashing the military. Rather, she seeks to protect others from unnecessary harm. She strives to ensure no family member is ever treated the way Richard Davis’ parents were. I wish I’d had her alongside while my family was entangled in the aftermath of my husband Lou Allen’s murder, helpless pawns in the mockery of a court martial. I wish I’d had the handbook she wrote along with two other military widows who have been fighting for answers in their husbands’ deaths.

Tracy Shue is the widow of Colonel Philip Shue, M.D. She is also a twenty year Air Force veteran with a dizzying list of accreditations and achievements. Her husband was a psychiatrist in the Air Force. He was found dead in what at first blush appeared to be a one-car crash on a Texas Interstate. But a closer look beneath his ripped t-shirt revealed startling sights: in addition to a 6 inch gash, both of his nipples had been removed and it was evident that his hands had been bound with duct tape. Maybe his feet, too. And yet local and military investigators all insisted Colonel Shue had committed suicide.

A twenty page “psychological autopsy” report by the Air Force played a large role in the suicide ruling. Tracy has not been permitted to know what the military used as evidence to create that report. The case was featured in 48 Hours  and the evidence of homicide was laid bare to the entire country, but the military has not reversed its position and local authorities still conclude it was a suicide.  Tracy has gone to great lengths to dispute this finding, and understands all too well the exhaustion and overwhelming stress faced by families in similar circumstances. So, too, does Kimberly Stahlman.

Kimberly put her M.Ed to good use by working with the  United States Marine Corps Family Advocacy Program. She helped develop The Victim’s Advocate Program in Okinawa, Japan to provide assistance for rape and domestic violence victims. She is also the widow of Colonel Michael Stahlman. After her husband’s death she had to draw upon those skills to help herself through her own grief. But like Tracy, and the Davis family, and so many others, Kimberly’s grief was compounded by the circumstances of her husband’s death.

For years, Kimberly has argued with the military that her husband’s death was not the result of suicide. She has compiled her own arsenal of evidence, including blood spatter patterns and reports from private investigators, that open up a chasm of doubt on the Marine Corps findings. But she is simply a widow, up against the might of not just the Marine Corps she and her husband loved so much, but the same Department of Defense powers that slam down hard on every family that dares to dispute its decisions.

“These women are fighters. They’re not giving up, and they need people in their corner.”

Cilla, Tracy, and Kimberly have forged together to create Military Families for Justice (MFFJ). This organization provides not just a forum for families to share their stories and seek out others in the same situation, but tangible tools like its handbook packed with valuable advice.

Simply getting started in the process of questioning the government’s findings in a death is a challenge in itself. “If you don’t know (what to do), “ Cilla explains, “no one in the military is going to tell you.” The handbook on the MFFJ website offers information on your rights as a bereaved family member. It provides insight as to the machinations of the military justice system and a heads-up on what to expect.

Part of what makes Cilla McCain so credible is her bluntness.

Author Cilla McCainShe is quick to point out that this handbook is not all inclusive, and that families committed to challenging official findings are in for a battle.

Don’t be blinded by the wall of brass. You are in grief. You will be in grief for a long time. But those first few weeks are critical. If your gut is telling you something is wrong, follow that instinct.

Now here’s the hard part; Cilla’s thorough research and expansive network has discovered that the military knows it takes the average family about two years of trying to dispute official findings or answer unanswered questions before they slink away in exhausted defeat. The Department of Defense does not like to have its findings questioned, or to admit mistakes, she cautions. And – guess what –  Cilla freely states  that it is not uncommon for those findings to be accurate, either. Sometimes families are blinded to the truth by their own pain, and that is difficult to accept. But, she continues, those families still have the right to all of the information regarding their loved one.

Ever the multitasker, Cilla is currently focused on three impressive projects.

She is writing one book about Colonel Philip Shue, M.D. and another about Colonel Michael Stahlman – because writing just one book would be boring, I suppose.  She is also attempting to find at least one congressional representative who is willing to support the Bill of Rights for Bereaved Military Families .

This BIll of Rights seeks to offer bereaved military families similar options to the ones provided to members of the United Kingdom’s military families: experts, attorneys, and forums in which to present their cases for further investigating or answers in a loved one’s death. For instance, when submitting a FOIA request to the military, an inexperienced person who is also immersed in grief may not realize the importance of being specific. “You better know exactly what you’re looking for,” Cilla explains, “ if you don’t request a specific document, you won’t get it… a request cannot be all inclusive.”

Cilla understands the political unsavoriness of supporting such a bill. She is aware that some compromises may be necessary for it to make it to the floor, and she is prepared to make those compromises so long as the overall integrity of the bill is preserved. What she seeks is one representative who is willing to meet with her, so she may answer any questions and assuage any misconceptions about the merit of this bill. She is confident in its value, and so are the families who support it. She asks anyone who is similarly concerned to contact their representative and ask for their support or simply their time to learn about this bill.

Circling back a moment, let’s revisit the primary tenets of the work Cilla is doing and what drives her to advocate for these families.  “You can’t unring the bell. Once I was awakened to this problem, and getting emails from grief-stricken (families)… I can’t ignore that.”

The military functions with a mission of building cohesiveness in the troops. The goal is to instill a sense of family, of brotherhood or sisterhood. But unless the DOD becomes involved and addresses violent crime in the ranks, unless steps are taken to prevent such incidents and to respond with a vengeance against the crime rather than the families when such incidents do occur, “They will never really have a cohesive team. (Soldiers ) will be always wondering.. Are they going to kick me to the curb if something goes wrong?”

Cilla and families she supports – like mine- understand that by training soldiers to recognize the warning signs of impending violence and by ensuring each death is properly investigated, the military will in fact be strengthened.

Soldiers and their families will be protected from unnecessary violence and pain, and a message will be sent that our government values the service and the sanctity of each soldier who honorably serves. A separate message will be sent that the military will not tolerate rogue violence that destroys not only lives, but morale and unity within the service.

In the past year, Cilla has noticed a slow increase in the number of people supporting this effort. People in a position to reach others in helpful positions. This encourages her. Maybe one day she will have an official office to refer these families to for assistance, rather than personally guiding each caller. “I always answer” when asked for help, she says. And I know that’s true because she answered me immediately when I reached out to her years ago, too. She offered me the same advice she continues to offer to families today:

“If you believe in it, no matter what anyone else says, stick to your guns. Surround yourself with like-minded people.”

She offers practical advice, too – reminding families it is very difficult, and to take breaks to re-assess the situation. “Accept things you may not necessarily agree with. See beyond your emotions. See the facts. That’s really what it comes down to.” But perhaps most succinct and most on point, she lays it right out there,

“Pull those boots up, Honey. It’s hard work.” – Cilla McCain

Want to learn more about Cilla McCain and her work?  Here are links to everything Cilla…

Get the Book – Murder in Baker Company

Barb Allen
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Barb Allen

Co-Founder, Author, And Speaker at
Barbara Allen is an Author, Speaker, Gold Star Wife, and professional veterans advocate who understands the personal and factual struggles of turning adversity into advantage. But this lesson did not come easily and this upper hand must be diligently maintained. Now, Barbara brings her life lessons to her audiences in keynote speeches and custom programs. She relates to her audiences’ lives and challenges, and teaches them how to become gladiators in their own life’s arena.
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