Death in the Barracks
"You have to understand—we planned our lives around our children," says Lisa's father, Wilbert, 53, a retired Army colonel who works as an administrator at Virginia Union University. "When Lisa went, we lost part of our future." His wife nods in agreement. "Why would anyone do this?" asks Emily, 52, so disoriented by the loss of her younger child that she sometimes can't remember her own address. "What did our daughter do to deserve this?"
Halfway across the country, another distraught Army family is also bewildered and in pain. Slaying with relatives in the inner-city Omaha neighborhood where she and her husband first met as 5-year-olds, Renee Craves, 33, struggles to make sense of Sgt. 1st Class Ervin "Morrie" Graves's arrest for attempting to rape Lisa Bryant and then reportedly shooting her in the face four limes with a .357 Magnum. The charges carry a possible death penalty if he is convicted at a yet-to-be-scheduled court-martial. Could the caring father of her two sons, a decorated decade-long member of the Army's prestigious Old Guard—the unit that escorts the President—be capable of such a crime?
"If he didn't do this—and I can't believe he did—then there must be a conspiracy," sobs Renee, a Head Start teaching assistant who was hospitalized for a month after a breakdown following her husband's arrest. "He's a warm, gentle, good man."
But on that fateful, steamy night, the kind that has earned the Fayetteville, N.C, Army base the nickname Fayette Nam, Graves was also a man with nearly a case of beer under his belt. Eyewitnesses say that while drinking in Stillwell Lounge, a bar in the Moon Hall barracks, he asked the pretty new lieutenant to dance and became angry when she repeatedly refused. (Forbidden by military authorities from speaking to the press, Graves has reportedly told family and friends that he never met the victim and though he owned a .357 Magnum, it had been stolen.)
About an hour later, Lisa was talking to boyfriend Noah Rudolph, 22, a Princeton classmate, on a dorm phone when suddenly the line went dead. Residents in Hardy Hall, where Bryant and Graves were billeted on the same second-floor corridor during their temporary assignments al the base, heard screams of "Please, no! Please, no!" Then they heard shots. MPs arrived to find Lisa's body slumped in a pool of blood just outside Graves's room.
Exactly what happened remains murky, as does the case against Graves, who was spending the summer at Bragg as an ROTC instructor. Investigators reportedly found traces of Lisa's blood and hair on his shoes and one of her earrings in his room, but Army officials won't comment and have issued orders that military personnel not speak about the case. Such official reticence has, inevitably, spawned rumors of a cover-up and disturbed—among others—members of Lisa's family.
"It's a high-profile case, and they have a lot of explaining to do," says the victim's brother, Wil, 28, a Los Angeles hospital-supply salesman, "[having] enlisted soldiers and officers in the same barracks. Private guns on the base." The family is upset by mixed housing of officers and enlisted personnel—contrary to military custom—and apparently lax enforcement of the ban against private weapons in Hardy and Moon halls. (Such private weapons are permitted elsewhere if registered with base authorities.)
Since the tragedy, the Bryants have received thousands of sympathy letters. President Clinton sent condolences, as did Gen. Colin Powell, a family friend who attended a wake held in Alexandria, Va. There and al a subsequent Princeton memorial ceremony, dozens of Lisa's classmates and professors from the university—where the popular sociology major never earned less than a B, captained the cheer-leading squad and was twice elected class vice president—reminisced about how the young woman her brother calls "the biggest of dreamers" touched their lives.
"She made a difference here at Princeton. She was the kind of person who would make a difference after college," says Fred Hargadon, the university's dean of admissions. "I would have bet money on that. Very few of us are given that kind of grace where, no matter what activity you are in, you lift the spirits of everyone involved."
At graduation, the month before her death, Lisa's prospects seemed limitless. Unlike her father and three of his brothers, she didn't plan an Army career but was considering law and real estate development. First, though, she needed to serve four years to repay her ROTC scholarship.
Lisa was looking forward to her assignment with the Army Corps of Engineers in Germany. But she dreaded the first stop on her journey—sweltering, mosquito-infested Fort Bragg. The previous summer, while attending an intensive training session there, she had been hit by a car. Then there was the atmosphere surrounding the base, the strip joints and seedy nightspots. Says boyfriend Rudolph, who visited her at Bragg: "It isn't a nice place for a female officer—for any woman, for that matter." But Lisa, who aggressively avoided any preferential treatment, accepted her orders without complaint. This is part of what gnaws at her grieving family—that Lisa played by the rules, but the Array didn't uphold its end of the bargain.
Since Lisa's death, the Bryants have reached out to some of those closest to her. "We've adopted him," says Emily of Rudolph, who is in basic training at the Marine Corps base in nearby Quantico, Va. "Now we have two sons." Lisa's sorority sister Sonja McGill is living with the Bryants while interning at the White House, an arrangement she calls "very comforting" for both her and the family.
And there is some small measure of consolation for Lisa's family and friends in the knowledge that she spent her short time among them the way she wanted. "We have crossed the bridge—the ocean lies ahead!" Lisa wrote to her classmates in the message beside her photo in the 1993 Princeton yearbook. "Plan as if you will live forever; live as though you wall die tomorrow."
PETER MEYER in Washington and Fort Bragg, MARGARET NELSON in Omaha and Camp Lejeune., and MARIA EFTIMIADES in Princeton