FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. — Lt. Col. Frank Jenio was hit by an ear-splitting hourlong tirade from his commander's wife, Leslie Drinkwine, complaining about the roster of his battalion family readiness group.
"Go ahead, and get me fired," Jenio was heard shouting into his phone. Afterward, he emerged from a conference room, red-faced and furious, a source who was present said.
The March 2009 incident was not the last run-in between the wife of Col. Brian Drinkwine, commander of 4th Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division, and one of his battalion commanders.
In January, less than a year later, Jenio and his command sergeant major Herbert Puckett were relieved of command while deployed in Afghanistan by Maj. Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, the 82nd Airborne's commander. An investigation found they used "poor judgment which fostered a command climate that was not consistent with our Army values."
Puckett said in a statement to investigators that Leslie Drinkwine later "bragged" to the rear detachment commander, "One team down, five to go."
The confrontation between Leslie Drinkwine and Jenio was emblematic of an environment within the 4th Brigade, particularly its family readiness group, that was so toxic that it triggered an investigation by a three-star general.
Leslie Drinkwine's influence was "negative, divisive and harmful," several FRG advisers told investigators.
What's more, the investigation concluded that the 4th BCT's commander, Col. Drinkwine — who told battalion commanders "my wife speaks for me" — was his wife's "key enabler." Col. Drinkwine not only failed to dispel the perception that his wife "held a level of authority that resembled command authority," he worsened it, the investigation concluded.
The findings — accompanied by more than two dozen sworn statements many of which describe Leslie Drinkwine's allegedly abusive manner and widespread use of her husband's rank to harass and bully the brigade's officers and their wives — led 18th Airborne Corps Commander Lt. Gen. Frank Helmick to ban Leslie Drinkwine from any and all contact with the FRG and the rest of the brigade.
In his sworn statement, Col. Drinkwine denies any wrongdoing by himself or his wife and attributes the FRG's dysfunction to "the inability of a few ladies to work professionally with one another." Leslie Drinkwine strongly denies her influence could affect careers and says that she "felt humiliated, her reputation defamed and slandered" by an earlier decision to remove her as FRG adviser.
Both Col. and Leslie Drinkwine declined to be interviewed for this story.
This was not the first time the matter was brought before the top commanders at Fort Bragg. Prior to the brigade's deployment in August, Col. Drinkwine met with Scaparrotti and Helmick's predecessor, Lt. Gen. Lloyd Austin, who told Drinkwine that his wife would have to step down as brigade FRG adviser.
But the problems continued.
"What was concerning to me was that verbal requests were given to rectify a situation and they weren't really heeded," Helmick told Army Times. "That's why after the investigation was completed and the recommendations were made, I put it in writing. When you put it in writing, people really take you seriously."
In sworn statements, Jenio, of the 2nd Battalion, 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment, and Lt. Col. David Oclander of the 1-508th PIR, complained that Leslie Drinkwine's influence contributed to command decisions that damaged their careers. Other battalion commanders and their spouses said she threatened them.
The investigation found no direct evidence that feuds within the FRG spilled over into the command and hurt careers, but a follow-on investigation has since been ordered to look into the matter.
The ongoing inquiry is being conducted by Lt. Gen. William Webster, the commander of U.S. Army Forces Central Command. A spokesman for ARCENT described the action as a "holistic review of both the situation in Afghanistan and back at Fort Bragg," and declined to provide further details until the review is complete and delivered back to 18th Airborne Corps.
The situation at Fort Bragg was a distraction for Jenio, whose battalion was engaged in some of the heaviest fighting in Afghanistan. "I literally spent every other night on the Iridium phone with my Rear D or [wife] discussing the latest issue vice focusing on the OEF fight," Jenio said in his statement.
Helmick's investigative report, compiled by Col. Chris Spillman, of the 108th Air Defense Artillery Brigade, was first reported on by the Fayetteville Observer. The report contains sworn statements and e-mails from more than two dozen people. In a copy obtained by a public records request, names but not ranks were redacted. Army Times was able to make identifications independently.
Several of the people connected with the investigation also agreed to be interviewed by Army Times but, fearing reprisals, asked not to be named.
According to the Army FRG handbook, an FRG is a commander's program, but commanders are not to participate in them directly and often delegate leadership roles to their spouses. These programs are to operate on the unit level, with "support and guidance from battalion-level leadership and above."
Nevertheless, Leslie Drinkwine, an assistant professor of marketing at a local Baptist university, even by her own account, saw her role as firmly monitoring and directing the FRGs within the 4th BCT after her husband assumed command in July 2008.
"When we pulled back from her, she would tighten things up by making us acknowledge all e-mails, call us to more meetings and oftentimes track us down at our homes and in our neighborhoods if we didn't respond quickly enough," Oclander's wife, Amy, said in her sworn statement. "Many of us also felt that the time we spent stressed about the relationship with her caused us not to have as much time and energy to respond to and involve ourselves with activities within our own battalions."
Helmick said that while FRGs are by and large "a good thing," they can have "challenging dynamics" as the spouses of deployed soldiers eagerly anticipate information about loved ones. "The last thing you want is an organization like that to be dysfunctional," Helmick said. "At best, we want a functioning organization to be able to assist families, not cause rifts and problems."
By most accounts, the flashpoint for hostility in the brigade FRG was the events that followed an Oct. 30 silent auction in a post social hall. According to a battalion commander's wife who was at the event, Leslie Drinkwine became erratic after another spouse there criticized some upcoming FRG training that she had planned.
At that, an unhappy Leslie Drinkwine exploded, summoning the spouses into the parking lot. "She was crying and hysterical, saying she had wanted to have a good night," said the woman. "One of the other spouses calmed her down and talked her into going back in."
In an e-mail the next day to the wives, Leslie Drinkwine called the criticism symptomatic of the other wives' disloyalty and the incident "an ambush from hidden domestic insurgents."
Leslie Drinkwine later told Spillman that she regretted sending the e-mail; Spillman said in his report the brigade afterward was "never was able to gain harmony."
The following day at 8 a.m., Leslie Drinkwine appeared unannounced at the home of Lt. Col. Mike Wawrzyniak and berated his wife Pam for about 30 minutes, reducing her to tears, the couple said in their statements. Col. Drinkwine, who had been sitting in his car outside, came in and tried to calm down his wife - to no avail.
Pam Wawrzyniak's statement said Leslie Drinkwine spotted her months later while driving on the road and pulled her truck in front of her to stop her. Leslie Drinkwine demanded she attend a predeployment luncheon, saying, "If you don't show up, I will have [Col. Drinkwine] hang your husband!" Wawrzyniak's 7-year-old son told her afterward, "‘Mom, I was afraid she was going to hurt you!'"
Leslie Drinkwine later told Spillman she had been upset at the time because she had just been struck by her 7-year-old autistic son. She denied cutting off Pam Wawrzyniak and said she would not have hurt her.
The FRG's tensions seemed particularly acute between the Drinkwines and the Jenios, crystallizing after a January 2009 FRG meeting in which Leslie Drinkwine scolded the FRG advisers, and Jenio's wife, Sherri, walked out of the meeting.
At the following month's meeting, Lt. Col. Jenio tried to sit in, but Leslie Drinkwine ejected him. When Leslie Drinkwine called the Jenios' house afterward looking for Sherri Jenio, their 15-year-old daughter answered. By the Jenios' sworn accounts, Leslie Drinkwine yelled at the teen and left her in tears.
Sherri Jenio, in her statement, calls it "the most miserable time in my life.
"I spent more time discussing FRG and how bad things are and how bad things are in the brigade, and it begins to affect our marriage," she said.
For her part, Leslie Drinkwine told Spillman that one of the wives had "worked to undermine her" following the silent auction, and that she believed false information had been spread about her.
In her statement, Amy Oclander said the spouses were intimidated by Leslie Drinkwine, who blurred the personal with the professional, bullying them into social relationships with implied threats to their husbands' careers. Leslie Drinkwine told her "all she wanted was for us to spend time with her" and "since she didn't have the relationship she wanted with us, she would make our lives hell, and she did," Amy Oclander's statement said.
"When she was angry with us she would often pepper her comments with ‘[Col. Drinkwine] feels X' or "I have talked with [Col. Drinkwine] and he feels ...,' " Amy Oclander said. "This was her way of letting us know that she was telling our husband's boss about these issues and was an indirect threat we constantly lived with."
The battalion commanders, aware of the hostility within the FRG, met formally with Col. Drinkwine in March 2009 to discuss it. Several battalion commanders, in sworn statements, said Col. Drinkwine dismissed their concerns, saying words to the effect of "My wife speaks for me," and "Get your wives in line." Col. Drinkwine reportedly told the battalion commanders that their wives were in a subordinate relationship to his wife.
"Although none of the [battalion commanders] were pleased with the outcome," Jenio said, "we dropped it at this point — hoping that it would improve, but it never did."
Asked to resign
Col. Drinkwine's superiors eventually became involved. According to the statement of Col. Johnny Johnston, the 82nd Rear Detachment commander, the 4th BCT FRG advisers voiced their complaints in a meeting with him in late July 2009. Johnston recommended to Scaparrotti that Leslie Drinkwine step down.
On Aug. 3, Scapparotti and Austin asked Col. Drinkwine to have his wife resign as the brigade FRG adviser. Although Col. Drinkwine had initially planned to retain his wife as the command group adviser, he said in his statement that he dropped the plan after conversations with the two generals.
Yet it appeared to be common knowledge that, while Leslie Drinkwine no longer attended FRG meetings, she attended weekly luncheons with the new FRG leader and the rear detachment commander. The perception was that she continued to direct the FRG behind the scenes.
In October 2009, Sherri Jenio and Puckett's wife resigned as FRG advisers to the 2-508.
In his report, Spillman credits the brigade's rear detachment commander, Maj. Fred Dela Cruz, with tempering Leslie Drinkwine's influence with "good military judgment." However, Spillman notes that Leslie Drinkwine had threatened to have Dela Cruz relieved by her husband and cursed at him.
Dela Cruz says in his statement that Leslie Drinkwine called on him Nov. 18 to reprimand several other spouses because she was "being slandered" by them. When Dela Cruz ultimately told her that he would not investigate because the allegations were uncorroborated, she said "she would tell Col. [Drinkwine] that I needed to be relieved from command, that I was not supporting her" and cursed at him.
Leslie Drinkwine, in an interview with Spillman, denied that she had threatened to have the major relieved but conceded that she used profanity during heated conversations with him.
Dela Cruz, in his statement, said that Leslie Drinkwine "does not influence who I talk to or what I say," but said he often worked to insulate her from "triggers" that would frustrate her.
A command team relieved
It was in late January that Jenio and Puckett were sent home.
According to a source close to the issue, the two were relieved of their posts after a racially insensitive slide appeared in one of their command briefings. The source said Jenio had given his command staff general guidance to include humorous slides as a stress reliever in the daily morning battle updates.
An officer and an NCO — both minorities — prepared this particular brief, selecting the slide themselves, while Jenio and Puckett were visiting a remote forward operating base near Lashkar-e-Taiba, said the source. The slide, a parody of a motivational poster, was a picture of a white coach with his arm around the shoulder of an African-American football player with the title "Reinstate Slavery."
The relief of a battalion commander is extremely rare in the Army. In the past five years, the Army saw only five reliefs per year among 961 battalion commander-equivalent positions in the Army, according to an Army spokesman.
Jenio, a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy, was with 75th Ranger Regiment and had served as executive officer to then-Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, when the general commanded Joint Special Operations Command, which runs the U.S. military's most sensitive special operations missions.
In the wake of Jenio's ouster, Oclander wrote to Helmick in a Jan. 20 e-mail in which he outlined the FRG's problems. In it, he also alleges Jenio's ouster was "based on a personal vendetta and unethical influence" by Leslie Drinkwine.
Helmick said that at the time he had been hearing about the FRG's ongoing dysfunction from "a host of different sources."
Oclander, in the e-mail, concedes that the slides indicated a lack of sound judgment, but said "the punishment is not consistent with the crime" because of the personal issues between the Jenios and the Drinkwines.
A three-star steps in
Helmick said that by then it had become evident that Col. Drinkwine's commanders had tried to "verbally coach and teach [Drinkwine] without too much success."
"In that February time frame, it wasn't working, and that's why I had the investigation and I did what I had to do," Helmick said.
The investigation culminated in Helmick's order that Leslie Drinkwine be barred from the brigade FRG, its leadership and any buildings connected to the brigade.
During the review, the Drinkwines' defenders said that the friction in the rear detachment had come from the battalion level, not brigade level.
Lt. Col. Kelly Ivanoff, in his statement, likens the resistance to a "mutiny." He said Leslie Drinkwine was driven by an intent to care for soldiers and their families and Col. Drinkwine was "one of the most dedicated officers I've ever met."
"It's important to note that on a couple of occasions, I believe I witnessed ‘disrespectful' disagreement," Ivanoff said. "After repeated instances, I believe it became difficult for [Leslie Drinkwine] to decipher the sarcastic and bitter response from those that were truly meaningful."
Dela Cruz notes that several FRG advisers worked well with Leslie Drinkwine, but others did not. "I do not know exactly what created this kind of fallout between the three ladies and [Leslie Drinkwine] but whatever happened, it has definitely created an unbridgeable rift," Dela Cruz says.
Col. Drinkwine said in his sworn statement that the tensions between his wife and the battalion commanders' spouses "in no way affected my judgment, or my assessments of their abilities and how I viewed them."
Col. Drinkwine's statement that the FRG's problems were due to "an inability of a few ladies being able to work professionally with one another" was "disingenuous," Spillman said, adding that there was no evidence Col. Drinkwine tried to moderate his wife's behavior.
For her part, Leslie Drinkwine told Spillman the experiences with the FRG had "destroyed her," that she was "villified, slandered," and that her marriage had been strained. She told Spillman that she had difficulty getting up in the morning, and Spillman expressed concerns in his report about her mental state.
"I recommend that the 82nd Airborne leadership take action to ensure monitoring is in place for [Leslie Drinkwine]," Spillman said.
Helmick said that this recommendation was being followed.
"That's one of the things we do in the Army, we take care of each other," he said. "That's what we do."
Senior staff writer Sean Naylor and The Associated Press contributed to this report.