The men arrive stealthily at psychologist Tom Harbin's office, a few miles outside Fort Bragg.
They are elite troops practiced in secrecy: Green Berets, Special Operations pilots, Delta Force.
They know they risk much by coming here.
In the rarefied environs of the Army's most elite units, any contact with mental health care providers -- any signs of depression or domestic problems -- can ruin careers, according to lawyers, psychologists and educators who work with these troops. Plum assignments can vanish and the promotion parade can lurch to a halt.
"There are a bunch of guys out there who need treatment, who don't get it, because they know it will damage their careers," Harbin said. "The Army culture sees it as a weakness if you seek help."
The idiosyncrasies of that culture are being examined with renewed vigor following a startling cluster of domestic killings here. In the past six weeks, four soldiers -- including three recently back from Special Operations duty in Afghanistan -- have been accused of killing their wives. Two of them committed suicide after the slayings, law enforcement officials said.
A fifth case emerged late Tuesday when police charged a Fayetteville woman, Joan Shannon, 35, in the July 23 shooting death of her husband, Maj. David Shannon, 40, of the U.S. Army Special Operations Command.
The killings have jarred Fayetteville, a central North Carolina city where dry cleaners advertise volume discounts for combat fatigues. The city is closely tied to Fort Bragg, the nation's largest base. Its 160,000 acres are home to more than 45,000 soldiers.
Catherine Lutz, a University of North Carolina anthropologist and author of the book "Homefront: A Military City and the American Twentieth Century," called Fayetteville "the dumping ground for the problems of the American century of war and empire."
Combating those problems has proved difficult. The garrison commander, Col. Tad Davis (himself a Special Operations veteran) can tick off a list of new or expanded programs: stress management, family advocacy, counseling. Fort Bragg, he boasts, was selected last year as the best military base in the world by readers of Army Times, who lauded it for "community spirit . . . quality of life . . . and support for soldiers and their families."
Some commanders, Davis said, might admire a soldier who sought help in one of the support programs cited by the base's admirers. Yet Davis, who oversees the base but does not command the fighting units stationed there, acknowledges that other commanders would not.
"In the minds of a lot of people," Davis said, "you're admitting failure."
Military counseling sessions typically are held during the day, so soldiers have to ask their supervisors for time off to attend. The chain of command is almost always informed.
"If they want strict confidentiality, we will routinely refer them to the private sector, never to the military sector," said Mark Waple, a Fayetteville attorney who has specialized in military cases. "There is no question about the fact that active-duty soldiers are understandably reluctant to seek mental health counseling."
However, there may be some valid reasons for the lack of confidentiality in mental health services provided by the Army, Waple said. In some cases, he said, commanders need to be informed about the mental health of soldiers in sensitive positions, such as pilots.
But that is little consolation for a soldier who wants to quietly address personal problems without setting off alarm bells up and down the chain of command, he said. And private counseling isn't covered by military health insurance plans, leaving few options for soldiers who want confidentiality, but have little money.
Peer pressure from fellow soldiers also discourages many from seeking help, Waple said. Mental toughness is considered a "soldierly virtue," right along with stamina and strength, he said.
"There's no time in there," Waple said, "for 'Time out, I need to see my therapist.' "
Only one of the four soldiers accused of killing his wife -- Sgt. Cedric Ramon Griffin, 28, a 37th Engineer Battalion member who was not in the Special Forces -- attended counseling sessions at the base, law enforcement investigators said. Griffin attended the sessions for about a year before stabbing his wife, Marilyn Griffin, 32, 50 times on July 9 and setting her body on fire, according to Lt. Sam Pennica, homicide chief for the Cumberland County Sheriff's Department.
The Griffin case is somewhat unusual because Marilyn Griffin approached military officials to complain about abusive behavior, Pennica said.
Some military wives are reluctant to come forward with abuse allegations because they fear that their husbands will be discharged, leaving them without an income or insurance. Others are threatened by their husbands and told to keep quiet, said Kit Gruelle, a women's advocate in Chatham County northwest of here who says she was battered two decades ago by her then-husband, a former Marine.
"When you are living with someone who is being trained by the government to kill, that is a message you take very seriously," said Gruelle, who remembered her former husband clasping her neck and reminding her that he could snap it with his bare hands.
Sometimes, Harbin said, he has seen cases of soldiers going on "auto pilot" during fights with their wives, reacting to certain gestures that they were trained to respond to with battlefield moves. One client almost killed his wife with a leg sweep, Harbin said, sending her crashing into a coffee table.
Soldier Sought Help
William Wright, 36, a Special Forces sergeant accused of killing his wife, Jennifer Wright, 32, may have sought counseling in the weeks before her death. The slain woman's father, Archie Watson, of Mason, Ohio, said this week that his son-in-law e-mailed supervisors asking for help, a request that he says was never granted.
"It was like a macho 'Help me,' " Watson said. "I think she wanted him out of the Special Forces. He didn't want to get out."
Griffin and Wright are in jail awaiting trial on state murder charges.
The other soldiers accused of killing their wives, Sgt. 1st Class Rigoberto Nieves, 32, and Sgt. 1st Class Brandon Floyd, 30, fatally shot themselves. Floyd, a member of the Delta Force, had shot his wife, Andrea Floyd-Ziegler, 29, in the head. She had asked for a divorce, Pennica said.
Nieves also shot his wife -- Teresa Nieves, 28 -- in the head two days after returning from Afghanistan, investigators said.
Relatives have told investigators that all four couples had long histories of marital problems. Women's advocates say marital problems are often compounded during the frequent international deployments.
Family advocates at Fort Bragg warn wives to tell their returning husbands about seemingly insignificant changes such as haircuts.
"He might be thinking about running his hands through that long, luxuriant hair," said Martha Brown, an Army Community Services deployment coordinator. "We tell them, 'Don't surprise your husband.' "