Army wife Rita Odom has real battle scars

Rita Odom had three kids by two men, an abusive ex-husband and a family that "dysfunctional" doesn't begin to describe. She was 25, stuck in a small Southern town, struggling to hold a job and put food on the table. Dating was the last thing on her mind until she met a young soldier who swept her off her feet, out of the car dealership where she worked and into the life of an Army wife. Brian Odom moved Rita into a brick house at Fort Bragg, N.C. He became Daddy to her boys and brought home a steady paycheck. Rita's happy ending would later play out in a book and a Lifetime television series based in part on her life. The show, Army Wives, is a runaway hit, recently picked up for a third season. Much of its success is due to the popularity of a character named Roxy LeBlanc, based on Rita Odom. Now 34, Rita watches the actor who plays her on TV and thinks: "That's the Rita who is strong. I can be that woman again." In real life, Rita's fairy tale has fractured.

• • •

Rita married Brian Odom on July 3, 2000, in the living room of her run-down home in central Alabama. Rita wore a flowered dress and no shoes. Brian wore a University of Alabama T-shirt.

The boys, all under age 6, played nearby on the floor. Afterward, Rita and Brian went out for barbecue and picked up two slices of key lime cheesecake from the local Winn-Dixie.

"He's my puzzle piece," Rita said one evening last month. She was sitting in her house in Cocoa, surrounded by Brian's things. "We complete each other."

They had known each other for six months, but because Brian was in the Army, they'd spent little time together.

Rita's new life took some getting used to. She had never lived so far from home. She wasn't used to being a stay-at-home mom. She knew nothing about the military.

Then came 9/11 and Brian's deployment to Afghanistan in the summer of 2002. Rita had met a newspaper reporter named Tanya Biank, who interviewed her for a story on military families. Biank decided to feature Rita in a book called Army Wives: The Unwritten Code of Military Marriage. The nonfiction book became the basis for the fictional Army Wives.

Young, smart, pretty and sassy, Roxy LeBlanc is Rita Odom's TV alter ego.

Roxy is known for her legendary one-liners, short skirts and fierce loyalty to friends and family. When a bomber blows up the bar where she works, Roxy rebuilds it. When Trevor comes home injured from Iraq, Roxy tries to have sex with him in his hospital bed.

Twenty-something Army wives around the country talk about Roxy/Rita as if she were an old friend. They collect her funniest quotes — Roxyisms like "He's so hot I ovulate like a slot machine."

"She inspired me to be myself and not 2 care what people say," a fan wrote recently on Lifetime TV's Web site.

Fans drool over Roxy's dreamy husband, Trevor LeBlanc. Trevor's a hopeless romantic who fixes Roxy dinner, wants to adopt her kids and supports her in every possible way.

Rita said Brian's like that, too. Even better.

Except for one thing: Brian, 30, is in the Brevard County Jail awaiting trial on a charge of attempted murder.

Rita's.

• • •

Rita thought she might die when Brian deployed to Afghanistan in July 2002 with the 82nd Airborne Division. She was convinced something bad would happen to him.

"Brian was point man," Rita said. "He always had to go in first, always had something to prove."

After Brian left, Rita graduated from Fayetteville Technical Community College and got a job as a pharmacy technician. She socialized with other wives, but only those who believed it was wrong to cheat on their husbands.

She struggled and, at one point, told Brian she couldn't make it through the seven months he would be gone.

Brian told Rita he'd named a mountain after her in Afghanistan and that she was the strongest woman he knew.

"He told me I had to find my inner soldier," she said.

They kept a ritual they had started on one of their first dates. She had pointed out the constellation Orion. While he was deployed, at the same time each day, they both took a minute to look up at the stars.

That same summer, two Fort Bragg soldiers killed their wives. Rita wondered what would push a man over the edge like that.

Brian's unit returned from Afghanistan in January 2003.

"Brian came home different," Rita said. "He was not the same Brian I sent over there."

He had less patience. He didn't trust anybody. "And I mean anybody, not even me."

He jumped when an airplane or helicopter flew over. He had bad dreams. He spaced out.

"All he would tell me was 'I was over there,' " Rita said.

When he tried to talk to her about it, she cut him off. The details were too disturbing. She couldn't stand to see him cry.

Brian left the Army in December 2003.

He gave up on his dream of going to Ranger school or joining Special Forces. He had a family, and he didn't want to be away from them. He went to community college and worked part-time as a handyman at a private school and a security guard at JCPenney.

They moved to Florida in 2005 when Brian's dad got him a job as a police officer at Kennedy Space Center. Rita worked at CVS. She and Brian ended up on different shifts and hardly saw each other.

Family outings to the zoo and the beach with sons Jay, now 14, Allan, 12, and John, 10, were few and far between. No longer constant companions, Rita and Brian fell out of synch.

Brian developed skull-splitting headaches and came to the James A. Haley Veterans Hospital in Tampa to be tested for traumatic brain injury.

He was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and put on a series of medications, according to Rita.

Last September, Brian slipped and fell in the restroom at a baseball game. He broke his leg and missed more than two months of work.

That was when things got worse, Rita said.

Brian's doctor upped his prescription for the antidepressant Celexa. Brian hit Rita for the first time.

"He got the increased dose and it was a couple of days after that that he just, he beat the f--- out of me."

The packaging for Celexa warns that those who take the drug might experience aggressiveness, irritability and agitation. Rita thought to herself: "That's not my Brian." She didn't call police.

Brian spent his days at home in an upstairs room he painted all black, playing computer games and watching movies. He was drinking as many as 15 beers a day plus Crown Royal and "whatever else," Rita said.

Thanksgiving morning, Brian woke Rita about 1 a.m. He was holding an AK-47, and he told her was going to kill her.

Rita ran down the stairs. He fired in her direction. The bullet whizzed past Rita's head and broke a windowsill. Brian followed.

"He hit me, pulled my hair, was dragging me across the floor, hurting me," Rita said.

The younger boys screamed.

"I was telling them it's going to be okay, Dad's just mad," Rita said. "I remember being scared, just being scared."

Rita grabbed her keys and ran outside. Brian stood at the front door with a shotgun as she drove away.

"The look on his face, I swear it wasn't him. It wasn't him."

In horror, Rita realized that only John and Allan had followed her out. Her eldest son, Jay, was still in the house. She pulled into a nearby convenience store and asked the clerk to call 911.

"I said, 'He's got guns and he's got my kid.' "

Brian didn't hurt Jay.

He walked out the back door with the AK-47 and a shotgun and, according to court documents, ignored a deputy's order to put the weapons down.

A deputy shot him in the chest.

Brian was wearing a bulletproof vest.

He was taken to Brevard County Jail and booked on several charges, including attempted first-degree murder and wearing a bulletproof vest during a felony.

The Sheriff's Office would not release any information on Brian's arrest and charges, saying it's still an active case. A trial date is expected to be set this week. Brian's lawyer, Gregory Eisenmenger, didn't return phone calls, and his parents could not be reached for comment.

Rita blames the medication, the alcohol, the PTSD, Brian's parents, herself. Everyone but him.

"I just felt like there were signs I should have noticed or things I should have done leading up to this," she said.

"Maybe I should have asked him if he was taking his medication or asked him about his drinking."

• • •

Rita comes home from work at 5:30 on a recent afternoon with a box of Lebanese food left over from an office lunch.

"Hey, booger faces," she yells out to her boys.

She doles out pitas, chicken kebabs, baklava and grape leaves stuffed with lamb.

The kids are excited about the food. John wants the Rolling Stone magazine she has in her hands with the Jonas Brothers on the cover.

"Don't read the political crap," she tells him.

They are generous with their yes ma'ams and thank yous and I love yous.

Rita smiles back at them.

Money is tight. Rita doesn't know how she'll pay for school supplies or new shoes for the boys. The bank is about to foreclose on her house.

"I feel like no matter what I do, I fail," she said.

Rita points to "Big B's truck" — a red Nissan Frontier — in the driveway. It's got a Pantera bumper sticker and a Florida paratrooper license plate. Shelves in her upstairs bedroom hold camouflage clothes and Pantera T-shirts.

He has been gone for eight months. That's longer than his trip to Afghanistan.

"That's how I'm treating this," Rita said, "as a deployment."

A restraining order keeps them from having any contact.

She sleeps with his T-shirt and, just as when Brian was at war, she looks up at the stars every night at their special time.

Some Sunday nights she watches Army Wives on TV. Few people outside her neighborhood know about what happened on Thanksgiving. Local news reports didn't make the connection between her real life and the show, and she doesn't like to either.

"That's not really a parallel I like to draw," she said. "It's sort of embarrassing."

She tells the other women at her weekly domestic violence support group that they don't understand. She's not like them, and Brian's not like their husbands.

"I know he would never intentionally hurt me."

Rita refuses to cooperate as the state prosecutes the case against Brian. She sits behind him in court hearings, despite being advised not to by her victim's advocate.

"That's where I belong," she said. "On my husband's side."

Jan Wesner can be reached at jwesner@sptimes.com or (813) 661-2439. Read her blog about military life at blogs.tampabay.com/ standingby.

>>On tv

Army Wives

Airs at 10 p.m. Sundays on Lifetime. Encores: 8 p.m. Mondays, 11 p.m. Saturdays. Join a live chat about the show at 10 p.m. Sunday at blogs.tampabay.com/standingby.

Army wife Rita Odom has real battle scars 08/08/08 [Last modified: Friday, August 15, 2008 1:49pm]

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