By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
She spotted her blind date right away: the clean-cut guy in the black T-shirt that said Special Forces.
Kristen Rhoad had first come into contact with Phil Haberman on Match.com in December 2003. One screen name he favored was 19thSFguy--an allusion to his role in Army Special Forces. A self-described adrenaline junkie who loved everything from "skydiving to swimming with sharks," Haberman listed his income as $50,000 to $75,000 a year and claimed he didn't party, smoke or drink.
He sounded honorable, manly, stable.
Everything that Rhoad, 38 and between jobs, was looking for--and everything that had eluded her so far in serious relationships. Rhoad worked as a legal secretary in Las Vegas to support herself and her 13-year-old daughter Heather. When times were lean, though, like they were now, Rhoad resorted to waiting tables or dancing as "Sedona" at a strip club.
Soon after they met in a casino restaurant, Rhoad and Haberman were chatting like best friends. Haberman, born and raised in Dallas, said he rarely talked to his family "because they didn't believe anything he said." His new home was Key West.
Haberman said he'd joined the Marines in 1989 but had been forced to leave in 1998 after a diving accident almost cost him his life. After his recovery, Haberman said, he'd joined Army Special Forces and was now a sniper and a crypto-linguist, trained in technology to decipher foreign languages.
Listening to his military exploits, Rhoad felt drawn to Haberman, then 31. Short, with big brown eyes and crew-cut brown hair, the soldier had a teddy-bearish quality but carried himself with confidence.
"He asked me what I wanted to do with my life--what my living situation was with my daughter, how long I had been divorced," Rhoad says. Haberman didn't ask her income, but quizzed her about other things: Did she own a house? Was it well-furnished? What about a boat?
When Rhoad said that she lived in a townhouse in a gated community and had two dogs, Haberman's eyes turned pleading. He'd volunteered to go to Iraq, and his dog Jake, a rare Dogo Argentino, needed a place to live while he was gone. "I'd be willing to pay you," Haberman said. Rhoad agreed to take Jake. It was the least she could do for a soldier going to war.
Days later, both Jake and Haberman had moved into her townhouse.
After about a month, an excited Haberman announced he had orders to report to Fort Bragg for training and deployment to Iraq. "He said, 'Let's get married,'" Rhoad says. He'd send her money for rent, plus she'd get military spouse benefits.
"I thought I was in love with him," Rhoad says. "He made me believe everything was perfect, he was going to take care of me."
Hours after they exchanged vows on January 10, 2004, at the Las Vegas courthouse, Haberman piled his belongings into his car. Rhoad was terrified for her new husband, but Haberman viewed it as his job to personally exterminate all the terrorists. As he headed off to North Carolina, Haberman promised to send her dead Iraqis' ears on a string.
Their hasty marriage, however, quickly hit the rocks. By March, when Haberman shipped out to Iraq, they were constantly fighting. Then in April, Rhoad got a call from Haberman, at a hospital in Germany. He said he'd gotten "blown up" by a rocket-propelled grenade while riding in a convoy. His leg and intestines were "messed up bad." Rhoad had been ready to end the marriage but felt she had to stand beside him.
For more than a year now, Haberman has been at Womack Medical Center at Fort Bragg on "medical hold" while undergoing treatment. He sports a Purple Heart "Combat Wounded" ribbon on the bumper of his car. In May 2004, WFAA-Channel 8 aired a story about wounded Special Forces soldier Haberman visiting the journalism class at his alma mater, Richardson High School. He'd written a series of stories about the war for the paper, which inspired the class to collect items to send to troops in Iraq.
Rhoad now believes Haberman married her to get increased benefits as a married soldier, though he kept most of the money for himself. Then Rhoad began to wonder: Was Haberman really in Special Forces? Was he really wounded in Iraq?
Because of privacy laws, confirming that a soldier was wounded in combat is difficult. When the Dallas Observer asked Haberman for permission to obtain his full military record, he refused. "I'm not going to have any feeling in my abdomen or in my left foot for the rest of my life!" Haberman snapped. "I didn't pay the ultimate price, but there are guys in my unit who did pay the ultimate price. This is an insult to them!"
A high-ranking officer who'd befriended Haberman called to defend him. "This is a witch hunt," said the officer, who asked not to be identified. A month later he was calling Haberman "full of half-truths."
Haberman, enraged that anyone would question his military credentials, nonetheless agreed to an interview on base at Fort Bragg, home of the 82nd Airborne and the Army Special Operations Command. Now seeking an annulment of their marriage, Haberman claims Rhoad is an "ID card chaser"--a woman who marries a soldier just for benefits--out to ruin his military career. He insists his job now is to "heal up" so he can return to fight in Iraq.