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From Draft NOtices, May - June 2003

Military Family Violence: A Hushed Epidemic

— Lorraine Demi


Studies suggest that domestic violence rates are two to three times higher in U.S. military families than in the country's civilian population. In fact, military domestic violence incidents increased from 18.6 per 1,000 marriages in 1990 to 25.6 per 1,000 in 1996. Rates then fell slightly from 1997 to 1999, but more moderate to severe incidents were reported, showing an increase in the severity of violence in military homes, even if reported incidents lessened slightly. Unfortunately, these numbers are still dramatically underestimated due to three mitigating factors: (1) the military only recognizes violence against a legal spouse as domestic violence -- so these numbers exclude violence against girlfriends or boyfriends and unmarried, live-in partners; (2) commanders often handle domestic violence cases informally, and then don't report the "resolved" cases; and (3) a certain number of domestic violence cases are not reported in civilian populations, but even more are not reported in military relationships due to fear, intimidation, and a forced code of silence.

"The military has simply not come to terms with the problem. They've known about it for a long time and have repeatedly acknowledged the severity of the problem, but they have not dealt with it," states Terri Spahr Nelson, a former Army psychotherapist and author of the book For Love of Country: Confronting Rape and Sexual Harassment in the U.S. Military (September 2002, Haworth Press).

As previously reported in Draft NOtices (August-September 2002), the Pentagon set up a task force on military domestic violence in 2000. Sadly, things haven't changed for victims of abuse. The task force made the following recommendations:

· holding offenders accountable — few are disciplined or punished today;

· amending the Uniform Code of Military Justice to proscribe violations of civilian protection orders (restraining orders which legally prohibit abusers from being near the victim, her family or anyone mentioned in the order, her home, her place of work, and sometimes her children's school) — these orders are not recognized by the military and violations are not currently punishable by the military;

· upgrading military police and forensics investigation of abuse; and

· providing more confidentiality to those who report abuse -- the absence of which is a major hurdle to reporting, following up, and punishing batterers in the military.

In response to these task force recommendations, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz issued a strong declaration of a "zero tolerance" policy: "Commanders at every level have a duty to take appropriate steps to prevent domestic violence, protect victims and hold those who commit it responsible." In addition to Ms. Spahr Nelson, many other women report that Wolfowitz' policy and the recommendations of the task force are not helping families, but instead the lack of enforcement is helping the military.

"The military has enormous investment in each of its soldiers, but especially for those in elite units like Special Forces. That makes [military officials] very reluctant to take any action, knowing that the military would have to shrink quite a bit if they got rid of all the known abusers," states Catherine Lutz, a University of North Carolina social anthropologist who has studied the issue. Of the 1,213 domestic violence incidents reported to military police in 2000 considered worthy of disciplinary action, the military reported 29 in which the perpetrator was court-martialed or sent to a civilian court for prosecution, said Lutz. That is a paltry 2% of reported cases. Lutz said, "There is also a culture of hostility toward women in the military which includes the rape of female and some male soldiers and civilians, lesbian and gay bashing, and brutal hazing rituals."

Further, military wives and girlfriends (the vast preponderance of domestic violence victims, 92%, are women) are especially vulnerable to domestic violence because military life prescribes many of the situations conducive to abusive relationships, which builds the aforementioned reporting barriers of fear, intimidation, and forced code of silence. First, the women are far from family and friends and may not have anyone to confide in or go to for help or refuge from the abuse. Second, they know the abuse report will quickly be passed on to unit commanders and get back to the abuser, and they fear even more brutal retaliation. Third, they feel, and are often told by military personnel, that reports of domestic violence will end the batterer's career and deprive the family of income and health benefits, and again the women fear retaliatory violence. Fourth, women have learned that the military will not help them when they are being beaten, belittled, threatened with death, and fear hourly for the safety of themselves and their children.

Laura Sandler, who lives near Fort Bragg (the recent site of four domestic violence murders, two of which were murder-suicides, at the hands of elite U.S. airborne and Special Forces soldiers), learned that the military would not help her out of two abusive relationships. It is common for domestic violence victims to enter multiple violent relationships as abusers have (1) a keen attraction to persons who might fall victim again due to low self-esteem, fear or a myriad of other results of previous family violence and (2) a well-documented cycle of violence, which often begins with a charismatic, charming period that will lure a potential victim into what seems to be a long-awaited, healthy, happy relationship and will return again after a battering incident to convince the victim to stay. Sadly, Ms. Sandler is an example of how it is also very common for the military to be non-responsive to the plight of these women when military personnel are involved. She was married to a major who abused her, and despite reports, no one in the chain of command would respond. She ended the relationship and entered another with an enlisted man on the base: "He was sweet at first, but the beatings soon started. Once, he beat me up in his barracks with four other soldiers watching. Nobody did anything. I went to his commanders. They said it was terrible, but they did nothing." Eventually, Sandler and the enlisted boyfriend were referred to a chaplain and the batterer was mandated to take anger management classes. He attended only half the sessions and continued beating her and threatening her life. With no fear of retribution or punishment, as he was getting none for his behavior, the boyfriend became bolder and more violent and began abusing Sandler in public. Still, the military did nothing to protect Sandler or punish the abuser. She was only freed from his abuse when he was honorably discharged and moved away.

In response to the hushed epidemic of military domestic violence, Fort Bragg garrison commander Tad Davis said that commanders try to spot signs of trouble and intervene before violence occurs: "We want them to seek assistance early on, before things go too far down the road to violence." Contrary to common civilian family violence intervention, Fort Bragg chaplain Bob Loring, who runs the base family life program, said that he regards nearly every marriage as salvageable, including violent relationships. Further, he states: "If the perpetrator is willing to admit that he has been violent and that he has been wrong, they could work together to save that marriage . . . The military believes in taking care of its own and taking care of its families."

The crime in military domestic violence is not only the life-shattering abuse that women and their children are forced to tolerate, but the military's abject lack of response, its cultivation of the violence (via the culture of violence formed by military training and the culture of hostility toward women that Lutz discusses), and flippant comments like the chaplain's that the military believes in taking care of its families. Clearly the military is not taking care of its families - it's taking care of its personnel, at all costs to families.

It is time that domestic violence victims with military-involved batterers are helped in the same manner, at the same level, and with the same outcomes as civilian victims. If you or anyone you know are in a domestically violent relationship with a military personnel member, please go off base and outside the military purview to seek assistance. It clearly is the only way you will receive adequate protection. The National Domestic Violence Hotline (1-800-799-SAFE [7233]; TDD for the Hearing Impaired: 1-800-787-3224) provides information on domestic violence, questions to ask yourself about a relationship you may be questioning, contact information for hotlines in each state, safety tips for leaving a violent relationship, and much more information. The Web site ( even has a feature wherein you can keep anyone else from knowing you accessed the site from your home computer. As the Fort Bragg murders have brought home, military domestic violence is a very dangerous epidemic. All victims deserve to be delivered from this hell — not just victims of civilian batterers.

Information sources: Reuters, 12-08-02; National Domestic Violence Hotline,

This article is from Draft NOtices, the newsletter of the Committee Opposed to Militarism and the Draft (


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