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Earlier this year, Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall announced that his department would undergo a 90-day cross-functional review to assess how domestic violence victims are supported.
In the memo reviewed by DomesticShelters.org, emailed to all Air Force personnel from Sec. Kendall in January, he stated that he had directed the Air Force Inspector General to investigate allegations concerning improper handling of three domestic violence incidents in September of 2021.
“The review found areas where resources and processes could be improved to establish trust with those impacted, particularly in the early stages of reporting and law enforcement actions,” wrote Sec. Kendall.
“Over recent months, DAF [Department of the Air Force] senior leaders and I have personally engaged with survivors of domestic abuse to listen to their stories and understand their experiences navigating DAF reporting and support services.”
The announcement offers a modicum of hope to survivors who have long echoed their frustrations with the military’s response to their reports of domestic violence by servicemember partners.
Survivors Don’t Feel Protected by Military Command
In 2019, the HuffPost released a year-long investigative report into domestic violence in the military, completed in part by DomesticShelters.org editor-in-chief Amanda Kippert. HuffPost spoke to a multitude of survivors in all branches who voiced similar sentiments that military commanders were failing to hold abusive partners accountable, placing victims at increased risk of violence.
One of the main complaints by survivors with servicemember spouses is that the military operates under its own justice system, the Uniform Code of Military Justice or UCMJ, which many survivors say unjustly favors the soldiers. Crimes committed on base are brought to the attention of that servicemember’s command to determine what corrective action should take place.
Survivor “Ashley” told HuffPost that her Air Force husband had been abusive for years and she was scared for the safety of herself and her son. In one particular fit of rage, her husband slammed a door on his wife’s hand on purpose.
“I called the military police and they showed up, along with my husband’s chain of command, and sent us and our toddler to the Family Advocacy Program (FAP) office on base. I told them what happened, and they tried to dissuade me from reporting. They said I had nothing: no job, nothing to fall back on, and that it wouldn’t look good to the courts. They wanted to know if I was ready to jeopardize his career. Then they asked my husband to come back into the room and for me to repeat my story with him there. When he came back in, I froze. I told them it was probably my fault … that I put my hand in the door when he was shutting it. I was terrified I was going to lose my child.”
Survivor “Amy” told HuffPost that her Marine Corps husband’s abuse ramped up after his deployments and that she worried for her safety. She used to wake up to her husband standing over her in bed. He told he had dreams of snapping her neck.
“I called his staff sergeant who said, ‘Oh, I’ll just check on him tomorrow at work. He’s just under a lot of stress.’ The next day, my husband told me his sergeant asked him, ‘What’s going on with you and your wife?’ He also asked my husband if he was being emotionally abused at home. By me…Nothing ever came of me reporting,” she told HuffPost.
Military Isn’t Elaborating on Planned Changes
When contacted in late March for a statement on Sec. Kendall’s 90-day review, Chief of Media Operations Ann Stefanek told DomesticShelters.org only this: “Our team is continuing its 90-day cross-functional review evaluating the most effective means to increase survivor confidence in our support systems.”
DomesticShelters.org asked the other branches if they were planning to review their procedures for responding to domestic violence as well.
A spokesperson for the U.S. Army, in a written statement to DomesticShelters.org, said, “Domestic abuse threatens the wellbeing and safety of soldiers and families, and profoundly undermines mission readiness. The Army is committed to a culture in which domestic abuse, and abuse of any kind, is not tolerated, condoned or ignored.
“Army policy requires all unrestricted reports of domestic abuse to be cross-reported between the military police, the Family Advocacy Program and the unit commander. These organizations work together to facilitate a multidisciplinary, coordinated community response to ensure victim safety, and to provide each victim with advocacy and support.”
Abuse survivors have the option to file a restricted report to take advantage of FAP’s programs without alerting their spouse’s command of the abuse. Unrestricted reports inform the servicemember’s chain of command.
“Commanders are required and have the authority to take reasonable actions to protect victims of abuse and to hold soldier offenders accountable,” the spokesperson added.
Department of the Navy Alyson Hands didn’t say whether or not the Navy and Marine Corps, which falls under the Department of the Navy (DON), would be reviewing their current response to domestic violence reports but did say in a written statement that the DON is committed to providing “whole-family protection, care and wrap-around services to victims of abuse.” She went on to say the DON has coordinated with the office of the Under Secretary of Defense in supporting and actively participating in the newly established Coordinated Community Response Executive Steering Committee and the Domestic Violence Multidisciplinary Working Group.
A 90-page document regarding the committee released in 2021 offers a comprehensive looking plan to address domestic violence for all branches of the military, relying heavily on the Family Advocacy Program’s role in responding to victims. FAP is available on all military bases where families are stationed and provides advocacy support in domestic violence, sexual assault and harassment, and child abuse cases, among others.
“FAP’s goal is to prevent domestic abuse by encouraging people to examine their own behavior and take steps to learn and practice more healthy and appropriate behaviors,” wrote Hands. Domestic violence advocates have long-warned that the only way to change abusers’ behavior is through accountability and monitoring.
Family Advocacy Programs Can’t Always Help
Lisa Colella is the executive director of Healing Household 6, a nonprofit that helps military spouses in times of crisis including domestic violence. She tells DomesticShelters.org that when domestic violence is reported on a military base, the base police will call the servicemember’s commander who will often place the offender in the barracks “for a cool-down period.” The commander then has the choice of whether or not to take disciplinary action.
In most cases, she says, the servicemember accused of abuse is back on the job the next day. They might schedule a mediation between the spouse and the service member, but that’s the extent of it, says Colella.
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Meanwhile, she says FAP is not always notified when domestic violence has been committed, leaving spouses without anyone to advocate for them.
“From our standpoint, the most challenging aspects for victims appear to be different processes across the branches as well as lack of specific program direction. Clients report to our staff that they often feel passed off to others repeatedly, that they do report to FAP or other authority within the command and receive little to no response other than safety planning. I imagine that feels incredibly exhausting and hopeless.”
The Problem of DV in the Military … and One Possible Solution
It’s hard to quantify the problem of domestic violence within the military. The MilitaryTimes reports that, after a 21-month review, auditors found Department of Defense (DoD) officials hadn’t collected accurate data for all allegations of domestic violence since it was required beginning in 1999, recording only those incidents which fit their personal criteria for abuse.
However, Defense Department data from 2019 revealed spousal abuse in the military was more than twice what was found in the civilian population. CBSNews reported in 2021 that their two-year investigation into domestic violence in the military uncovered roughly 100,000 incidents of domestic abuse reported to the military since 2015. Many of the survivors they talked to also voiced concerns over how their allegations were handled by command.
There is some good news though: In 2021, the National Defense Authorization Act was signed into law. Among its provisions was the order to redirect cases of domestic violence, as well as sexual assault, stalking and murder, from the assailant’s chain of command and give the prosecutorial power to a special trial counsel made up of civilian prosecutors that will make decisions on how to proceed with disciplinary action on these crimes. It’s expected that this provision will take effect late December 2023.
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