Bringing the war home

A rash of murders in military families highlights the weaknesses of the armed services' well-meaning domestic-abuse program.

Published September 23, 2002 7:26PM (EDT)

Many theories have been offered to explain the recent wave of domestic homicides on American military bases this summer -- four murders in seven weeks at Fort Bragg, followed by an alleged attempted murder-suicide in Virginia just last week. There is the perennial lament about military training creating a propensity for violence at home, as well as more exotic claims -- given that three of the four men had recently returned from Afghanistan -- about post-traumatic stress and psychotic reactions to malarial drugs.

But the most likely explanation for the serial killings is more mundane, very logical and perhaps even more frightening: The military's domestic violence program -- the largest domestic violence intervention and treatment program in the world -- is failing its neediest victims by being both too harsh and too lenient, driving battered spouses underground and allowing some of the most sophisticated batterers to escape appropriate penalties.

Men who batter their partners do so most often out of a pathological need to exercise control over every aspect of their victims' lives. In the armed forces, it is the object of the military command to control every aspect of a soldier's life. The need for control is absolutely crucial and completely pervasive -- and it is manifested in every aspect of the military's domestic violence program.

This is how it works -- and, say its critics, how it fails: The victim of domestic violence who seeks help from the military's family advocacy center immediately gives up all expectation of privacy and confidentiality. Not only will her husband be notified of the allegations (and sometimes even brought in for joint counseling, a practice which is never done in the civilian community), but within 24 hours, the counselors at the family advocacy center will call the alleged abuser's boss, the commanding officer of his unit. (References here are to male abusers, since they are the most common in and outside of the military.)

From that point on, the commanding officer, who is unlikely to have any training in handling domestic violence cases, oversees the entire process -- from the issuance of protective orders to counseling to "sentencing." He acts as prosecutor, defense attorney and ultimately as judge. He can choose to issue warnings, to remove a soldier from his home, to order counseling or a court-martial. And no matter what he decides to do, the commander's actions are likely to inflame or exacerbate the classic paranoia of the abuser, whose violence very often escalates under the threat of being discovered.

In addition, both the commanding officer and the victim operate with the knowledge that a conviction for domestic violence can effectively end a soldier's career. In 1999, Congress passed the Lautenberg Amendment, which prohibited anyone convicted of domestic assault from owning or operating a firearm, which is an absolute job requirement for pretty much anyone in the military or law enforcement.

Many say that passage of this law has had the unintended consequence of driving domestic violence underground, making victims more reluctant to report their abuse for fear of ending their husbands' careers, which, in the military, means the end of family income, housing and health insurance. At the same time, military commanders notified of abuse can be reluctant to substantiate the charges because a soldier who cannot carry a firearm is essentially useless.

In the civilian world, this approach is the equivalent of a machinist getting a domestic violence citation at midnight, and returning to his factory at noon to find that his foreman will be handling the case. It is an approach that has been highly praised for its effectiveness in early intervention, but roundly condemned for its apparent failure to stop determined or sophisticated abusers. And it may go far to explain the extreme violence of this summer.

Anna Finn (not her real name), herself a soldier, was beaten by her officer husband for years. But when she and her husband went in for marital counseling on the base, she says, they made a pact not to mention the violence, for fear of what it would do to his career. When she found out that her husband had also abused her young son, Finn finally decided to report the abuse. "Everyone knows now," she says.

Finn is still furious with military authorities for their failure to protect her and her family once they were aware of the violence. "I'm considered government property," she says. "I can get in trouble for getting a sunburn, for cutting my hair the wrong way, or for getting pierced. But when my husband was battering my body, they didn't want to get involved."

Even before the Fort Bragg deaths, the military domestic violence program had been under intense scrutiny by internal and civilian organizations. In 1989, Christine Hansen founded the Miles Foundation, a nonprofit group devoted to helping military victims of domestic violence and lobbying the military for change. And in 1999, in part as a response to several lawsuits from victims of domestic violence in the military, the Department of Defense convened the Task Force on Domestic Violence, made up of 12 military personnel and 12 civilian experts on the phenomenon, to study the current system and recommend changes.

Everyone looking at the system agreed that the military is a "special population," with unique issues -- geographic isolation from family and friends, long absences, a large population of young families living on low paychecks -- all of which can contribute to stress in a marriage. In acknowledging the special needs of soldiers and their families, the DOD counsel issued a "zero tolerance" policy for domestic violence, but because it has prompted few structural changes, it is unclear what, exactly, this means.

Meanwhile, activists like Hansen continue to put pressure on the military to change their existing policy to conform to the 1994 Violence Against Women Act, which puts forth federal guidelines for the treatment and prosecution of domestic violence in the civilian community. Especially crucial, say these activists, is the military's adoption of civilian rules governing victim privacy, confidentiality and the uniform sentencing of batterers.

"The basic tenets of the domestic violence movement in this country, which have been codified in federal law with the VAW Act, are to protect the safety and privacy of the victim at all costs," says Hansen. "And these tenets simply do not exist in the military."

By most measurements, there is a higher incidence of domestic violence in the military than in the civilian world. The most recent figures, from surveys conducted by the Department of Defense, suggest that domestic violence occurs twice as frequently in the military as among civilians. But activists and social workers believe that the rate is much higher. "Those numbers are soft," says Hansen. "Essentially, that figure comes from a reanalysis of a reanalysis of a comparative analysis from a study which goes back to the early '90s."

Hansen believes the true figure is closer to five times that of the general population. Those who dispute her estimate say that the statistics should be adjusted to account for the disproportionate percentage of soldiers whose demographic profile -- mostly young men, often with relatively low educational attainment, from unstable, low-income families -- pegs them as most likely to have a problem with domestic violence in the civilian population (or at least most likely to be reported for it). They argue that domestic violence is no more prevalent in the military than it is in a civilian population of comparable demographics.

Though this argument may be used to bolster the claim that military training does not make one more likely to commit domestic violence, it could also be argued that the military has a special problem if men who are predisposed to violence and aggression are more likely to choose a career in the military.

A further complication in calculating the rate of domestic violence comes from military record keepers, who only track what they call "spousal violence" -- violence in married, heterosexual couples. (The civilian legal definition of "domestic violence" includes all intimate partners -- girlfriends, boyfriends, fiancés and exes.) Also, a civilian spouse is not obligated to go through the military to make a report, and military figures often exclude any complaints against a soldier brought by the civilian system.

And finally, while many who study domestic violence in the military dispute the claim that soldiers, because they choose a career in which they are trained to kill, are more likely than the average person to use violence in their intimate relationships, Hansen pointed out that men who are already predisposed to batter may learn to be much more effective at doing so, as a result of their military training.

"Military training, says Hansen, "combined with the access to, and high proficiency with weapons, leads to an incredible level of sophistication on the part of the batterer. "

One of the Fort Bragg murderers literally executed his wife with a single shot to the head. "In military slang," says Hansen, "that's called 'popping the grape,' and it is taught as the fastest way to take out an enemy. If Joe Jones decides to shoot his wife, he may not have any idea what he is doing and shoot her five times in the leg. But when a soldier is in the position to see his wife as the enemy, he has the techniques that your average batterer just does not have. "

This sophistication extends to surveillance technology as well, especially amongst the elite enlisted in the Special Forces, such as Delta. The same surveillance techniques used to track enemies can be enlisted to track spouses -- from infiltrating the family computer to record every keystroke, to wiretapping phones, and even wiring an entire house with sound and motion detectors and video cameras. "I've had clients come in and say, 'I know he's 3,000 miles away on a ship in the ocean, so how the hell does he know everything that goes on in my house?'" says Hansen.

And, she adds, "When a woman tells you she is afraid to leave her husband, she may say that she is afraid of being hit by a sniper's bullet. And if her husband is a marksman who goes to the range four times a week, she may be right."

The military does recognize that the time domestic violence is most likely to occur is just before or just after deployment, as was the case in the Fort Bragg murders. But most experts tend not to believe that this has anything to do with stress induced on the battlefield. Debby Tucker, who has served as civilian co-chairwoman for the DOD task force on domestic violence, is skeptical that "post-traumatic stress" would cause a soldier to react with unprecedented violence in his personal relationships.

"I don't think that there is no effect if you are a person who is in combat and sees horrific things," says Tucker. "It may lead you to lose sleep, to have nightmares, to abuse alcohol. But I don't think it would lead you to abuse your wife."

The much more likely explanation is that controlling partners tend to freak out about prolonged separation from the person they seek to control. "A soldier who is deployed may fear he will lose control of his family if he is not around to monitor them," says Hansen. "It doesn't matter whether the deployment is to Afghanistan or from Fort Bragg to Houston for training exercises." Upon his return he will seek to "re-create that control."

Three of the four women murdered at Fort Bragg this summer were married to non-commissioned officers in the Delta Forces. (The husband of the fourth woman was an Army cook.) Their husbands, like Anna Finn's, were older, more experienced and of higher rank than the average military batterer. This may have made the wives even more reluctant to come forward for a number of reasons: They might have worried about destroying their husbands' careers, or that, given their husbands' influence, the officers in charge would have been reluctant to do anything about the situation. In either scenario, the women could have expected potentially life-threatening reprisals.

For these reasons, the majority of domestic violence complaints in the military come to the attention of the family advocacy unit through third parties, usually from neighbors who overhear disputes, whereas those in officers' housing are much less likely to be reported.

"If you are a lawyer in private practice and you are accused of domestic violence, I can almost guarantee you will still be a lawyer when it's all done. Your firm will keep you. Even if you spend a night in jail," says Casey Gwinn, the city attorney for San Diego, who has more than 17 years experience in the office's domestic violence unit. Since the passage of the Lautenberg Amendment, military spouses, especially those who are married to highly placed officers, have become even more reluctant to come forward, he says. "The confidentiality and career consequences are definitely an impediment to disclosure."

Gwinn's domestic violence unit was recognized as the model domestic violence prosecution unit for the nation in 1993, and has been credited with bringing a 70-percent drop in domestic violence homicides in San Diego over the last 10 years. Today, San Diego has the lowest incidence of domestic violence homicide in the nation. Gwinn serves as one of 12 civilian members on the DOD task force.

The military defends its policy, insisting that the transparency of its counseling system allows for early intervention in abusive relationships, when treatment is the most likely to be effective. The "vast majority" of the 400 to 500 complaints handled each year at Camp Pendleton, for example, involve incidents that come to the attention of the military police through noise complaints called in by neighbors, reports Chris Coulipidas, director of the family advocacy unit there. Almost all of these reports concern families living on the base, though two-thirds of the base's 35,000 enlisted soldiers live in off-base civilian housing. Most of these incidents, say the Camp Pendleton team, fall into the category of low-level violence -- shouting, pushing or shoving.

And according to Coulipidas, their program excels in the treatment of low-level conflict and violence, the kind of marital problems that are rarely even detected in the general population. Gwinn agrees. "The U.S. military has the best early intervention programs in use anywhere in the country, probably in the world," he says. "They do a lot of good."

But, continues Gwinn, "my issue with the military is how they deal with hardcore offenders who are perpetuating significant violent crimes. They can say that they treat domestic violence as a serious crime, but I don't see it. It's a social services model, not a criminal justice model.

"If we have learned anything about domestic violence in this country over the last 20 years," he adds, "it's that domestic violence cannot be stopped with just a social services model or just a criminal justice model. You have to have both."

Because the military is acting as both employer and judge, its authorities strongly prefer to attempt to rehabilitate offenders. Many sophisticated batterers who know how to work the system are often able to get off with no penalty stronger than a recommendation for an "anger management class."

Gwinn has seen many such repeat offenders who drift in and out of military counseling programs for years, until they do something off the base that lands them in a civilian court. "Usually by the time they get to us, they have already been though countless conflict management courses on the base," says Gwinn.

Meeting the demands of a soldier's job -- whether training exercises, or deployment to war zones like Afghanistan -- will often take precedence over making a counseling session. "For all we know, they'll be shipped out before they complete the program and no one will do anything about it," says Gwinn. "But if we have them in a civilian program, that's a probation violation and we can haul them in."

In the military, justice is dispensed by commanding officers who often have no training in domestic violence prevention or intervention. Such training is not mandatory for these officers, even though most of them will be the final arbiters in domestic violence complaints against their soldiers.

Many who study domestic violence in the military, including many of those on the Department of Defense task force, believe that training in domestic violence should be mandatory for all commanding officers. But others say that training will not be enough without clear judicial reform.

"It's not enough to educate commanding officers," says Gwinn. "You have to have sentencing handled by people who specialize in this."

Gwinn adds that in his years of working closely with the military, he has met "tremendous" commanding officers. And people on the task force tell him all the time that the commanding officer model of domestic violence enforcement is actually superior to the civilian mode. "They say, 'We have more control over people than anyone.' The commanding officer literally runs their lives."

Gwinn's response is that while it's a "noble goal" to believe in the supreme justice of a benevolent commander, "we have to legislate norms, values, policy. You can't build an intervention system based around the idea that a commanding officer will always do the right thing."

In his career so far, adds Gwinn, "I've seen commanding officers who say, 'Domestic violence offenders are wastewater, and I bilge my wastewater.' If some 19-year-old soldier has slapped his wife, and some off-duty cook M.P. is called to the scene, they could end up with a court-martial. And I've seen officers who have brandished a gun in front of their wife and children, and his commanding officer responded by saying, 'He's a good soldier. We'll do anything we can to keep the family together.'"

Although Hansen agrees that there are many good commanding officers, she too has heard horror stories from her clients about commanding officers who have done nothing, or even made the situation worse. In some cases, says Hansen, the commander might even be "a guy who's doing the same thing in his own house."

In one case, Hansen recalls, a soldier who had been accused of wife-beating told his commander that his actions were fair because his wife was unfaithful. The commander told the husband, "Well, if you can get a picture of them together, we can charge him too," says Hansen. A week later, the soldier was arrested by the local sheriff for stalking his wife, who had moved out, in a parking lot at the local mall. Soon after, he was again picked up, this time for sitting in his wife's bedroom closet with a camera in his hand.

"I can count on one hand the number of court-martials I've seen in San Diego for domestic violence," says Gwinn. "Compare that to the thousands of batterers who are convicted each year in our court system. And they should be convicted. They have committed a crime."

Gwinn points out that those who are kicked out of the military for domestic violence are overwhelmingly soldiers who have been convicted of criminal assault in a civilian court, which is in itself a serious enough charge to warrant dismissal. The civilian court may also strip the soldier of his right to carry a weapon by enforcing the Lautenberg Amendment, at which point he is of little use to his employer.

Gwinn remembers an intervention group for military offenders he attended in North Carolina. Two of the batterers in the group had been living off-base and were prosecuted under the civilian system. As a result, they had been charged with a criminal misdemeanor and kicked out of the military. The other five offenders, who had comparable charges, had been referred to the military's family advocacy system. All of them were still Marines, and their charges had no effect on their rank.

"Two of those five were really scary guys, very sophisticated abusers," recalls Gwinn. "But they got caught up in a different system, so nothing happened to them."

Anna Finn's husband was one such abuser. He was charming and well liked. "I used to tell him he should be a motivational speaker," she says. When she told her husband she wanted a divorce, he sexually assaulted her. When she went to the military hospital after her assault, she was unable to get the forensic documentation of her injuries: They had a rape kit on-site, but no one knew how to use it properly.

Finn went through two separate cases with the base's family advocacy center; in both, the review committee failed to substantiate the abuse (the second case was substantiated much later, after charges had already been filed in civilian court). Finally, after he broke into her house and assaulted her again, she pressed charges through the civilian courts. Her husband served a month in civilian jail; his direct supervisor went to visit him every single day. By the end of the month, the military had arranged for her husband to have an honorable discharge, with early retirement, no demotion in rank and a full pension.

Gwinn says the military should establish a formal adjudication body to deal with domestic violence cases, with due process, including attorneys for both the victim and the accused batterer, and uniform sentencing.

But it is not likely that this will happen. The DOD task force filed its most recent report with the Department of Defense in April 2001; the final one will be filed in April 2003. The discussions on the table include: changing the definition of domestic violence from "spousal abuse" to make it more inclusive of abuse in all intimate relationships; paying more attention to victim safety and confidentiality; providing training to commanders and enlisted soldiers on domestic violence prevention and intervention; and having a uniform community response to domestic violence.

The task force still has not received an official response to last year's report, which is not unusual, according to Tucker. The media attention surrounding the Fort Bragg murders is likely to get the Pentagon to stand up and take notice. But even after the recommendations are adopted, it is likely that the military's domestic violence program will still be separate and unequal to that of the civilian community. And victims who find the program inadequate will continue to rely on the civilian system -- if they can -- to give them what they need, provided they don't find themselves stranded on a base in Guam.

The fatal flaw of the military's program is that it refuses to take control away from the military command system and put that control in the hands of the victim. And until this happens, it is likely that the system will continue to encourage victims to collaborate with their abusers and to provide protection to the most sophisticated abusers, which will ultimately lead to more serious injuries and deaths.

As her date in civilian court approaches, Anna Finn still does not feel safe. "I have a daughter who triple-checks the locks every night," she says. "Me and my kids are here with a dog, a gun. Both my kids sleep with me every night." She explains that her two kids, both under 12, will have to testify in civilian court. "I was worried at first," she says, "but my daughter said that she would do anything if it put him away."

This story has been corrected since it was first published.

By Amy Benfer

Amy Benfer is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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