US: Military's culture of violence breeds growing, systemic domestic violence in military families Print E-mail
 New York -- June 9 2006

Domestic Abuse in Military Families Growing, ‘Systemic’

by Catherine Komp

Experts say the widespread problem of domestic-partner abuse in American military households has deep-seeded roots, starting with the military's culture of violence.

June 9 – Four years after multiple high-profile murders at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, congressional researchers say the Pentagon is failing to adequately address military-related domestic abuse.

The five 2002 murders – four in which soldiers killed their wives, and one in which a woman shot her enlisted husband – occurred over just six weeks and were but a handful added to the 227 domestic homicides reported by the Defense Department between 1995 and 2001.

Advocates for abuse survivors say violence within military families is much more widespread, and is entrenched in a military culture that teaches men and women that violence is both necessary and honorable.

"Basically, the central [purpose] of a military is to use violence to get things done," said Dr. Catherine Lutz, an anthropologist and professor at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International Studies. Lutz spent time in North Carolina researching the domestic homicides at Fort Bragg. "Soldiers then get trained not just in the techniques of war, but that violence works, that violence is often necessary, that violence gets rewarded, that violence is morally righteous."

Federal lawmakers have also acknowledged that the problem needs to be controlled. In 2000, Congress required the Department of Defense (DoD) to establish a task force on domestic violence to assess the military’s response to the issue and make recommendations for improvement.

Six years later, Congress’s Government Accountability Office says that the DoD is falling far short of fulfilling recommendations to address the problem. In fact, the GAO report, published last month, states that out of 194 task-force recommendations, less than half have been implemented, including training military police on proper handling of abuse cases and implementing violence intervention initiatives.

For instance, since 2003, the DoD has earmarked about $1.5 million for marketing and public awareness projects to combat domestic violence, but the Department only announced the launch of a national public-awareness campaign this past February. While the campaign promises education materials and public-service announcements, the military’s website dedicated to domestic-abuse information has not been updated since 2002 and contains many non-working links.

Moreover, the DoD has outright refused to implement dozens of the task force’s proposals, including establishing a domestic-violence response coordinator at each major military installation and training first responders in how to identify the primary aggressor in a domestic-abuse incident.

And even though federal statistics state that more than half of all enlisted service members are unmarried, it took the agency until 2004 to expand the definition of domestic violence from abuse of a legally married spouse, to abuse of any former or intimate partner.

Christine Hansen, executive director of the Miles Foundation, an organization that aids survivors of intimate abuse by military personnel, called the DoD’s inaction "disturbing."

"We’ve seen an escalation in the prevalence rate of domestic violence… sometimes correlated to [troop] deployments," said Hansen. "I think it’s incumbent upon us and incumbent upon the Department of Defense and the Services to start doing prevention, education – start having a real program that intervenes when these things occur so you don’t have that escalation."

Hansen and other domestic-violence experts interviewed by The NewStandard said there is no accurate data comparing the frequency of abuse by military personnel, but many believe the rates are much higher in the military than among civilians.

Hansen said her organization, which runs a hotline staffed by military abuse survivors, used to receive 35 to 50 calls per month. But following the deployment of troops to Afghanistan after the September 11 terrorist attacks, she said calls have increased dramatically and now reach about 150 per week.

Hansen added that her group also sees incidents of abuse rise immediately before troops are deployed and again when they return from active duty.

The GAO report underlined the lack of accurate data on rates of domestic violence as a significant barrier to responding to the problem. In addition to failing to collect reports of emotional abuse and off-base incidents, a number of criminal acts of domestic violence have gone unreported because law-enforcement information systems were "not yet operational."

And for personnel found guilty of wrongdoing, the GAO found a lack of disciplinary action reported.

"In its 2002 report to Congress on reported domestic violence incidents, DoD stated that of the 2,173 Army and Air Force incidents for which sufficient evidence existed to take disciplinary action, 1,027 – or 47 percent – had no actions identified," wrote the report’s authors.

The report also found a lack of personnel trained to help implement the task force’s recommendations and cited ineffective communication to military installations of policy changes concerning domestic abuse. This included failure to relay significant changes to confidentiality rules, a long standing barrier for those who feared heightened retaliation for disclosing abuse.

Debby Tucker, executive director of National Center on Domestic and Sexual Violence and one of twelve civilian members on the three-year-long Defense Task Force on Domestic Violence, said the DoD failures demonstrate that "there’s little passion or energy for really implementing the spirit of the recommendations."

"I think we did provide a good blueprint or strategic plan for DoD as Congress has directed," said Tucker, who has more than 35 years experience working to end domestic abuse. "But when you look back, as we are doing now, I realized we should have emphasized more our expectations of DoD as far as leadership and oversight and management."

The DoD did not grant TNS’s request for an interview but responded by e-mail that it has "accomplished a great deal in a short time." However, even a small project to create posters advertising a child abuse hotline was only finished recently, according to Tucker.

Tucker said that in order to get officials to treat the issue of domestic abuse seriously, the civilian members of the task force had to repeat the claim that it negatively affects troop performance. The GAO report itself lists "adverse effect on mission readiness" as one of the reasons for conducting its study.

"It’s hard for a lot of people who don’t understand domestic violence to realize that it’s completely connected to sexism," said Tucker. "That confuses them because they have this old-school belief that domestic violence has something to do with a communication breakdown in a couple, or pheromones, a chemical reaction between two people that come together and have conflict. And they don’t understand that it’s not about conflict at all."

But what analysts believe are the root causes of domestic violence in the military, including issues of sexism, gender and a culture of violence, are mostly ignored, according to victims’ advocates, making it extremely difficult to effectively address the problem.

"I see it as a perpetual problem," Lutz said. "Basically, I think [the solution] has to involve demilitarization and the deglorification of violence… and that’s what the military is: a giant machine for reproducing the idea that violence works."

Lutz said another barrier to adequately addressing the domestic-abuse problem is society’s reluctance to talk about it. "There’s a cultural veneration of the military, there’s no doubt about it," said Lutz. "It’s very, very hard to have a general cultural discussion about this."

Lutz said the widespread belief that the military is a noble enterprise, made up of highly respectable men and women, provokes tremendous public belligerence when the institution or its personnel are criticized.

"These cultural incentives are attitudes that suggest that military personnel can do no wrong, and when they do, it’s a couple of bad apples – Abu Ghraib and with Haditha – just a handful of people who supposedly break the code and don’t follow the cultural norm of the military, which is good, clean, hygienic, respectable," said Lutz. "But in fact we know that that’s a gross distortion, that it’s a systemic problem."
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