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Domestic Violence in the Military

Introduction

Until August 31st, the United States had been in a constant state of war for twenty years. Currently, there are nineteen million veterans and 1.1 million military members on active duty. Roughly twenty million citizens are most likely suffering from extreme post-traumatic stress disorder, self-medicating with alcohol, and abusing their partners and children. Domestic violence in the military is a national public health issue that is not being adequately dealt with by the government.

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Background

There exists a dangerous triumvirate of trauma, alcohol abuse, and domestic violence. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition triggered by experiencing or witnessing an extremely distressing traumatic event (Mayo Clinic, 2018). Symptoms include and are not limited to nightmares, flashbacks, hyper-vigilance, and destructive behavior. Rates of PTSD in veterans are estimated to be as high as twenty to thirty percent. Half a million U.S. troops who have served in the past thirteen years have been diagnosed with PTSD (Reisman, 2016). Alcohol or drugs are often used as coping mechanisms to forget traumatic incidents or mask PTSD triggers. Over forty percent of veterans suffer from lifetime alcohol use disorder (Arias, 2016). Twenty-nine percent of active military personnel report binge drinking in the past month (Bloom et al., 2021). The opioid overdose rate of veterans has increased to twenty-one percent (Bohnert et al., 2019). Studies show that deployment weakens interpersonal relationships and increases the risk of domestic violence (Cesur & Sabia, 2016). Veterans are more likely to suffer from substance abuse, which has been linked to family maltreatment (Cesur & Sabia, 2016). PTSD, substance abuse, and domestic violence is a well-documented phenomenon that needs to become part of public policy.

Causes

There are many theories to explain why specifically servicemen are more prone to domestic violence. Domestic violence usually occurs if men use violence as a “mechanism to control” or as an inadvertent result of “verbal arguments combined with stress” (Cesur & Sabia, 2016, p. 209). The substantial occupational stress of military service may serve as a trigger (Cesur & Sabia, 2016). Another theory postulates that combat training and exposure may lead to the “normalization of violence…by completely breaking down the mind’s natural barriers to committing violent acts” (Cesur & Sabia, 2016, p. 210). Studies also show that military members possess distinct personality traits that are linked to the likelihood of abuse (Cesur & Sabia, 2016). The nature of military work and the psychological profile of individuals who volunteer to perform it predisposes them to domestic violence.

Conditions unique to military service have been identified as potential risk factors. Service members are frequently forced to relocate for assignments, separating individuals from support networks and leading to social isolation (Kamarck et al., 2019). Frequent moves may also result in the nonmilitary spouse’s inability to seek stable, long-term employment (Kamarck et al., 2019). Other pressures such as long hours, shift work, lack of sleep, unpredictable deployments may heighten stress and result in marital conflict (Kamarck et al., 2019). Lack of financial independence, social isolation, and occupational hazards of military service exacerbate the risk of domestic violence.

Data

With an occupation that centers on violence, it is unsurprising that it seeps into other spheres of life. Trevillion (2015) evaluated ten different studies of military personnel and found that 91% of service members have admitted to committing acts of verbal abuse, and 27% have admitted to committing physical abuse. From 2015 to 2019, the Defense Department recorded 42,000 incidents of domestic abuse in its population (Government Accountability Office, [GAO], 2021). 74% involved physical abuse, 22% were emotional abuse, 4% were sexual abuse, and less than 1% were neglect (GAO, 2021). None of these cases went to trial (O’Donnell et al., 2021). In 2019, there were twelve domestic abuse fatalities with four victims and two abusers previously known to the Central Registry, a database that tracks incidents of abuse (Department of Defense, 2019).

Intimate partner violence (IPV) can result in physical injury, mental health problems, substance abuse, or adverse pregnancy outcomes such as preterm birth and neonatal death (Kamarck et al., 2019). Forty-five to eighty-four percent of IPV victims suffer from PTSD (Graham-Bermann & Levendosky, 2001). At the extreme, abuse results in debilitating injuries or death. Children that grow up in homes experiencing IPV are at a higher risk for cognitive disorders, poor self-esteem, and problems with emotion regulation and interpersonal relationships (Aronson et al., 2017). Adults who witnessed IPV in childhood are also likely to become abusers themselves and thus perpetuate the cycle of violence (Kamarck et al., 2019). Given the extensive rates and serious consequences of domestic violence, ensuring the safety and health of military families becomes a public health problem.

Barriers

The data only tracks reported cases of domestic violence, and the actual figures are probably even worse. An estimated 25% of women suffer from domestic violence in the general population, but only between 2.5% and 15% report it (Gracia, 2004). Spouses and children of service members are even less likely to report it. The largest barrier to reporting abuse was financial since many military families depend on the service member as their only source of income (GAO, 2021). Furthermore, the decision-making process behind prosecuting abusers is viewed as untrustworthy. If a domestic violence claim is substantiated, it can lead to court-martial and discharge (Congressional Research Service, [CRS], 2019). However, the authority to act on the report or ignore it rests completely on the commanding officer. Victims were afraid their status as nonunit members and military outsiders might influence the commander’s reaction (Bonnes & Palmer, 2020). They might not be taken seriously if they filed a report, and no investigation would be pursued since it could damage the abuser’s career. 28 out of 68 survivors reported the abuse to an official but perceived no action was taken, and in some cases, were given a letter of reprimand or even ridiculed (GAO, 2021). Other barriers included fear of retaliation, lack of knowledge, and social isolation (GAO, 2021). Financial assistance and establishment of third-party organs to review domestic violence reports are necessary to aid victims.

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Government services

Government countermeasures have been insufficient in proportion to the magnitude of the problem. The Family Advocacy Program (FAP) is a case review committee responsible for prevention, awareness, treatment, and rehabilitation services (Aronson et al., 2017). Firstly, FAP offers services only to people who have been married, cohabited with, or had children with the perpetrator (Bonnes & Palmer, 2020). Service members assaulted by long-term partners who have never lived together are ineligible for FAP (Bonnes & Palmer, 2020). Secondly, smaller FAP installations lack the full range of programs and their limited working hours are not accessible to spouses who have jobs or need childcare (CRS, 2019). Thirdly, the program has been criticized for not gathering sufficient evidence to prove its effectiveness and thus failing to increase public awareness and family engagement (Aronson et al., 2017). Twenty-two percent of victims (GAO, 2021) did not report abuse because they were unaware of the proper procedure. Finally, counseling and victim advocacy services provided by FAP were deemed unhelpful by victims in nearly fifty percent of cases (GAO, 2021). Services that would have been helpful but were unavailable to victims include financial assistance, emergency housing, legal services, and child-focused resources (GAO, 2021). The Family Advocacy Program needs to expand their range of services and available hours to truly answer the needs of domestic violence victims.

Moreover, the Department of Defense states that tax-funded financial protection is offered to families whose spouse was discharged for domestic abuse. However, it is very rare for officers to get convicted, and most victims do not qualify for this stipend. Lisa Colella, the head of a private nonprofit for survivors, stated that out of 700 people she has interviewed, only two qualified, and only one could show a record of payment (O’Donnell et al., 2021). Since financial insecurity and lack of shelter is the foremost barrier to reporting abuse, the government needs to reform the requirements for financial assistance.

Conclusion

In conclusion, domestic violence is a pervasive problem connected with PTSD, subsequent substance abuse, and occupational hazards that increase stress and result in marital conflict. The serious consequences and widespread nature of violence necessitate comprehensive government measures. The current structure for prevention and treatment is not adequately helping victims. The first steps in the right direction include expanding FAP’s range of services, providing financial assistance to victims, and reforming the chain of command. We hail veterans and soldiers as heroes, but we also have the responsibility of ensuring the safety and health of their families.

References

Arias, A. J., Fuehrlein, B. S., Kachadourian, L. K., Krystal, J. H., Mota, N., Pietrzak, R. H. , & Trevisan, L. A. (2016). The burden of alcohol use disorders in US military veterans: results from the national health and resilience in veterans study. Addiction, 111(10), 1786-1794.

Aronson, K. R., Perkins, D. F., Morgan, N. R., Cox, C. A., & Robichaux, R. (2018). Military family advocacy in the US Army: Program service outcomes and family participation. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 27(1), 218-226.

Bloom, E.L., Beckman, R.L., Breslau, J., Collins, R.L., Engel, C.C., Meadows, S.O., … & Simmons, M.M. (2021). 2018 Department of Defense health related behaviors survey (HRBS).

Bohnert, A. S., Lin, L. A., McCarthy, J. F., Oliva, E. M., Peltzman, T., Trafton, J. A. (2019). Changing trends in opioid overdose deaths and prescription opioid receipt among veterans. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 57(1), 106-110.

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Bonnes, S., & Palmer, J. H. (2020). The US Marine Corps’ response to intimate partner sexual violence: An analysis of the Family Advocacy Program and the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Program. Armed Forces & Society.

Carlson, B.E. (2000). Children exposed to intimate partner violence; Research findings and implications for intervention. Trauma, Violence, & Abuse, (1) 4, 321-342.

Cesur, R., & Sabia, J. J. (2016). When war comes home: The effect of combat service on domestic violence. Review of Economics and Statistics, 98(2), 209-225.

Congressional Research Service. (2019). Military families and intimate partner violence: Background and issues for Congress

Department of Defense. (2019). Report on child abuse and neglect and domestic abuse in the military for fiscal year 2019.

Government Accountability Office. (2021). Domestic abuse: Actions needed to enhance DOD’s prevention, response, and oversight. (GAO Publication No. 21-289).

Gracia, E. (2004). Unreported cases of domestic violence against women: towards an epidemiology of social silence, tolerance, and inhibition. Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, 58(7), 536.

Graham-Bermann, S. A. & Levendosky, A. A. (2001). Parenting in battered women: The effects of domestic violence on women and their children. Journal of Family Violence, 16(2), 171-192.

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Kamarck, K. N., Ott, A., & Sacco, L. N. (2019). Military families and intimate partner violence: Background and issues for Congress (CRS Report No. R46097).

Mayo Clinic. (2018). Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

O’Donnell, N., Steve, K., Tepper, L., Verdugo, A., Yilek, C. (2021). The Pentagon has spent $1 billion on a program for domestic abuse victims since 2015. Survivors say they couldn’t get help. CBS News.

Reisman, M. (2016). PTSD treatment for veterans: What’s working, what’s new, and what’s next. Pharmacy and Therapeutics, 41(10), 623.

Trevillion, K., Willimson, E., Thandi, G., Borschmann, R., Oram, S., & Howard, L. M. (2015). A systematic review of mental disorders and perpetration of domestic violence among military populations. Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology, 50(9), 1329-1346.

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