Domestic Violence in Military Families Research Paper

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The Defense Task Force on Domestic Violence, in its 2001 report, made it clear that services to prevent the ongoing escalation of domestic violence in military families were insufficient. It made over two hundred suggestions to improve both the quality and the quantity of the military’s response to domestic violence. It recommended that the Department of Defense require the investigation of every reported incident of domestic violence. When subsequent investigations were conducted, they revealed precisely what the kindling conditions are for domestic violence explosions. The report stated that these factors must be explored in depth if the epidemic is to take a downturn. The risk factors include previous conviction(s), prior head injury exacerbated by military service, and observable patterns of traumatic reenactment. Treating at-risk individuals before they reunite with their families provides critical protection.

Identifying and taking seriously the precursors that are likely to resurface in the presence of the unrelenting stressors of military life can significantly shield innocent partners and children from predictable post-battle rampages. Canada has identified this need by providing integrative space for its returning military. After seeing action overseas, Canadians are sent to specified facilities to debrief, unwind, and prepare for peace and parenting. This antidote is showing success in Canada in decreasing domestic violence in military families.

In 2002, five women at Ft. Bragg in North Carolina were murdered by their Special Forces husbands who had just returned from combat in Afghanistan, drawing national attention to the issue of the rising rates of domestic violence in military families. Each of the killers was already known to be at risk because of prior domestic violence or similar behavior. Additionally, documented case studies that point to traumatic repetition are recorded in books such as T. S. Nelson’s For Love of Country and Ed Tick’s Sacred Mountain. By documenting the continuing impact of domestic violence within military families and pointing to traumatic reactivation as the causative factor, hope is engendered that families and children will be better served. Stories of how domestic violence plays out in the lives of military families are not intended to shock or to cause despair but to evoke an understanding of how war does not end when it is declared over, and how the battles do not end when the soldiers come home.

Increasingly sophisticated knowledge of how the brain functions under stress and the patterns of head injury reactivation allow for new insights which in turn lead to the development of highly specific methods of early intervention. The military has been encouraged by many sources, including Congress, to take advantage of this heightened education so that fighting terror overseas does not result in terror for families at home.

The ways in which military families are segregated from civilian society contributes to the paucity of education about the origins and causes of domestic violence in military families. Some efforts are being made to remedy this and to find avenues of significant support both on and off military installations. The test of the success of these endeavors will be seen in whether or not military families feel safer reporting incidents of domestic violence before they escalate and whether or not more evolved treatment is presented that ultimately produces a true reduction in rates of domestic violence in military families.


I. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Domestic Violence, and Military Suicides

II. Rates of Domestic Violence in Military Families

III. Pregnancy, Children, and Domestic Violence

IV. Shame

V. Treatment and Services

VI. Combat Training and Domestic Violence

VII. Brain Structure and Domestic Violence

VIII. The Cycle of Violence

IX. Culturally Endorsed Violence Encourages Domestic Violence

X. Domestic Violence in the Military and Gender

XI. Conclusion

I. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Domestic Violence, and Military Suicides

The devastating effects of combat on veterans of the Vietnam conflict led to the awareness and the diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD); it has also become evident that those with this condition may tend in the direction of committing domestic abuse. Vietnam veterans not only found themselves battering their wives and families, but also killed themselves in record numbers after their abusive behavior. Indeed, observing the aftereffects of the Vietnam conflict has led researchers to make the conclusive link between domestic violence, suicide, and PTSD. The combination of a propensity toward battering and suicidal tendencies is still common in veterans of more recent military actions. All of the most recent and highly publicized major incidents of domestic violence within military families have consistently included a suicidal component. Three of the five men convicted of murdering their wives at Ft. Bragg, North Carolina, in 2002 later committed suicide.

II. Rates of Domestic Violence in Military Families

The rates of domestic violence within the military are consistently higher than rates of domestic violence in civilian families. The most recent rate of reported domestic violence is 25 per 1,000 military personnel, according to Department of Defense figures. The lowest reported rate has been 18.6 per 1,000 military personnel. The civilian population reports three incidents of domestic violence per 1,000 people. In 2000, over 12,000 cases of spousal abuse were reported to the military’s Family Advocacy Program (FAP). Eight women died that year, killed by their military husbands.

Rates of domestic violence within military families are likely to be much higher in reality than reported. Reporting is usually a complex process, driven by bureaucracy and imbued with shame. Abused spouses are rarely able or willing to risk the family’s financial future by reporting to military channels. Complaints notoriously end up on the desks of commanding officers. Programs to ensure confidentiality have yet to be established. Attorney Phyllis Lonneman, who represents women abused by army husbands, suggests that it does not matter how good or bad the military programs are if the spouses are afraid to use them.

A recent army survey conducted by independent researchers (Behavioral Sciences Associates, which interviewed 55,000 soldiers on 47 bases) reported that rates of marital aggression are considerably higher than anticipated. One aspect of this report indicates that abuse escalates at bases scheduled to be shut down. This fits perpetrator patterns as documented by the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV). Perpetrators become activated by changing conditions that undermine their control and security. This is another indication of the role of traumatic reactivation.

Statistics, including those from the Behavioral Sciences report, clearly state that domestic violence within military families, like domestic violence in civilian families, is classless. Commissioned and noncommissioned officers, commanders as well as ordinary soldiers, are all perpetrators of domestic violence. In civilian life, this equality of suffering applies to rich and poor, educated and uneducated alike.

III. Pregnancy, Children, and Domestic Violence

According to the NCADV, spousal abuse generally increases during pregnancy. Childbirth educators who work on military installations reported at a conference held in March 2005 on the subject of birth trauma that birthing mothers living in military households feel fear about returning with their newborns to a violent household.

Seventy-five percent of children in military families are under eleven years of age. These are, by far, the most vulnerable victims of domestic violence within military families, along with babies in utero. Babies’ brains are shaped by experience. Limbic pathways encoded with terror, or young primitive brains that become conditioned by fear and panic, grow into the criminal minds of sociopaths and psychopaths. The research of such neuroscientists as Lise Eliot (1999), Allan Schore (1994), and Daniel Siegel (1999), as well as the work of public health experts Robin Karr- Morse and Meredith Wiley (1997), confirm the nature of this conditioning.

Army colonel Will Hatcher launched a Pentagon investigation into rising rates of violence against children in the military. Child deaths at Fitzsimmons Army Medical Center in Colorado, at Bremerton Naval Base in Washington, and at Travis Air Force Base in California aroused grave concern about the magnitude of suffering of innocent children as a result of domestic violence within military families.

According to developmental psychologist Joy D. Osofsky, existing research indicates that even in the earliest phases of infant and toddler development, there are clear associations between exposure to violence and emotional and behavioral problems. Infants and toddlers who witness violence show excessive irritability, immature behavior, sleep disturbances, emotional distress, fears of being alone, and regression in toileting and language. Reports have noted the presence of PTSD in these young children, including panic-ridden flashbacks to the traumatic event, avoidance, numbing of responsiveness, and increased arousal.

Raising consciousness and diagnostic skills about how war reactivates previous trauma is a giant step in stopping domestic violence in military families and protecting children from abuse. The resources to do this and to end the cycle of intergenerational violence are now available. The challenge is to use them. The Lautenberg Law and a 2001 Department of Defense directive prohibit soldiers with prior records of domestic violence or restraining orders against them from carrying a gun. These critical mandates require thoroughgoing enforcement at all military installations to be effective.

IV. Shame

Removing the stigma of shame from traumatic reactivation is an essential step in lowering incidents of domestic violence in military families. There is an extensive history of blaming and condemning soldiers for their reactions to the horrors they witness during military service. This leads inevitably to repression, and repression is a step in the direction of explosion. Military spouses choose their wives and children as outlets for their explosions when they are not given other options for release or helped to understand what they have been exposed to in war.

Shame is isolating and ultimately backfires. Families and individuals who are separated from communication and external resources because of shame are put in harm’s way, particularly during wartime, when emotions run high. Broadening and intensifying counseling services to families on military bases and to military families in general is required to identify and end this isolation. Isolation and domestic violence are virtually synonymous. The lessons of the past are pertinent here.

Shell shock was the term used for the disorder that affected soldiers serving in World War I who became withdrawn and paralyzed with fear. The diagnosis included marked physical trembling, often to the point of convulsive seizures. This trembling is characteristic of nervous system overload and adrenal exhaustion, natural outgrowths of the horrors of war. Treating it as such allows for true regeneration. One recorded attempt to address the behavior of shell-shocked soldiers during World War I was to require them to withstand even more battle. There has been much progress made since this blaming and shaming model of counterproductive treatment, but exposing vulnerability in the face of war is still often viewed as weakness. Education to counteract this misunderstanding is a component of domestic violence prevention.

A conference held at the University of Colorado in the summer of 2004, ‘‘The Unseen Costs of War,’’ explored psychological services for military families. Attention was directed to the need to counteract shaming attitudes. In addition, the conference presenters emphasized that the availability of a diverse spectrum of services, rather than focusing only on chaplain-based counseling, is necessary to reach more military personnel. Chaplains are currently the only military personnel granted confidentiality.

V. Treatment and Services

Military families need access to psychological services that emphasize resources for all family members, including those that treat adrenal exhaustion. Services that include an understanding of the neurological and physiological origins of domestic violence inherently reduce feelings of shame.

There is a history of bureaucratic delay in organizations as complex as the military. This obstacle can be offset by direct services to military families from civilian agencies contiguous with military bases. Restrictions imposed on families to use only military facilities can be removed so that easy access to civilian resources can bypass unnecessary and often fatal delays. Military families experience a sense of isolation from the communities around them because of the physical and bureaucratic design of military bases. Indeed, alongside early intervention, combating isolation is central to preventing domestic violence within military families.

This is well said by Beals (2003) in her handbook prepared by the Battered Women’s Justice Center. Military life, she reports, with its powerful control over the lives of service members, presents unique challenges for victims in need of help. Unlike the civilian world, where clear institutional boundaries exist between one’s employer, doctor, judge, social worker, and advocate, the military system is, for the most part, seamless. Imagine, in the civilian world, that calling a local shelter or confiding in one’s doctor automatically causes the batterer’s employer to find out about his acts of violence and abuse. The risk of retaliation is obvious, and frightening. Of even greater concern to many victims is the fear that as a result of their reporting the abuse, their batterers may lose their jobs or otherwise face adverse career consequences, leaving the victims and their children impoverished and without housing or health care. Institutional practices may be unfamiliar; they differ among the services, and even among installations. As with any institution, the protocols that guide the military response on a given installation may vary dramatically, depending on the resources and informal relationships that exist at a particular installation, and the extent to which collaborative relationships exist with the surrounding civilian community.

The frequent moves required of military families contribute to the theme of debilitating isolation. Most military families move every three years, ripping the military family from the support network of relatives and friends that they count on when times get tough. In addition, relocation often brings with it unfamiliar cultures, values, physical environments, and food. This cuts military wives and children off from comforting, sustaining, and familiar conditions, making them more vulnerable and dependent. When spouses are separated from their military partners, distrust and suspicion is generated, and many military husbands convicted of spousal abuse point to this distrust as the kindling for their fiery explosions. Services that address the specific impact of regular relocation on military families would help prevent domestic violence.

Perhaps the most significant change that could occur for military families dealing with domestic violence is increased access to civilian services and civilian advocates. Increasingly, civilian communities located near military installations either have or are developing memoranda of understanding (MOUs) with the installations for responding to domestic violence incidents involving military personnel. These agreements generally cover law enforcement response, prosecution, protective orders, shelter, and information sharing. Others have not yet taken these steps. Civilian advocates for military families dealing with domestic violence can play an extremely important role in conveying resources otherwise unavailable to military families.

Compared with civilian society, the military population is younger and drawn from lower socioeconomic ranks. Alcohol abuse is high, pay tends to be poor, and the military attracts people who have authoritarian tendencies. All of these factors play a part in the pattern of isolation and unreported abuse. Addiction counseling could help significantly if it could be added consistently to the services available to all military families now that drug and alcohol abuse have been documented as being problematic in the military, particularly for those in combat.

The military’s response to domestic violence is centered in the FAP, whose primary role is to prevent, identify, assess, and treat domestic violence. However, the FAP operates under the installation commander, who oversees FAP services, including reporting and law enforcement. The service member’s specific commander has responsibility for offender accountability. Some installations have reporting agreements with civilian law enforcement agencies.

As rates of domestic violence within military families have risen steadily since 2000, organizations of survivors have formed. While focused on serving military families, these organizations are outside the structure of the military establishment. Organizations such as STAMP (Survivors Take Action Against Abuse by Military Personnel) collect data, provide crisis counseling, and conduct investigations.

When the military process is too weighed down with bureaucracy or when it institutes policies that survivors feel are counterproductive, such as the Feres Doctrine, which bars survivors from taking legal measures to secure financial assistance when domestic violence has occurred within a military family, these organizations are useful in finding other resources. They offer a sounding board, group process, and overall support when domestic violence occurs within military families.

VI. Combat Training and Domestic Violence

Studies conducted by the National Battered Women’s Law Project in New York found a correlation between combat jobs and domestic violence. According to the study, troops trained to fight are more likely to batter women and children than their colleagues in noncombat jobs. This is corroborated by Murray Straus, a family violence expert. According to Dr. Straus, there is a spillover from what one does in one sphere of life into what one does in other roles. If one works in an occupation whose business is killing, it legitimizes violence.

In order for brutality, battering, and violence against women and children to occur, the victims have to be dehumanized. This is precisely what combat training is all about—the dehumanization of some portion of any given population. The humiliation of softness that is part of military training arouses traumatic rage. Women and children, as embodiments of the very softness disparaged in combat training, represent easy targets for this rage. Without an integrative transition period that differentiates the past from the present, soldiers are likely to continue, neurologically, in combat mode, even when they are not in battle.

VII. Brain Structure and Domestic Violence

The long-held belief that the brain is a rigid structure has been dismantled by the discoveries of neuroscientist Paul MacLean, whose foundation research has been followed by writers such as Candace Pert, Antonio Damasio (expert in the field of head injury and recapitulation, which is so often a factor in domestic violence within military families), and Allan Schore (who writes extensively on the early origins of traumatic reactivation).

The brain, as is now known, has a triune structure that functions like three interconnected computers, each with its own intelligence. Two of these levels are below consciousness. These deeper, earlier brains are concerned almost utterly with survival, and it is vital to attend to them in order to end the cycle of violence. These are the brains that are trained to be aggressive in combat and which cannot easily differentiate the past from the present. They need assistance, support, and guidance to do so.

The responses of the primitive brain structures are not about time and appropriate behavior but are centered utterly on threat and survival. The link between primitive conditioning and adrenal firing is automatic and will proceed unless deliberate intervention to stop this activation is provided. Responses of both batterer and victim are lodged in the relationship between survival-based action and adrenal activation.

The midbrain’s emotional memory is likewise not organized chronologically. Memory is conditioned by specific emotionally laden experiences that when rekindled do not differentiate past from present. Only the higher brain (sometimes divided into two components consisting of the cortex and the neocortex) has the capacity for perspective, understanding and the neutral state of reflection and witnessing. Accessing these higher brains and stimulating their integrative structural allies like the hypothalamus could substantially lower rates of domestic violence within military families, and perhaps even eliminate it completely.

There is no question that military service is extraordinarily activating and emotionally charged. This is particularly true of wartime service. Understanding the clear relationship between this activation, adrenal firing, and domestic violence in military families is fundamental to ending the cycle of violence.

VIII. The Cycle of Violence

Neil Jacobson and John Gottmann (1998) report that 80 percent of male batterers experience themselves as victims. They are, indeed, the victims of their own neurology that defines aggression as survival. Similarly, a person who is battered is neurologically driven to remain in the battered position.

Both the helpless person and the aggressor escape from these conditions by changes in consciousness that must precede action. These changes have to do with the growth of new neuronal options that allow perception to change. Thus, ending the cycle of violence means changing neurological firing. This is the newest and most profound option available. Psychologist Steven Wineman sees battering as the acting out of powerless rage that is a response to feelings of oppression. Finding the source of the oppression is the ultimate solution to the cycle of violence. One step in ending the cycle of violence is seeing perpetrators not as others but understanding that an enormous amount of abuse is enacted by people who themselves have suffered profound violations and have themselves been crushed by oppression and power. New theories of trauma and new perspectives on brain function present perhaps the greatest hope for stopping domestic violence everywhere, including within military families. It is possible, even likely, that a perpetrator is subjectively powerless or victimized while simultaneously acting with enormous aggression. In fact, this combination is particularly lethal.

IX. Culturally Endorsed Violence Encourages Domestic Violence

Saint Leo University in Saint Leo, Florida, sponsored twenty years of research showing the impact of violence in the media and in video games on children and adolescents, especially boys. The study showed that less than ten minutes of exposure to violence in the media creates long-lasting aggressive traits and actions. The key factor in video games in particular is that violence goes unpunished. Teachers of 600 eighth and ninth graders aged thirteen through fifteen said that children who spent time playing violent video games were more hostile than other children. Witnessing violence becomes the foundation for traumatic reactivation. An investigation into the maltreatment histories of U.S. Navy trainees who demonstrated abusive behaviors revealed that 94 percent had witnessed violence in some form prior to enlistment.

Research examining onscreen violence toward women finds that emotional desensitization can occur after viewing as few as two films with violent themes. Studies show that men who view a number of films in which women are portrayed in sexually degrading or violent situations become increasingly less disturbed by violence against women and less sympathetic toward female victims of violence.

Several studies support a link between early exposure to violence and aggressive behavior in school-age children. These studies also show that those who have been exposed to violence are more likely to commit crimes and to experience alcohol and substance abuse. A longitudinal study of eight-year-old boys found that those who viewed the most violent programs growing up were the most likely to engage in aggressive and delinquent behavior by the time they were eighteen and were the most likely to engage in serious criminal behavior (such as domestic violence and sexual assault) by the time they reached age thirty.

X. Domestic Violence in the Military and Gender

Most active-duty military personnel are men (85 percent). Fifty-one percent of active military personnel are married and most of them are married to civilian spouses who are dependent on them financially. Military wives earn less and are less likely to be employed than their civilian counterparts. In 66 percent of reported domestic violence incidents within the military, the victim was a female. There is, however, a small percentage of male victims (less than 30 percent).

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the number-one health problem for women is violence. According to the Family Violence Prevention Fund, women in the military are particularly vulnerable to abuse due to geographical isolation from family and friends and the potential for social isolation within the military culture.

In the sample of active-duty military women from the greater Washington, D.C., metropolitan area, 30 percent reported adult lifetime intimate partner violence, defined as physical and/or sexual assault from a current or former intimate partner. African American women were significantly less likely to be abused during military service than were white women, but ethnic group membership was not a risk factor for lifetime abuse.

XI. Conclusion

While rates of domestic violence in military families are not decreasing, there is cause for hope in the new understanding of the neurology of traumatic repetition, the willingness of the Department of Defense and other governmental agencies to take an unequivocal stand on domestic violence, and the intervention of civilian agencies and civilian advocates. Diane Stuart, director of the Office on Violence Against Women in the U.S. Department of Justice, said it simply when she stated that our ability to end domestic violence depends, above all, on building a coordinated community response to the needs of every survivor.

See also:


  1. Beals, Judith. ‘‘Understanding the Military Response to Victims of Domestic Violence,’’ 2003. Battered Women’s Justice Center.
  2. Damasio, Antonio. Descartes’ Error. New York: Avon, 1994.
  3. Eliot, Lise. What’s Going On in There? New York: Bantam, 1999.
  4. Hansen, Christine. Report on the Study of Spousal Abuse in the Armed Forces. Washington, DC: Caliber Associates, 1996.
  5. Herman, Judith. Trauma and Recovery. New York: Basic Books, 1992.
  6. Jacobson, Neil, and John Gottmann. When Men Batter Women. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1998.
  7. Karr-Morse, Robin, and Meredith S. Wiley. Ghosts from the Nursery: Tracing the Roots of Violence. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1997.
  8. Mines, Stephanie. We Are All in Shock. Franklin Lakes, NJ: New Pages, 2003.
  9. Nelson, T. S. For Love of Country. Binghamton, NY: Haworth, 2002.
  10. Schore, Allan. Affect Regulation and the Origins of the Self. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum, 1994.
  11. Siegel, Daniel. The Developing Mind. New York: Guilford, 1999.
  12. Tick, Ed. Sacred Mountain. Santa Fe, NM: Moon Bear, 1989.
  13. Walker, Lenore. The Battered Woman. New York: Harper and Row, 1979.

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