After A Report Found The Military Often Mishandles Domestic Violence, Reforms Are Happening Slowly
The Defense Department Inspector General found that the military handles domestic violence on base inconsistently, leading to fewer prosecutions and ongoing danger for the people who are abused.
Alyss Monroe had only lived on base at Fort Drum, N.Y. for a few months when things at home started to spin out of control. The 23-year-old mother of two began to fear her husband, an early-career Army soldier whose behavior at home had become increasingly controlling and erratic.
"It was always my fault if he was angry. It was something I did," Monroe said. "It was never by his own responsibility."
They had previous altercations throughout their relationship. Police had once been called when he threw a coffee table during an argument. He'd punched a hole in their bathroom shower and had slapped Monroe in a heated moment.
One night in January 2010, an argument over alcohol escalated into chaos. Monroe fled to an upstairs bedroom to get away, but her husband followed, punching a hole in the wall of their stairwell.
"I had tried to lock myself in our bedroom, and he kicked it open and cornered me," Monroe said. "I had tripped and fallen, and he grabbed me really hard on the arm and picked me up."
Military police arrived and noted the torn-apart house and the bruises that had started to bloom on Monroe's arms. They took her husband away with his platoon sergeant for a 72-hour cool-down period, and they sent Monroe to have her injuries photographed at a base medical facility.
But while the Army punished Monroe's husband for damaging their house, he was never prosecuted for hurting her. Instead, his command ordered him to go to anger management counseling.
"There were no charges pressed," Monroe said. "It was given straight to his command's discretion.... There was no judicial punishment at all. He was never brought to court."
In the days immediately following the incident, Monroe worried. She was far from her support system and financially dependent on her husband, and she felt isolated and afraid of what would come next. She held out hope for the marriage but didn't know how to stop her husband's violent behavior.
"I was very anxious because I knew he was going to come back home, and I knew he was going to be angry that I had called 911 and gotten his command involved," she said. "I had no idea what our future was going to look like.… Or if he was going to try to kick me out of the house, or what was going to happen to our children."
Monroe adds that no one from the Family Advocacy Program - the Defense Department program designated to address domestic abuse - reached out to check on her.
"No one offered me services. No one told me that there were things that were there for me, for my benefit. For my children's benefit," she said. "In my opinion, it was solely concentrated on him."
Mishandling domestic violence
Military police are charged with protecting the personnel and facilities on an installation and enforcing the military's criminal code, called the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Legal violations that take place on base are normally referred back to commands for resolution.
In April, a Defense Department Inspector General report revealed problems with the way military law enforcement deals with domestic violence on bases across the country. It evaluated 219 domestic violence incidents and found that military law enforcement did not consistently process crime scenes, conduct thorough interviews, or inform victims about the Family Advocacy Program.
The report also found that military law enforcement often didn't notify Family Advocacy of domestic violence incidents or submit criminal history data to federal databases when required.
Lisa Colella directs Healing Household 6, a military family support organization that regularly deals with issues of domestic violence.
"People come to me, and they show me evidence that they have reported in the way that they're supposed to," said Lisa Colella of Healing Household 6, a private military family support organization. "There have been more times than I can count that the Family Advocacy representative told me that they didn't have a file on this person."
The Inspector General also found commanders sometimes interfered at crime scenes, pushing law enforcement to do things that weren't in keeping with protocol. Colella said that commanders also sometimes exert influence over what's treated as a crime.
"It's just this giant, jumbled mess of reputations and culture," she said, adding that the alleged abuser's military status often plays a role. She says commanders sometimes consider factors such as, "Who's the service member, and how many medals do they have, and what have they done, and was this really abuse?"
Since the report was released, Colella said she's seen signs that some bases have begun to take their domestic violence protocols more seriously, though the response has been inconsistent.
Meanwhile, Congress last year amended the military's criminal code to include domestic violence. That may be encouraging enforcement, according to advocates.
"What Congress directed was that, with the domestic violence/domestic assault offense, it would be easier to track those offenses within the military justice system, be able to report on them, and be able to flag them correctly for civilian law enforcement," said Brian Clubb of the Battered Women's Justice Project.
'He was going to put me in the ground'
For domestic abuse survivor Alyss Monroe, change didn't come fast enough. Her ex-husband's violence continued to escalate until 2016 when, after leaving the service, he threatened her life.
"He started to physically assault me," she said. "There was a moment where he had me on the front step with his knee in my side. He had punched me in the face and said that if I was not quiet he was going to put me in the ground where I belonged. I knew he had a loaded weapon in his truck."
She calmed herself down and made her way back inside their home before initiating an escape plan long in the making.
"I really feel like I had God watching over me that night, because if I stayed he was going to kill me," she said.
Monroe made it to safety and is now remarried. But her ex-husband continued to spiral. In 2018, he was shot by a guard at the Department of Veterans Affairs after he threatened the guard with a knife. He survived the shooting but was convicted of several crimes.
Monroe said she can't help but wonder if that all could have been prevented if the military had taken her abuse more seriously.
This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.