The Fatal "New Normal" for Wives of Veterans
The first time I called 911 about my husband’s violence was the second time it happened. Lorin was a two-time combat veteran with severe post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Before he came back from Iraq, I was given a military brochure that warned about irritability and hypervigilance, and instructed me to adjust to the “new normal.”
That I needed to adapt to this “new normal” was echoed by VA personnel and TV programs. None of them mentioned that wives of veterans with PTSD are at a higher risk of severe domestic abuse and potentially lethal intimate partner violence (IPV) than almost any other demographic in the nation, particularly if the veteran also has a traumatic brain injury. Those are the signature wounds of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. To cite just one of many studies, a 2009 report from the Department of Veterans Affairs Office of Public Health and Environmental Hazards found that 81 percent of veterans suffering from depression and PTSD had engaged in at least one violent act against their partner in the preceding 12 months. The research also revealed that more than half of veterans with PTSD had performed one severe act of violence in the past year—a rate more than 14 times higher than that of the general civilian population.
The past 16 years have seen catastrophic rises in the rates of domestic violence, murder, and child abuse and neglect in families of post-9/11 veterans, evidenced by data from the Department of Justice, the Department of Veterans Affairs, and the Department of Defense. Before 9/11, the Army received roughly 35 to 50 cases of domestic abuse a month. By 2005, they were fielding approximately 143 cases a week, a twelve-fold increase. The Pentagon reported that there was also a demonstrable escalation in the severity of violence between 2001 and 2005. Calls to the National Domestic Violence Hotline from people affiliated with the military more than tripled from 2006 to 2014.
Lorin had strangled me unconscious before, but I didn’t call the police. I called the military chaplain, who never called back. Nearly five years went by before Lorin got violent again, this time hurling 10-pound rocks at me. I ran into the house and locked the doors. The dispatcher kept me on the phone and I cried into the receiver, waiting for the sheriff. Two deputies arrived, along with a fire truck and an ambulance. I answered questions from the deputy I’d let inside, and looked out the kitchen window as Lorin played the veteran card with the other officer. A few minutes later, the officer came to me and said, “He told me he doesn’t have any anger toward you. He’s just having a bad day. He doesn’t feel well.”
They loaded Lorin into the ambulance and took him to the ER. I moved out within a matter of days, and a few months later Lorin got his M4 semi-automatic weapon and threatened to find me. I called 911 again, and this time they put out an APB and located Lorin, who tried to commit suicide-by-cop. The sheriff tased him and took him to the psych ward, and a deputy called me.
“You’re lucky he doesn’t know where you live, or this would have ended very differently,” the deputy said. “I strongly suggest you get a restraining order. We have Lorin’s M4 in evidence.”
Several days went by before the local domestic violence organization returned my frantic messages pleading for help filing a restraining order, and then only after I burned the ears of some congressional staffers. The victim’s advocate never showed up for the court hearing, and Lorin was never charged. No charges or lesser charges in cases of veteran IPV is pretty typical. One woman I know of spent three days in a Louisiana hospital after her veteran husband beat her nearly to death. He was charged with verbal assault. Another woman, Susan C., has endured multiple incidents of veteran violence, and she’s called 911 a number of times, but her abuser has never been charged with abuse.
“Instead of facing charges for domestic violence, the police and sheriffs in two different states take him in for an involuntary psychiatric hold and he’s never prosecuted,” said Susan. “I’ve been trying to get divorced for a year [and] I am $10,000 in the hole … the ostracism I felt after ‘abandoning’ him was acute when I needed support the most.” Susan asked her attorneys, “Which is the trump card: battered spouse or disabled veteran?”
Usually, it’s the veteran.
Lisa Collela, founder of Healing Household 6 (HH6), a nonprofit organization supporting caregivers of veterans, said, “I had a caregiver tell me that after being severely injured by her wounded warrior, the police officer told her ‘Because he is [mentally] disabled and has no place to go, you’ll have to leave.’” The officer wrote that in his report, even though the woman was being battered and had young children. HH6 is one of only a handful of agencies nationwide serving the millions of women who are married to combat vets or are veterans’ caregivers. What those women most often want to know is: Where do I go for help around domestic violence?
Military spouses and caregivers of veterans (97 percent are women, primarily wives) are far more likely to be financially dependent upon their abuser than civilian women. The frequency of moves and deployments make it difficult for military spouses to secure and keep jobs. The stress and demands of caring for a combat-injured veteran are so significant that many caregivers wind up quitting their jobs. The Department of Defense has emergency relief and transitional funds available for spouses suffering abuse by a service member. But in practice, the military is still loath to confirm that abuse is happening, because it will, in theory, require them to address it.
The court-martial system was back-burnered while the military was conducting war on two fronts. An article in The Army Lawyer stated that, whether at home or away, “[C]ommanders and judge advocates exercised all possible alternatives to avoid the crushing burdens of conducting courts-martial...” According to a 2010 Army Report, nearly 87 percent of soldiers found to have committed spouse abuse and child abuse and neglect over a six-year period were never referred for counseling, and could still carry a weapon.
“I’m not usually one for more government involvement, but something needs to happen federally to protect our military families from corrupt practices that dismiss abusers just because they are veterans,” stated Collela.
HH6 assists military spouses and caregivers in domestic violence situations with relocation and housing, and some local shelters offer safe haven and support. But shelter services and support for DV survivors vary widely from state to state, and resources for caregivers are especially scarce in the western United States. I live in southern Oregon, and was unable to get any help finding housing or employment. There was no legal aid or emergency funds or mental health services available for me. I lost my health insurance when I left, and the pro bono providers I spoke with said my situation was “too complex” for them. But there was an abundance of assistance available for my abuser, either from the VA or local nonprofits and advocacy organizations serving veterans. And once he got out of detox and the psych ward, he could still buy a gun.
We must stand down veteran domestic violence. This will mean preventing vets with mental health conditions known to greatly increase the likelihood of potentially deadly domestic abuse—conditions that merit hundreds, sometimes thousands of dollars a month in disability benefits—from purchasing firearms. It might mean disciplining the cops who don’t arrest violent veterans, and suspending the district attorneys who won’t file criminal charges until the caregiver is dead. I have written a bill, the Kristy Huddleston Act, named after my friend who was shot to death by her Iraq war veteran husband. The legislation, copying the DOD program, authorizes the VA to provide transitional funds for veterans’ spouses and caregivers to escape veteran domestic violence. My Oregon senators, Wyden and Merkley, have pledged to introduce the bill later this year. And if we really want to stop the war at home, let’s stop the socially sanctioned grooming of wives of veterans to accept this fatal “new normal.”
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