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09.25.10

Husbands Who Bring the War Home

With thousands of troops now preparing to return, a new crisis may open on the domestic front. Military wife Stacy Bannerman on the husbands she’s seen transformed into domestic abusers.

"If you don't hear from me in the next 24 hours, call the police," she whispered, then hung up. My phone read 2:12 am; it was the third call in as many minutes. I tried calling back—no answer. I went back to sleep, angry at Kristi for calling in the middle of the night and scaring me with a single sentence. 

The next morning I fired off an email: "I cannot, for the love of God, imagine what you were thinking when you called last night. Please tell me." Kristi and I had become battle buddies at home while our husbands were serving in Iraq in 2004-05. We had cried each time a military family member called with word of a soldier's death or suicide; we grieved at funerals and gravesites, marches and memorials. We wept with and for each another when she or I learned that our husband had been mobilized for another deployment, and again when they finally came home.

Her husband had served three combat tours since 2002. The last one was the shortest yet, a mere 10 months, and Kristi wrote in an email that "he actually came back pretty normal this time!" That was nearly four months ago. When my phone rang in the afternoon early last fall, I saw that it was her, and picked up.

"Mark tried to strangle me last night," she blurted out. "I called you from the bathroom. I locked myself in with the pets. I didn't want him to hurt my puppy. I'm sorry I called. I was just so scared, and I didn't have anyone else to call. I couldn't call the cops."

I had gotten other midnight calls from other military wives, cowering in closets and under dining room tables, dialing for a lifeline to someone outside of their domestic war zone. But this was my friend: strong and smart, she had worked at a women's shelter nearly a decade ago. She knew all the warning signs. 

And Kristi's husband adored her. He had no history of domestic violence, no pattern of abuse. He had made no attempts to isolate her from friends, family, or finances. Mark's most recent post-deployment mental health assessment hadn't indicated any issues. There hadn't been a single red flag before Mark wrapped his hands around Kristi's throat and squeezed, which is what makes veterans' household violence unique.

Abuse by combat veterans tends to have its own distinctive pattern that is unlike the recurring power-and-control cycle of abuse described in most domestic violence literature. The journal Disabled American Veterans stated that veteran interpersonal violence often involves "only one or two extremely violent and frightening abusive episodes that quickly precipitate treatment seeking."

"Mark tried to strangle me last night," my friend blurted out.

The majority of studies of treatment-seeking veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or combat-related mental health issues report that at least 50 percent of those veterans commit wife-battering and family violence. Male veterans with PTSD are two to three times more likely than veterans without PTSD to engage in intimate partner violence, according to the VA, which also found that the majority of veterans with combat stress commit at least one act of spousal abuse in their first year post-deployment.

"How are you now?" I asked Kristi. "Where is he?" 

"I'm okay, but my throat hurts a little. He's gone. I made him leave this morning. I told him I didn't want to hear from him until he had talked to a counselor or gotten into some kind of treatment. I said that I didn't feel safe with him, and I couldn't…I wasn't…" she sobbed, hiccupping out words, "I wasn't sure if I ever would again… Goddamn it. Goddamn this war."

Kristi and I talked a lot over the next days and weeks—mostly she talked, and I listened. She was seeing a civilian counselor, but spent most of her time at home, shell-shocked and alone. She said her counselor just kept telling her to leave her husband, giving her lectures on the typical cycle of domestic abuse, so she tried to find someone who understood the military and veterans. 

She called the military chaplain on post, but he never called back. She called the VA, and asked if they had support programs for wives of combat veterans. They didn't. She called Military One Source, a free counseling assistance program provided by the Department of Defense. But the lady there just started to cry, and told her that she got "these calls all the time. I can't help you. Unless you authorize a report, I can't authorize assistance."

Kristi reached out to another military spouse that lived off post and was married to an Iraq war veteran. She told her what happened, and her friend said that she and her husband had gotten into so many fights, hitting and screaming and throwing things at each other, that she ended up going to the domestic violence shelter. Staff at the shelter told her that they didn't have programs for wives of veterans, and that her husband made too much money for her to stay there, anyway.

Meanwhile, Mark was staying with friends, or sleeping in his office. After several days of silence, they began talking, but she hasn't seen him since that night, and at times, she's wondered if she even wants to. "I miss him, I do," she said. "We've already been apart way too much, but I am so angry, and hurt."

Today, Kristi says that Mark's trying to get help, but it's not easy. He called a domestic violence hotline, and the person he talked to discouraged him from going to the men's group because he doesn't fit the abuser profile. "It's not like he can make a lot of calls about this when he works for 10 hours every day," Kristi says. "His insurance won't pay for him go to a private therapist at night. They said he can only see someone at the base medical center, and he's not doing that. He can't really sneak off for three hours in the middle of the day and drive down to the VA, either."

Most family victims of veteran violence don't file reports with the police or their husband's command. The military is stepping up domestic violence programs and education at military instillations, but the pressure on spouses within the active duty and retired military culture and much of the civilian population to remain silent is especially intense during a time a war. Speaking out about veteran violence at home seems to be perceived as more of a betrayal than the violence itself.

Even so, since 2003, there has been a 75 percent increase in reports of domestic violence in and around Ft. Hood, where the number of soldiers diagnosed with PTSD rose from 310 in 2004 to 2,445 in 2009.

Equally telling is the 2010 Military Family Lifestyle Survey, the second annual poll conducted by Blue Star Families (BSF) of military families with a loved one currently in the service. This year's survey included a ream of questions about returning-veteran violence. I don't think there was a single question on that topic last year.

When I last spoke to Kristi, she said that she had quit praying that she and Mark "would get their old lives back. That's gone." Now, she just prays that the last deployment was, in fact, the last, and that someday, the war will end for them, too.

About 63,000 soldiers will return from combat tours between July and December. According to military statistics, nearly half of active-duty National Guard members, 38 percent of Army soldiers, and 31 percent of Marines report mental health problems upon return from Middle East deployments. If just 20 percent of them have post-combat stress, then it can reasonably be projected that roughly half of those veterans will commit at least one act of severe domestic abuse or interpersonal violence in the coming year. That's approximately 6,300 veterans' wives and kids who are at risk.

President Obama declared that major combat operations in Iraq are over. They may just be starting for thousands of America's military family members.

Names and identifying characteristics have been changed.

Stacy Bannerman is the author of When the War Came Home: The Inside Story of Reservists and the Families They Leave Behind (2006). When her husband was mobilized for his first deployment with the Army National Guard in 2003, Stacy joined Military Families Speak Out. She is the force behind the Military Family Leave Act of 2009, and the effort to create a Military Family Advisory Council in Oregon. Stacy received the Patriotic Employer Award and the Above & Beyond Award from the Employer Support of the Guard & Reserve. Visit her at www.stacybannerman.com.