U.S. News

04.21.14

Caught Between Military and Civilian Justice, a Battered Wife Waits and Waits for Help

Over a year ago, a civilian woman accused her Marine ex-husband of beating and raping her. She’s still waiting for the incidents to be fully investigated.

Three years after she separated from her husband, Bobbie Herron still suffers from his abuse. Last week she went in for another round of surgery, this time to fix the broken orbital socket and deviated septum he left her with after an attack in 2010.

For over a year, Herron has been working through the military system, appealing for justice against the Marine ex-husband she says routinely raped and beat her. To Herron it has felt like “a marathon that I ran in quicksand, getting nowhere quickly.”

As a civilian pursuing sexual assault charges against an active duty Marine who is also her ex-husband, Herron is caught between two worlds. She can freely express her frustration in public forums but has a very limited voice within the military justice system.

“From the very beginning it felt like no one genuinely cared or wanted to make it anything of prominence,” Herron tells The Daily Beast.

Up until a few weeks ago, when Herron contacted Protect Our Defenders, an advocacy group that helped bring attention to her story, she was at the end of her line: “I may be a sinking ship-but I’m going to make as many waves as possible so the rescue party can find me,” she wrote at the time.

But after a year of seeing her case languish, Protect Our Defenders got involved and put Herron in touch with powerful senators like Barbara Boxer, Joe Donnelly, and Kirsten Gillibrand, a strong critic of the military’s current system for dealing with sexual assault cases and the author of a sweeping reform bill that was recently defeated. According to Herron, all three senators have been in continual contact with her and launched investigations into her case.

There were 3,500 reported sexual assaults in the military last year, according to the Pentagon, up 43% from 2012. Some critics believe that the problem is a result of the military not adequately enforcing its own regulations. For reformers like Senator Gillibrand, though, the problem is deeper that and can only be solved by a fundamental shift in policy.

Gillibrand, who is preparing a new bill after her Military Justice Improvement Act was defeated on the Senate floor, advocates for independent military prosecutors to preside over sexual assault cases. Under current policy sexual assault cases are handled by officers from within the unit where the assault occurred, a situation that can breed conflicts of interest and environments that are hostile to those who report abuse. According to Gillibrand, her policy aims “to create more transparency, more accountability.”

“From the very beginning it felt like no one genuinely cared or wanted to make it anything of prominence.”

Immediately after the senators became involved in her case, Marine authorities suddenly expressed a newfound interest, according to Herron. She still worries that the investigation her charges launched will never lead to a military trial. But she now believes that at least she might be heard.

Reached for comment shortly before this story was published, Major John Caldwell, a public affairs officer for the Marine Corps, provided this statement:

“The allegations of misconduct are quite serious in nature. Our office is presently unaware of the described investigation; however, it is standard practice not to provide details regarding ongoing investigations in order to protect the integrity of associated processes and the privacy of individuals involved.”

Herron's ex-husband, of course, has not been proven guilty of any crime. At the moment, Herron’s accusations are still just that. But the very fact that over a year after her investigation began Herron’s allegations have still not been resolved through the military justice system points to how slowly the wheels of justice turn under current policies. It also shows how excruciating it can be for those involved to navigate through the process. Accuser and accused alike can be placed in a limbo without a clear sense of the next step in the process or what resources, if any, they can count on for support and resolution.

Back in March 2010, after her ex-husband, a Marine Staff Sergeant, allegedly delivered the beating that caused her recent surgeries, Herron got a military protective order against him. At the time they were living together on 29 Palms, a Marine training center in California. Within months, the military authorities and, this time the civilian police department, were called to the house again.

Herron was trapped inside her own home. It was May 2010, less than two months after the military order of protection had expired. She had locked herself in the bathroom to hide from her ex-husband, who she says had raped and choked her. She had wanted to leave before. But this time, Herron says she was determined to take her children and get out. As he allegedly banged on the door and screamed for her to come out Herron took pictures of her wounds and plotted how she would escape.

More violence and another arrest followed in June 2010. Despite it being his second arrest, Herron's ex-husband was never punished by his chain of command, she says. Military authorities confined Herron's ex-husband to a bachelor’s barracks, telling her she could use that time to pack and move with her children back to her family’s home in Indiana.

Three or four months after the second arrest, Herron reconciled with her ex and brought her children back to live with him on a different Marine base in California, Camp Pendleton. Herron says that she was dependent on her ex for child support and that she was encouraged that he might change by his willingness to attend counseling with her.

In counseling Herron's ex-husband agreed to attend the military’s Sexual Abuse Rehabilitation Program (SARP). The violence and sexual assault did not stop after he completed the program, Herron says.

Again the military police were called to their new house. In April 2011, Herron finally left her ex-husband for good. She took her children and moved back to Indiana.

While Herron has struggled to make the military pay attention to her case, her ex-husband has been promoted by his Marine unit, despite his record of violent arrests and the ongoing investigation.

At various points throughout the years that Herron and her ex-husband were living on bases while he served as a Marine, military authorities learned of his violence and abuse toward her, Herron says, but never took sufficient action to stop it from happening again. As the civilian spouse of a service member, Herron says that she was unsure of the protections and legal recourse available to her.

Almost two years after leaving her ex, and after encouragement from her current husband, a soldier and former police officer, Herron began pushing for criminal charges against her ex-husband.

Since first reporting the alleged crimes against her, Herron has been reassigned to three different agents from the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS). According to Herron, her first agent, who recorded her initial statement, told her, “You’re going to be portrayed as a vengeful ex-wife with some sort of agenda.” He promised to assist her through the process. Herron says she called him repeatedly after that day and left multiple voice mails but “I never heard from him again after the day he took my statement.”

But the investigation continued. The NCIS probe into Herron’s claims can either lead to one of two things: first, a recommendation that the case is dropped due to insufficient evidence; second, a so-called “article 32” hearing—the preliminary hearing that determines whether a case should go to court martial. Based on its findings, the NCIS offers the recommendation to a staff judge advocate officer in charge of the case who makes the final determination.

In Herron’s case, she was told consistently starting in November 2013 that the NCIS was recommending an Article 32. Herron says she heard the same thing from the officers assigned to her investigation in the staff judge advocates office.

Yet, after those repeated assurances, Herron was told by the staff judge advocate in charge of her case that he had recommended no Article 32 hearing and that the case be dropped for lack of evidence.

All that was before she began speaking with senators. Now it appears the Article 32 hearing may still take place after all. Herron protested to know why but says she received no further answers.

An NCIS public affairs officer declined to comment on Herron's case, stating that the agency “does not discuss open investigations.”

There were other legal irregularities in Herron’s case. Until she brought it up herself, Herron was never provided with a victim’s legal counsel (VLC), which she is required to have under federal law. After she brought it up herself and was appointed a VLC, the first question Herron asked her was “Why did it take a year for me to get a VLC? A day after I reach out to Washington suddenly you appear, but the week my attacker’s command is making their decision in this case isn’t it too little too late?”

That conversation occurred in late March; it is the last time that Herron spoke with her VLC.

The requirement for the VLC was part of a series of changes that were supposed to show the Pentagon could fix the military justice system’s procedures for dealing with sexual assault by itself—without the need for a more sweeping Congressional overhaul. As Herron’s case shows, even the more modest changes put in place have not yet been fully adopted. The next move in her case is, at this point, unknown.

Editor’s note: This article has been edited to remove the name of the accused in this case who is under investigation but has not yet been charged with any crime by the Marine Corps.