Wife Beating Seen As
Epidemic In US Military

By Alan Elsner
National Correspondent

FORT BRAGG, N.C. (Reuters) - A spate of murders involving military spouses at the Fort Bragg army base has focused new attention on domestic violence in the U.S. armed services, which critics say the Pentagon has failed to adequately address.
Though the military acknowledges it could do a better job collecting statistics on domestic violence by service personnel, studies have suggested that abuse rates are two to three times higher than in the civilian population.
Defense Department estimates suggest incidents of domestic violence in the military rose from 18.6 per 1,000 marriages in 1990 to 25.6 per 1,000 in 1996. Rates fell slightly from 1997-1999 but there were more moderate to severe incidents.
The figures did not include an unknown number of cases not reported or handled informally by commanders, or violence against girlfriends or unmarried live-in partners, who have no legal standing in the eyes of the military.
"The military has simply not come to terms with the problem. They've known about it for a long time, and have repeatedly acknowledged the severity of the problem, but they have not dealt with it," said Terri Spahr Nelson, a former army psychotherapist and author of a book on rape and sexual harassment in the military.
At Fort Bragg, home of elite U.S. airborne divisions and Special Forces, four soldiers allegedly killed their wives in June and July. Three were Special Forces soldiers who had served in Afghanistan. Two committed suicide and the other two were charged with murder. One victim was stabbed 70 times.
In a fifth case, a major in the Special Forces was allegedly killed by his wife, who was charged with murder.
In 2000, the Pentagon set up a task force on domestic violence, which reported last year with recommendations.
These included: holding offenders accountable -- few are disciplined or punished today; amending the Uniform Code of Military Justice to proscribe violations of civilian protection orders not currently punishable; upgrading military police and forensics investigation of abuse, and providing more confidentiality to those who report abuse.
In response, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz issued a strong statement declaring a "zero tolerance" policy.
"Commanders at every level have a duty to take appropriate steps to prevent domestic violence, protect victims and hold those who commit it responsible," he said.
Laura Sandler, who lives near Fort Bragg, said the army failed to do that in her case. She was married to a major who abused and no one in the chain of command would listen to her cries for help. A few years after she finally got rid of him, she started dating an enlisted man on the base.
"He was sweet at first but the beatings soon started. Once he beat me up in his barracks with four other soldiers watching. Nobody did anything. I went to his commanders. They said it was terrible but they did nothing," she said.
Eventually, the couple was referred to a chaplain and her boyfriend ordered to take an anger management course. He made only half the sessions and beatings and death threats went on.
Realizing the military authorities would take no action against him, the boyfriend became bolder and more violent, often abusing Sandler in public. The nightmare only ended when he was honorably discharged and moved away.
That pattern is not unusual. Of 1,213 reported domestic violence incidents known to military police in 2000 considered serious enough to merit disciplinary action, the military reported 29 in which the perpetrator was court-martialed or sent to a civilian court for prosecution, said University of North Carolina social anthropologist Catherine Lutz, who has studied the issue.
"The military has an enormous investment in each of its soldiers, but especially for those in elite units like Special Forces. That makes them very reluctant to take any action, knowing that the military would have to shrink quite a bit if they got rid of all the known abusers," she said.
"There is also a culture of hostility toward women in the military which includes the rape of female and some male soldiers and civilians, lesbian and gay bashing and brutal hazing rituals," she said.
Military wives and girlfriends may be especially vulnerable to violence because they often live far from family and friends. They also know an abuse report will quickly be passed on to unit commanders and get back to the abuser himself.
Many wives fear that if they speak up, their husbands' careers will end, depriving the family of income and health benefits and provoking more rage and violence.
Fort Bragg garrison commander Tad Davis said commanders tried to spot signs of trouble and intervene before violence occurred. "We want them to seek assistance early on, before things go too far down the road to violence," he said.
Fort Bragg chaplain Bob Loring, who heads the base family life program, said he regarded almost every marriage as salvageable, even after violence. But if he feels a spouse is in danger, he will try to help her protect herself by putting together a plan so she has somewhere to take refuge.
"If the perpetrator is willing to admit that he has been violent and that he has been wrong, they could work together to save that marriage," Loring said. "The military believes in taking care of its own and taking care of its families."
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