House lawmakers are blasting defense officials for allowing domestic abuse to become “a forgotten crisis” in the military, saying not enough has been done to protect victims, punish attackers or even track the issue.

Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., chairwoman of House Armed Services Committee’s personnel panel, said she is looking at possible legislative changes on the topic, to include mandating a higher level of command review for any criminal abuse and required reports on how cases have been handled.

“Military spouses are often isolated, living far from friends or family and unfamiliar with local resources,” she said at a hearing on the topic Wednesday, “It’s unfortunately easy to see how these conditions can make domestic violence possible, more dangerous, and persistent.

“Commanders, at every level, need to make combating domestic violence a personal priority.”

Domestic violence has only been a crime under the Uniform Code of Military Justice for a few months, after lawmakers added it as part of last year’s defense authorization bill. Before that, offenses were prosecuted under a patchwork of other regulations, which advocates said severely restricted the services’ ability to track and monitor the problem.

The most recent comprehensive task force analysis on the issue took place 15 years ago, a fact that committee members lamented as potentially ignoring serious problems in the ranks. A 2017 Blue Star Families survey found that about 15 percent of military family members did not feel physically safe in their current relationship.

Earlier this year, the Defense Department Inspector General found that military response to domestic violence cases were inconsistent, with service law enforcement frequently making mistakes in processing crime scenes and infrequently informing victims of support services.

Wednesday’s hearing included testimony from a series of abuse victims who said their problems were exacerbated by military leadership, instead of receiving help and support.

The National Domestic Violence Hotline is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Kate Ranta, a former Air Force spouse, said her husband first threatened her and her son with a gun while the family lived in military housing. Air Force investigators reviewed the case and recommended a court-martial for him, but local commanders opted for administrative punishment instead, allowing him to retire with only minor consequences.

A year later, her husband broke into her new civilian home and shot her and her father twice, while their son watched. Both survived. He was later arrested and sentenced to 60 years in prison.

“We saw justice on the civilian side, but not the military side,” she said. “All of this was preventable.

“It made no sense to me (that the military did not prosecute him). I had done everything right. I had reported him. I had gotten a protection order. He should have been held accountable.”

Defense officials said they believe their current policies regarding domestic violence are “comprehensive,” but said more work remains to provide better response.

A.T. Johnston, deputy assistant secretary of defense for military community and family policy, also said she was unaware of problems publicizing the department's Family Advocacy Program. But two of the three victims who testified at Wednesday’s hearing said they had no knowledge of the FAP when they were abused, and never used any of its services.

Several lawmakers said they want a review of command discretion in domestic violence cases, saying they are disturbed by anecdotal reports of leaders allowing abusers to escape jail time in lieu of retirement or separation from the military.

Outside advocates said more must also be done to work on prevention strategies, not just abuse response issues. David Lee, director of prevention services at PreventConnect, said anti-violence and conflict management training must be part of a broader strategy to address the issue.

“Simply talking about awareness is not enough,” he said.

The Defense Department has a series of awareness campaigns on domestic abuse scheduled for next month, as part of National Domestic Violence Awareness Month. Lawmakers at Wednesday’s hearing said they expect to be pressing Pentagon officials on the issue for months to come.

Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.

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