Lawmakers and victims’ advocates blasted defense officials on Tuesday for an incomplete and inadequate response to domestic violence incidents in the ranks, saying they may be undermining faith in military leadership by overlooking large numbers of cases annually.
“Excuses are over, the safety and wellbeing of our service members is at risk,” said Rep. Jackie Speier, chairwoman of the House Armed Services Committee’s personnel panel.
“We know that over 40,000 incidents met DoD criteria for domestic abuse between 2015 and 2019 and that 74 percent of those incidents were physical abuse. But how many were never counted by the Department? How many were never reported? For more than 20 years, no one can say.”
Department officials said they are working on reforms to answer those questions, but advocates said they have seen similar past promises go unfulfilled.
At issue is how domestic abuse and violence cases in the military are recorded by service officials.
Brenda Farrell, director of the Government Accountability Office’s defense capabilities team, said that the 40,000 incidents count comes from DOD’s Family Advocacy Program.
But those incidents represented only those that met the DoD criteria for domestic abuse. DoD hasn’t collected data for all abuse allegations filed, including those that don’t meet military criteria for domestic abuse (even though that is required by law, committee members noted).
“We found that it is not possible to determine the total number and type of domestic abuse allegations received across DoD because the services use different data collection methods, which may result in DoD’s undercounting of the number of allegations received,” she said.
“As a result, DoD is unable to assess the scope of alleged abuse and its rate of substantiation.”
That’s a problem, advocates said, because military officials can too easily overlook spousal abuse as a problem outside of their area of responsibility.
Amy Logan, the former wife of a senior enlisted soldier, said she endured several years of emotional and verbal abuse before her husband turned to physical abuse. As she sought a divorce and protective order against him, she learned of similar violence against his former partners, apparently ignored by Army leaders.
“Commanders, colonels and military personnel need to properly report all allegations and conduct proper investigations,” she told the committee. “If this is not done, future commanders of the alleged abuser will then have no idea that this same individual has been accused of these actions before.”
Patricia Barron, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Military Community and Family Policy, vowed that changes are on the way.
“The department is committed to enhancing the welfare and well being of our service members and their families, which includes preventing and responding to domestic abuse and serious harm to our children,” she said. “As well as it being the right thing to do, it is also imperative to the readiness, wellness and resilience of our force.”
But Speier said that military officials are already ignoring congressional mandates on the data, undermining their promises that they take the issue seriously.
Defense officials said that in 2020, rates of spouse abuse reports in the military and substantiated cases were down compared to 10-year averages. But they acknowledged that still translates into thousands of abuse cases each year.
And officials also reported increases in intimate partner abuse last year. Service officials could not say whether the rates of domestic violence among military members is higher than the rest of the country, because they have not analyzed the data in that way.
Lawmakers said they plan to look at additional legal changes to force better monitoring of the issue, saying that officials can’t promise a better response to the problem if they don’t understand all of the impact on military families.
“This is really concerning when your business is national security and readiness,” said Rep. Chrissy Houlahan, D-Pa. “And so this is something that really deserves our attention.”
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.