The Air Force wife was stunned.

She had allowed a photo of herself with her husband and children to be posted on a website.

Soon, an anonymous commenter labeled them "the fat family."

Other online trolls doubled down on the nastiness in a stream of intense, crude insults about each family member's appearance.

Even more shocking: The online troll who initiated the online attack, a Facebook profile revealed, was an Army colonel.

"I sent him a private message on Facebook, telling him, 'I'm a real person with real children. This is hurtful. Can you take this down?' " said the spouse, who asked to remain anonymous.

No response.

"I sat up all night. In the morning, I went back to the comment site, called him out by name and rank publicly, and said: 'I'm a real person with a real family. Can you please take this down?' Within minutes, it was gone." She never learned if any action had been taken against him by his chain of command.

Her experience is becoming increasingly familiar as the bizarre pastime of mob-like Internet assaults on military dependents — primarily women — runs amok.

Secure in their online anonymity, practitioners openly defy efforts to curb their abuse. Their crass term for their targets, "dependapotamus," speaks to a popular if twisted stereotype of dependent spouses as heavyset freeloaders motivated only to cash in on the pay and benefits of their long-suffering military spouses.

The Air Force wife remains perplexed that her attack was ignited by a senior officer.

"How could you publicly make comments like that when it's your job to take care of mission and family?" she said.

Experts say cyberbullying of military spouses has been on the rise, manifesting in various ways: online gathering spots in social media for those with similar inclinations; comments and stories posted to blogs online; and trolls who specifically seek out military spouses to personally attack.

Women are the main target for the abuse in this hostile realm, which has received little oversight, largely due to the unchallenged assumption that the Internet's anonymity makes accountability all but impossible.

Growing concerns about the online phenomenon parallel heightened awareness of the extent of harassment and assaults on women in uniform and demands by advocates and political supporters for accountability, from perpetrators to top commanders.

A military wife says she was at home with her 16-year-old daughter when vile comments and notifications began to flow into her cellphone.

"Why are people using these words?" asked her daughter, who happened to be next to the phone.

"It took my breath away," said the spouse, who also asked to remain anonymous. "Nothing like seeing your mom called a c--- and a bitch while you're sitting at your kitchen table."

There were other comments like this one: "You don't do a damn thing. You're useless. Stop acting like you served."

Why were bullies targeting her? Apparently, she had posted online promotions for her new book, and had simply associated the words "military spouse" with them.

She was shocked at what — and who — came at her for that innocuous act.

"I thought: 'We need to stop them.' "

Feeding stereotypes

The phenomenon now fairly qualifies as a subculture. Websites and Facebook pages abound that delight in riffing on the "dependapotamus," "dependa" and other derogatory terms for a stereotypical military spouse, usually portrayed as lazy, often overweight, spending her military husband's hard-earned money on expensive handbags and frivolities to the point that the children go hungry.

The almost universally female stereotype is imbued with a sense of entitlement, a consistent theme that most spouses "wear their husband's rank."

Air Force spouse Angie Drake calls individuals who post such material "dependapotamus hunters," and says they troll the Internet for comments and pictures for, about and by military spouses, always ready to respond with an insult or vulgarity.

They also keep watch at commissaries, exchanges and other communal settings on installations, ready to snap a picture for posting and ridicule, she said.

Spouses have found their pictures posted or tweeted with derogatory comments simply because they are spouses. One wife, pregnant with twins, had her picture posted and vilified. Others also found themselves targeted in comment sections on public websites.

Just as disturbing, many of the attacks apparently come from within the military community, from active-duty members, retirees, veterans — and even military spouses themselves, engaging in internecine warfare.

Targets say their sense is that no clear, pragmatic response has emerged to the swelling tide of invective.

Even defining the problem is dicey; there have been no studies of cyberbullying among adults, said Michelle Boykins, spokeswoman for the National Crime Prevention Council, and studies among teenagers show the problem has actually declined by 6 percent to 8 percent for that demographic over the past five years.

The legal apparatus has not helped, either.

On June 1, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Anthony Douglas Elonis, convicted of violating federal law after he posted on Facebook graphically violent language and imagery concerning his wife, co-workers, a kindergarten class, and state and federal law enforcement officers.

The court reversed an earlier decision, noting that Elonis' conviction, based on how his Facebook posts would be viewed by a "reasonable person," is inconsistent with the conventional requirement that the accused have awareness of some wrongdoing.

One spouse said she has considered seeking funding for an education program to at least raise awareness among spouses around the country. Another said she thinks one problem is that Internet harassment "isn't taken as seriously as real-life harassment."

"But it needs to be taken seriously either by civilian law enforcement or military authorities. If people feel emboldened to make threats against people online, they could do it in person," she said.

Some are calling for the Defense Department to get involved. Jeremy Hilton, an Air Force husband, says senior leaders need to take a multipronged approach and reiterate and reinforce, through written and verbal means, that this behavior is unacceptable and that active-duty members, in particular, will be held accountable.

Spouses and troops also need information on how to make formal complaints, he said.

"I don't have a complete understanding of the various tools DoD has to deal with this issue, which I suspect are greater than I realize," he said. "It's going to take some real investigating to understand the problem and decide what to do."


"It's ... a surprise to all of us how it seems to be increasing," Rosemary Freitas Williams said of the phenomenon.

"In many ways, we expect more out of our military community," said Williams, DoD's deputy assistant secretary for military community and family policy.

DoD does, in fact, have two ongoing efforts to address the issue, she said: The department's hazing policy is being updated, to specifically address online cyberbullying, and the Army also has had a task force working since March to update policy on online conduct.

It's not just about keeping up morale and being polite, Williams said; it's also a recruiting and retention issue: "Who'd want to join any organization that attacks each other?"

DoD pays attention to all risk factors, and has provided information to service members and families about cyber safety, and about cyber hygiene, Williams said, adding: "It's not just about passwords."

Still, the anonymity of online interaction makes it difficult to measure and define the problem.

If a service member is determined to be cyberbullying, officials must determine whether regulations have been broken or crimes have been committed under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

The spouse who has thought about launching an education and awareness program doesn't think the answer will be found in policy.

"It has to come from the community,' she said. "I would rather see spouses rally around each other, to take the wind out of [the cyberbullies'] sails."

Constitutional issues also come into play, with cyberbullies often asserting free-speech rights. Yet spouses note those same bullies are swift to attack any spouse who speaks up to defend herself and others online.

"They're allowed to say whatever they want, but if you counter that, they call you out as 'overly sensitive.' They are playground bullies," said the military wife targeted after promoting her book. "It's definitely taken on a life of its own."

"Trolling" for negativity related to military spouses for later posting online has even spread to private chats in online military family readiness group forums.

"Someone asks a question, and people think it's dumb. They take a screenshot and post it to a public site. It's troubling, but I don't know any way around that," the wife said. "Spouses need a place to be supported. They shouldn't be afraid to ask a question."

Some spouses have gradually pulled away from social media sites. "I'm so tired of not being able to speak up without being called a dependa or getting screenshot and posted," wrote one spouse in a comment to Drake's blog describing the Dependapotamus Hunter" on Military OneClick.

Behavior defended

After Drake's blog, a number of people defended such behavior toward military spouses.

"These pages were not created to bully anyone, they were created to show others that the behaviors of these wives are not ok," wrote "Crista."

"It is sad that the soldiers don't do or say anything to wives who make them look like jackasses. Don't do things to embarrass your husband or the military and you won't be in those pages, simple as that."

"Vanessa" wrote: "Dependas don't serve. They don't say goodbye to their children when going on deployment, they don't face the harsh realities of real military life. However they will be the first to complain when they don't get a free meal on Veterans Day."

Air Force wife Tiffany Bodge is concerned that "dependa" is becoming part of the everyday language of military spouses — which she finds ironic, since she sees most spouses as quite independent.

They're "dependent" only in the legal DoD terminology related to their being married to a military member, she said.

Bodge contends that spouses should not just refuse to respond to such material, but refuse to even read it, because even that contributes to the problem.

"We have to call it what it is — it's hate. It's verbal assault," she said.

The basic stereotype has been around for decades, although the specific "dependapotamus" label for the cliché is relatively new.

New label, old stereotype

"I think I popularized the term, but it was around before then," said Maximilian Uriarte, creator of the comic strip "Terminal Lance," which has, on occasion, taken aim at the "dependapotamus."

Uriarte admits he uses his strip to make fun of spouses — along with every other conceivable stereotypical military character.

But he leaves it at the cartoon. "I make a joke and then leave it alone," he said. "Others take it way too far. People are stalking Instagram or Facebook accounts, looking for people who fit the stereotype," then posting them in various places.

Uriarte said he is constantly receiving screenshots or photos from people who want him to blast the images to a larger audience, but he ignores them.

He's stopped looking at a lot of pages, he said, because "it all got so silly. They also kept getting shut down every day. I stick with 'Terminal Lance.' That's what I do."

Contrary to the cyberbullies' claim that spouses have an overdeveloped sense of entitlement, Uriarte said he sees a clear sense of entitlement among cyberbullies who feel they "have the right to stalk people's Instagram and Facebook accounts."

Maximilian Uriarte, creator of the comic strip "Terminal Lance," says he uses his strip to make fun of military stereotypes.

Photo Credit: Maximilian Uriarte

Paul Szoldra, founder of Duffel Blog, a military satire website, and executive editor of "We Are the Mighty," has featured some satiric pieces about the military spouse stereotype and says it is based on a certain type of individual, a small minority in the spouse population — those who, in military-speak, "take on their husband's rank."

During his time in the service, he said he knew "maybe one" spouse who fit the stereotype.

"I know plenty of military spouses, and plenty are very supportive, very nice people. But they all get conflated into one — like you get a couple of bad apples in your platoon and all of a sudden, it's a bad platoon," Szoldra said. "I used to follow a ton of military Facebook pages ... but so many I've stopped following because they are ... on 'fire missions,' calling someone out and attacking them."

Inside human nature

Morten G. Ender, a sociology professor at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, finds rich irony in the idea of a negative stereotype of spouses.

"I think any research would show that military families are probably more fit than the American population as a whole," he said.

"Social media gives everybody a voice. Everybody can share their views. That's the positive side. But the downside is, everybody can share their views."

Human nature is to "ingroup" and "outgroup" people, he said — identifying strongly with someone or vehemently rejecting them.

"To feel secure, feel better about who they are, they create outgroups to somehow strengthen the ingroups," he said. "The Internet and social media can make it more pervasive. ... The Internet brings people together over broader domains ... but it's not the cause. It's just a manifestation of something that's been around for a long time."

The National Military Family Association has seen examples on its own social media channels, said Jordan Barrish, spokeswoman for the nonprofit organization.

Last year, NMFA asked spouses to email a photo and story to make their case about why they should win a free housecleaning being offered by Merry Maids.

"In good faith, we posted photos and names of the winners, not realizing what kind of reaction we would get," Barrish said.

"We had military spouses attacking the winners and the cleanliness of their houses. While some comments were encouraging and supportive, we were shocked to see how some spouses were putting down other military spouses for not keeping a spotless house."

She said they had to monitor the site to make sure comments didn't cross the line. "In the end, other military spouses defended the winners, and that was how it finally died down," Barrish said.

"It basically comes down to people not having empathy for anybody," said Angie Drake, an Air Force wife who is also daughter of an Air Force noncommissioned officer.

"We don't know what they're going through. It's not our job to judge people in our community or any other community.

"It's just not right."

Military wife Kristine Schellhaas,, created this image to send a message about cyberbullying.

Photo Credit: Kristine Schellhaas

Karen has covered military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times for more than 30 years, and is co-author of a chapter on media coverage of military families in the book "A Battle Plan for Supporting Military Families." She previously worked for newspapers in Guam, Norfolk, Jacksonville, Fla., and Athens, Ga.

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