Domestic Violence and the Military

Domestic Violence and the Military

Domestic Abuse in Military Families

We know that abuse can happen anywhere, in any family. Military families are no different. But according to one Military Times report, current statistics we have might not tell the whole story. 

From 2015 to 2019, the Department of Defense reported 42,000 domestic abuse incidents among service members and their families. That number, say experts, is likely much higher. 

The law is complicated regarding abuse involving a service member or their family. If the abuse happens on a military installation (in base housing or another government-owned property), the military police take charge of the case. However, if the abuse happens off-base, local authorities can either handle the case themselves or turn it over to military authorities.

Unfortunately, military authorities don’t always protect victims. An in-depth CBS report revealed that military installations have a history of misreporting or underreporting abuse. The report cites victims who say they faced challenges reporting domestic violence. Half of those surveyed said that the Department of Defense needs to do more to protect the abused. 

Perhaps most disturbingly, victims say they are afraid to report abuse because the service member involved could be discharged from the service. Often, the victim has no way to support herself if that happens. It comes down to a horrible choice: financial stability or personal safety.

Factors Contributing to Abuse in the Military

Military spouses and children face many of the same barriers as their civilian counterparts when leaving domestic abuse situations. However, military spouses, in particular, have the added stress of unemployment or underemployment.

The unemployment rate is as high as 25% among military spouses. Those who are employed are often underemployed because of several factors:

  • Constant relocation, making career progression extremely difficult.
  • Familial obligations, as the spouse is often the primary caregiver.
  • Scheduling conflicts due to the service member’s deployments or other travel.
  • Scarcity of good-paying jobs on or near military installations.

This lack of gainful employment means military spouses face additional financial barriers that prevent them from leaving an abusive environment. The constant stress of deployments, moves, and other military duties also contribute to domestic abuse. Underlying issues like PTSD can trigger violent or abusive episodes. Unfortunately, many military spouses feel trapped – emotionally, geographically, and financially.

Many victims fail to report their abuse because it might mean judicial action against the service member. Punishment for the service member might include a reduction in rank (which also means a pay cut) or outright dismissal from military service. While those punishments are certainly justified, many military spouses rely solely on the service member’s income. 

In short, family members don’t report abuse because they often can’t afford to report it. 

Where Military Members Can Get Help

Investigations like those exposed by the Military Times continue to shine a light on abuse in military families. The Department of Defense recognizes the issue, and many military installations and commanders take reports of abuse very seriously. 

In a 2020 report, the U.S. Government Accountability Office called for more oversight, education, and advocacy programs to raise awareness about domestic abuse and the services available for military families.

Military service members, spouses, and children have several options to report domestic abuse safely:

Restricted and Unrestricted Reporting

When reporting to a government agency, keep in mind restricted and unrestricted reporting.

Restricted reporting keeps the victim’s identity hidden and does not automatically involve law enforcement. Restricted reporting agencies are:

  • Healthcare providers
  • Family Advocacy Program Manager
  • Mental health providers
  • Victim’s advocates
  • Military chaplain s
  • Civilian domestic abuse intervention organizations, like the National Domestic Violence Hotline

These agencies can also file unrestricted reports if requested, but they are not required to turn the information over to authorities. Note that the chaplain is a 100% confidential source and cannot report anything you share. If you’re unsure about reporting, the chaplain is a good place to start.

Unrestricted reporting will automatically notify the authorities and the service member’s chain of command. While this seems intimidating, unrestricted reports are vital to the victim’s safety. These reports allow the victim access to on- and off-base counseling and medical services, and protective orders. Unrestricted reporting also grants access to victims’ services to help make a safety plan and provide support. 

The following agencies are “mandatory reporters” and will file unrestricted reports:

  • Military chain of command, including the abuser’s superior
  • Childcare workers and teachers
  • Law enforcement professionals
  • Family advocacy programs, if child abuse is suspected
  • Key Spouse or Family Readiness appointees

If you or someone you know is in an abusive situation, get help. There are ways to report the abuse without bringing legal action if that’s a concern. Contact your local chaplain or go to the National Domestic Violence Hotline and make a plan. 

Image courtesy of Military One Source


**Becca is a military spouse, Air Force Key Spouse, and advocate for military families.

Back to blog