(Editor’s Note: October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month and a member of the Air Force Installation and Mission Support Center wanted to share her experience. “I want people to know there are those who have gone through domestic violence and abuse and made it to the other side. Too often, we don’t openly share our trauma for fear of retribution, judgement and shame but silence perpetuates abuse, and I don’t want to be silent. This is my story.”)
JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-LACKLAND, Texas -- It all began with a pattern of substance abuse.
My husband was active-duty Army stationed at Fort Riley, Kansas, the first time he failed a drug test and his leadership went to bat for him. Understandably, they didn’t want to leave him behind. He was demoted, put on extra duty for a month and ordered to briefly attend substance abuse classes.
Less than two months later, I found out I was pregnant and two weeks after that he was charged with his first DUI.
Since it was his first documented offense, he went through the Kansas Diversion Program and his charges were dismissed.
The Army, however, took a harder stance. The circumstances called for an Other Than Honorable Discharge, but his command went to bat for him again and secured him a General Discharge, allowing him to retain Veteran Affairs benefits.
I was about six months pregnant when he was discharged.
Without a job or a driver’s license, he sat around the house while I worked and things went downhill fast. He was resentful toward the military and bitter about being in Kansas.
Pregnant and 800 miles away from my family in Michigan, I also felt stuck. I walked on eggshells with him. My tone of voice, facial expressions — anything could set him off and I was always on alert for signs I’d triggered his rage.
Eventually he convinced me his behavior stemmed from feelings of inadequacy and failure. He said he wanted the chance to start over with a clean slate and finish his degree at the Texas university he’d attended before joining the Army. If we moved right after our daughter was born, he said he’d immediately get his license back, could start spring semester classes and finish his undergraduate degree within a year and a half. The silver lining to his pitch was that after he graduated, we'd move to Michigan to be near my family.
Eight weeks after I gave birth, I left my job at Fort Riley and we moved to San Antonio with our newborn daughter.
I began working as an Air Force Civil Engineer Center contractor in July 2013, just a few months after moving to Texas.
I told people we’d moved to San Antonio so my husband, who’d recently separated from the Army, could finish the degree he’d begun before enlisting. That was a half-truth because I was too ashamed to tell anyone the full story.
No safe exit
We were there less than two weeks when, after a night of his heavy drinking and verbal abuse, I packed a bag and tried to leave. He slammed my head against the wall and choked me while I held my daughter in her car seat. I remember my vision fading, the sound of a lamp hitting the ground and being afraid that my newborn would be hurt if I dropped her or fell on her if I lost consciousness.
It still scares me to think about what may have happened that night if it hadn’t been for my German Shepherd, Kodiak. There was a lot of snarling and yelling, and then suddenly I could breathe. Kodiak had bit his arm and brought him to the ground. He threatened to have Kodiak euthanized if I called the police.
Too often people will hear stories of domestic violence and say, “If that was me I would just ....”
I want people to know that’s not helpful. Until you’re in that situation and feel the weight of every potential consequence, you can't begin to imagine what you’d do. I recognize my privilege played a key part in my ability to eventually escape my abuser. I am educated, I am financially independent and I have a strong support network, but it still took nearly four years.
What does that say for women who are financially and/or emotionally dependent on their abusers?
At AFCEC, no one had a clue what my home life was like when I left the office each day. I didn’t want them to know because work was my escape. In the office, I had a support network that kept me going. Every day I walked through the doors of Building 1 and the AFCEC team built me up, restored my self-confidence and self-worth, and granted me opportunities to grow as a consultant and a professional in my career field.
In 2014, he swore off drinking after he lost control at a wedding and shoved me. He said he didn't like the way people looked at him like he was a bad guy. I told him if he continued drinking it would be a matter of time before something bad happened and he wasn’t going to get off easy a third time. I was only half right.
Second DUI, another second chance
In 2015 he got another DUI and I really thought he would be charged. I was banking on it when, instead of immediately posting his bail, I went to file for emergency custody. But that’s not what happened. Instead, his veteran status granted him admission to Veteran Treatment Court. Another opportunity to avoid charges if he completed the program.
While the VTC is a valuable hybrid drug and mental health court program that serves veterans struggling with addiction, serious mental illness and/or other disorders, in my case it enabled my abuser to continue abusing me while he navigated program requirements in pursuit of another clean slate.
Because I'd broken his trust by trying to leave, his promise to move to Michigan after graduation was no longer on the table. He also retained an attorney and had papers drawn up to keep me in the state. Instead of serving me, he said that if I left the state with our daughter I’d be hauled back to Texas for legal proceedings. Since he was a veteran who technically didn’t have a record and was in good standing with the VTC, it was unlikely a court would elect to grant anything other than shared custody.
I went to three different lawyers to confirm that scenario. I couldn’t leave our young daughter alone in his custody, it wasn’t safe. I begged him to give me another chance and told him I wouldn’t betray him again.
In 2016, his erratic behavior worsened and he began losing touch with reality. He would stay up for days without sleep and was suspicious of everything I said and did.
One day in desperation, I called the VTC from my car in tears and begged them not to tell my husband I called. I needed them to know he wasn't in the right state of mind and I didn’t feel safe. I wanted them to assess him. They told me he was meeting all program requirements and they couldn’t do anything for me and to call the police. The police said they couldn’t do anything because a crime hadn’t been committed and referred me to a women's shelter.
I wiped away my tears, freshened my makeup and went back to work.
A few weeks later after failing a random drug test, he wanted me to go to the hearing to voice my support in front of the judge and say I thought the mouthwash he was using caused a false positive. If I didn’t support him, he said he’d never reconsider moving to Michigan.
At the hearing I stayed silent when the judge confronted him. He got lucky though and wasn’t kicked out of the program. He didn’t consider himself lucky and yelled at me in the courthouse lobby. One of the Bexar County probation officers witnessed his verbal attack and called us into her office. She served in the Marines before becoming a probation officer, and that moment landed him on her radar.
He pulled out all the stops in front of the PO. He told her how much stress he was under, he appealed to their shared military service, he blamed the miscarriage I had a few months earlier for plummeting him into depression. He cried.
She stared at both of us for a few moments before she looked at him and said, “I see right through you.”
The drive home was bad. The officer’s words infuriated him, and he was mad at me “for pretending to be a victim” and pitting a PO against him. I had the officer’s card in my pocket. She’d handed it to me as we were leaving, and I didn’t want him to see me put it in my purse.
I didn't see her card as a lifeline — there wasn’t anything she could do for me because there was no way I was leaving without sole custody of my daughter. But, it was my first sign of hope. The first time someone saw right through him and saw me. The first time my safety and wellbeing were more important than preserving his career and clean slate.
About this time, I approached my leadership and asked to be considered for a remote position once my current contract expired. I said, for personal reasons, I needed the ability to move back home to Michigan quickly if the opportunity presented itself. They agreed.
Light at the end of the tunnel
One month later, he failed another drug test and was sent to jail. He called me to post his bail, but I called the probation officer instead. She couldn’t give me much information, but she said she would speak to the judge personally and recommend his probation be rescinded. She told the judge my story and asked him to consider the impacts to me and my daughter if he was released. I did not post his bail.
Between his time in jail awaiting his hearing and the four-month, in-patient treatment he was ordered to complete, I was able to move back home to Michigan and meet the six-month residency requirement a week before his release. I served him divorce papers and was granted sole custody of our daughter.
Today, I live in Michigan with my daughter, who now shares my maiden name, and I still work for my clients at the Air Force Installation and Mission Support Center. My first two years back home I had constant nightmares. In the benign ones he would show up at my house threatening to fight for custody. But more often, my dreams revolved around him attacking me and my daughter, with me being too injured to pull myself to where she lay dying. My fear and anxiety was incapacitating at times. But thanks to therapy and a new hobby, submission grappling, I’ve learned to manage my fears and not let them run my life, but it never completely goes away.
In May 2021, the U.S. Government Accountability Office released a Domestic Abuse report to Congress. The report documented perspectives from military-affiliated domestic abuse survivors.
Among the top barriers to reporting abuse: financial dependence, fear of not being believed, impact to abusers career and fear of retaliation. For those who reported abuse to commanders, 36% perceived no action was taken and only 5% notified FAP.
The Department of Defense is raising awareness on this important issue with a multi-service campaign that includes links to resources and support programs, like the Family Advocacy Program. While these are vital resources, chain of command is the first, and sometimes most powerful, line of defense.
Post-Traumatic Stress, substance abuse and domestic violence often go hand-in-hand. I know military leaders face difficult challenges, and I won’t pretend I have all the answers, but there are two things that I believe would move the needle in the right direction:
● Prioritize domestic abuse training for everyone in leadership positions. Ensure leaders are aware of their key responsibilities for domestic abuse prevention and response and can safely connect victims to available resources.
● Always see beyond the service member. While commanders have a duty to take care of their service members, it shouldn’t be at someone else’s expense.
Yes, domestic violence accusations CAN pose a threat to someone’s career, but domestic violence DOES pose a threat to someone’s life. Never lose sight of which is more important.