Trapped in a Military Marriage

Photo:Flickr/European Parliament

Tiffany Kettermann didn’t realize that her husband was violent until they were already married. When she met him in April 2003, she thought he was “the most caring, gentle person I had ever met in my life.” She learned he was joining the Air Force. “I was like, ‘Yeah, this is the guy for me.’”

She had no idea that within a year she would be 2,000 miles from home and trapped in a relationship with an emotionally volatile and abusive person.

They married quickly, and before long he received his orders to a military base in Texas. The move meant that Kettermann had to get rid of her two dogs, basset hounds she’d had for years. The night she left the dogs with their new family, she stayed up after her new husband had gone to bed, crying by herself in their home office.

“The door swung open and he just rushed into the room and got about two inches from my face and just started screaming in the most violent way you can even imagine,” she says. “I had never seen anyone do that before at all. I just froze. I remember my tears froze; I couldn’t move. I just couldn’t understand.”

“He was telling me to stop crying and that I’d better shut up or he was going to go over and get the dogs and kill them… repeating over and over that the dogs needed to be dead.”

Kettermann didn’t know how to respond. They went to bed as if it were any other night. “We ended up moving three or four days later like nothing ever happened,” she says. “And then he did it again.”A few days later he blew up in front of other people, including other new arrivals to the base and Kettermann’s 13-year-old daughter from a previous relationship.

The outbursts started coming every few days after that incident. Yelling fights would turn into his breaking down the door. She awoke one night to his hands around her throat, and she recalled how after one fight she came back to the living room to find her husband slowly and calmly sharpening his hunting knife. “It was very clear he was trying to send a message,” she says.

Lindsay Sweetnam is the community programs director at La Casa de las Madres, an organization that offers shelter and support services to those at risk of domestic violence. “Abuse is really about power and control,” says Sweetnam. “The dynamic is that the abusive partner is trying to gain the power and keep the control over their partner, and all the different types of abuse—economic, threats, physical, psychological, sexual— are tactics to gain that power.” The abuse usually gets worse over time, she notes.

Over the years, Kettermann endured fits of rage, physical violence, threats to kill her or her daughter and other family members, being trapped in rooms, being threatened with weapons and the destruction of her personal property at her husband’s hands.

An estimated 19,000 incidents of domestic abuse between spouses were reported to the military’s Family Advocacy Program in 2011. Calculating how often domestic abuse happens in the military is difficult, as it is elsewhere. Domestic violence is one of the most chronically underreported crimes, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. The actual number of occurrences is likely much higher.

Abusive relationships take many forms, ranging from emotional abuse to brutal physical assaults. But they all share one trait—a spouse who sets out to control his or her partner. That makes it especially tough for military spouses to leave marriages marked by violence. Their isolation can be profound—and getting help from the military can be a daunting proposition.

Kettermann stayed in the marriage for six years, which is not unusual for victims of abuse. Some of the circumstances that trapped her are common in abusive relationships. But for those whose lives are intertwined with the military, leaving can be even more difficult.

Isolation and military life

Victims of domestic abuse often have great difficulty coming to terms with the tragic turn their marriage took. Kettermann recalls hearing a domestic violence victim, Leslie Morgan Steiner, describe her experience in a TED talk. “I never once thought of myself as a battered wife,” Steiner said. “Instead I thought of myself as a very strong woman in love with a deeply troubled man that I loved very much.” This resonated with Kettermann. “That’s the way it happened,” she says. “You don’t think of it as being ‘battering.’ It’s just like, ‘I love this person so much. What’s wrong? What can I do to help him?’”

Fear also keeps victims with abusive spouses, trapped by fear of retribution and by low self-esteem and financial dependence. Victims of domestic abuse who are in the military or are the spouse of a service member may face even more barriers. While economic abuse is seen across all populations, says Sweetnam, a victim married to a service member may also fear losing access to housing and medical benefits.

Life on a series of military bases may also translate into little financial freedom for spouses who once had their own jobs. Unemployment among military spouses is consistently high—26 percent—and they have an average wage gap of 25 percent compared to their civilian counterparts. Seventy-seven percent of these spouses want or need work, but find it difficult to obtain due to frequent relocations. Kettermann gave up her career in marketing to follow her husband to his duty stations. Her attempts to find work near the base yielded low-wage jobs at places like the base commissary. “I was completely financially dependent on him at that time,” she says.

Military spouses are more likely to be geographically isolated, or be removed from their support network, Sweetnam says, as service members move frequently. Ketterman’s first move from her home in Idaho was to Texas, and later they were relocated to Mississippi. “I was 2,000 miles from home. No family nearby, no friends nearby except for the new ones that I had met, and who of them do you want to tell what’s going on?” she says. “I was so isolated.”

The military culture itself—one that emphasizes being strong, sacrifice, patriotism, pride in one’s service or as a military spouse—made it difficult to do anything about her abuse, she adds. Kettermann says she felt caught up in the military culture, particularly because the country was heavily involved in conflicts overseas in Iraq and Afghanistan. Being a military spouse was a source of pride, she says, and she felt she was part of something bigger than herself. Reporting the abuse and turning in her husband felt like going against the prevailing support- the-troops culture.

Underneath it all was her fear for her safety. “If I turned him in and destroyed his career…I knew he’d kill me,” she says. “He would have nothing left because his military career meant everything to him, so I was terrified of that.”

Kettermann says that husband was well behaved in public. She recalls speaking with his supervisor at the time, when she started seeking help about the abuse. “I said, ‘You don’t understand. He acts so perfectly because he wants a military career, but as soon as the doors are closed, he is just insanely crazy.’”

Kettermann would eventually report the abuse in two separate incidents. Both were ruled as unsubstantiated, and her husband was not required to seek treatment. Frustrated with the military system, she sought support off the base. The couple divorced in 2009.

A changing system

In the past, advocates expressed deep dissatisfaction with the military’s response to domestic violence. They convinced Congress to create a task force of military and civilian experts. The resulting Department of Defense Task Force on Domestic Violence, which met from 2001 to 2003, made recommendations for improving systems and collaborating with civilian groups. An updated version of the written guidelines was established in 2004, and several updates have been made since. Each branch is at a different stage of implementing some of these changes leading to a unified approach to handling domestic violence.

But implementation across the bureaucracy of several branches of service—Army, Air Force, Marines, Navy, Coast Guard—is slow. Glenna Tinney is the military advocacy program coordinator with the Battered Women’s Justice Project. She is also a former Navy captain and served on the Department of Defense Task Force on Domestic Violence. She explains that each branch of service takes the DOD directive and develops a framework for implementation. Then each installation develops its own plans for responding to domestic violence. As a result, policy and procedure for dealing with abuse cases vary from one branch of the service to the next, and even one base to the next. Kettermann’s abuse took place on an Air Force base from 2003 to 2007, in rural Mississippi. Her attempts to get help then would differ from the experience of someone today who may be based, for example, at Camp Pendleton, a large Marine and Naval base in San Diego.

Now, when victims associated with the military want to report an incident, they have two options: a restricted report and an unrestricted report. In a restricted report, the information is kept private. It allows the victim an opportunity to survey the options without getting law enforcement or the abuser’s command involved.

When an incident is reported within the Navy Fleet in San Diego—whether through the hotline, the hospital or another source—that information gets to the Family Advocacy Program, according to Dr. Morris Touriel, director of the Navy’s San Diego Family Advocacy Center. The program’s first step is to contact the victim and try to understand the situation. If the victim decides to make an unrestricted report, an investigation is conducted. Family Advocacy staff collects whatever information might be available around the incident: medical evaluation, mental health and social assessments of both the alleged abuser and the victim, and any information from the law enforcement investigation. Not all of this information is available in each case; for example, law enforcement is not always involved.

All the information goes before a committee for review of the case. The committee varies from installation to installation, but in general, members include a lawyer (from the Judge Advocate General), a representative of the Family Advocacy Program, someone from the Office of Special Investigations, and the leadership of the abuser’s command and of the entire installation. Basically, all of the alleged abuser’s bosses get together with the legal, law enforcement and advocating entities to make a decision on the case based on the available evidence.

Tinney points out that the resulting report is based on the incident, not on the whole history of the relationship. The committee generally runs each case through an algorithm, a decision-making tool that looks at each specific incident of abuse and determines whether it could be substantiated. This formula helps to standardize the process, rather than leaving it to subjective opinions, she says. But evaluations of domestic abuse may be hard to standardize. In a domestic abuse incident where there may be a lack of physical evidence—no broken bones, for example—the committee needs to determine who is the most credible reporter. If the abuse case is substantiated, Family Advocacy Program services are provided to the victim and the victim’s family, and the abuser is required to attend counseling sessions.

The Family Advocacy Program focuses on intervention and prevention of domestic violence. Its role is not to punish the abuser. Prosecution would come from a criminal prosecution—civilian or military, under the Uniform Code of Military Justice—if the victim were to press charges.

Touriel says that, in the Navy, services are available to both parties, regardless of the ruling. The only difference is that if the incident is ruled unsubstantiated, the abuser is not required to seek treatment.

“There’s a lot more support for people identified as offenders to complete their treatment in our system than in other systems,” Touriel says. “Out in the community, you may go to court, and if you’re convicted and they say ‘Go to treatment,’ no one is really monitoring you.” Enforcement of the abuser’s treatment, however, lies in the hands of the chain of command.

This process of reviewing the incident is not the same as a ruling in a military or civilian court, says Mary Kirby, director of the Navy’s Fleet and Family Support Center in San Diego. “It’s not a guilty or a not guilty verdict,” she says. Victims still have the ability to prosecute the offender in civilian court or through the military court system.

In 2011, of the 19,000 reported cases, about 44 percent were substantiated, and those offenders entered the Central Registry, a system for keeping track of reports of child abuse and domestic violence.

After hearing a brief recount of an incident Kettermann reported, Tinney says she’s not surprised that nothing punitive happened to the husband. Domestic abuse that takes the form of emotional abuse and threats may be more difficult to prove in isolated incidents unless the victim is able to provide evidence that establishes an ongoing pattern of abuse. The same is true, she says, in civilian courts. “The military is a microcosm of the larger society, so they really experience all the same kinds of issues,” Tinney says. “I know people want to say how different the military is—how it’s more violent, etc.—but there’s a lot more similarities than differences.”

“We need to be cautious about overstating how difficult the military system is,” she continues, “because believe me, the civilian system is difficult too.”

Kettermann feels the system did not do enough to help her. Once she filed for divorce, she lost access to things like housing, health insurance and the military community. She was still thousands of miles from home and didn’t know how she’d afford to move herself. Her husband remained in the military, she adds. He transferred to Army, where she says he’s now an officer.

Note: An earlier version of the article spelled Kettermann’s name incorrectly and also stated incorrectly that her husband had transferred to reserve duty.

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