News & Politics

How War Destroys the Lives of Military Families.

Stacy Bannerman talks about her involvement with the issue of spousal and child abuse committed by returning veterans.

Stacy Bannerman is an elegant, but intense amplification of American conscience competing with a cacophony of cruelty and neglect. In 2003, her husband, a member of the Army National Guard, was mobilized to fight in the Iraq War. She summoned the passion of her personal investment, along with the knowledge of her education – a Bachelor’s Degree in International Relations – to act as a board member of Military Families Speak Out, the largest anti-war organization comprised of military families.

Her advocacy for peace and veteran’s care quickly commenced a confrontation with the consequences that ensue “When,” to quote the title of her book, “The War Came Home.”

Bannerman has now become a leading advocate for the spouses and children of combat veterans. Thousands of women become casualties of America’s wars when their partners return from the battlefield, often with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or Traumatic Brain Injury, and target them for assault and violence. Department of Defense and Veterans Affairs studies both demonstrate that rates of domestic violence are dramatically higher in homes where one parent served in a combat role, and the Army Times recently reported that since 2009, child abuse in Army families has risen by a staggering 40 percent.

In the words of Bannerman, “The veterans enlisted. Their families were drafted.”

The lack of attention politicians and pundits give to crises of abuse and neglect in veteran families is criminal. Bannerman has dedicated her life to bringing comfort and consolation to spousal abuse victims, and more importantly, fighting to convince the political establishment – at the state and federal levels – to allocate resources to assist and protect the women and children whose real combat begins when their family member in uniform receives his discharge. She has testified in front of the House and the Senate, and met with over 80 Congressional representatives. Stacy has argued for the passage of the Kristy Huddleston Act, a bill that she wrote and named after a close friend, whose combat veteran husband murdered her.

Bannerman continues the story she began with When The War Came Home in her newest book, Homefront 911 an important and insightful look at how war destroys the lives of military families.

I recently discussed Stacy Bannerman’s heroic work with her on the phone.

David Masciotra: How did you get involved with the issue of spousal abuse and child abuse committed by returning veterans?

Book cover of 'Homefront 911.'
Photo Credit: 
amazon.com

Stacy Bannerman: I got involved because I kept hearing more firsthand accounts from military family members of the domestic abuse that was occurring in their home after their veteran came back. I want to be clear upfront that in no way is this all veterans, or even most veterans, but what we do know and research certainly bears out is that the majority of combat veterans with PTSD, and this is according to studies from the VA, commit at least one act of interpersonal violence in their first year post-deployment. Combat vets with PTSD, according to research from Yale (http://nccafv.org/combat_vets.htm), are responsible for roughly 21 percent of all the domestic violence cases in this country. As the study put it, “Domestic violence in this country would go down by 21 percent if there were no combat vets with PTSD.” So, when these post-9/11 wars became longer and longer and longer, I began to hear more accounts from military families about spouses and children being abused, and in some cases, murdered. There have been days when there have been more military family casualties on the home front than there have been military casualties on the war front.

David Masciotra: You had a close friend who was murdered. Can you please talk about her and the bill that you’ve written and championed in her name and honor?

Stacy Bannerman: Kristy Huddleston. I wrote the Kristy Huddleston Act in late 2013, and have sent it to my Oregon Senators, and I’m still waiting for them to sponsor it. They’ve been sitting on it. So, now I’m seeking other support for this really critical act of legislation. I named it honor of Kristy Huddleston who was murdered by her then husband, who had served in Iraq and Afghanistan, multiple tours with infantry.

People need to understand that this is not anti-veteran. I have a large body of work trying to take better care of our veterans. I wrote many years ago that a nation that does not take care of its veterans has got no business making new ones. But, the awful reality of spousal and child abuse is a consequence of war, and therefore, we as a nation have to acknowledge it and address it.

Kristy was a casualty of the war at home.

David Masciotra: What does the bill do, specifically?

Stacy Bannerman:What the bill proposes to do is this – The Department of Defense has something in place called transition funding. That’s a pool of funds in place and available for military dependents, which is typically a spouse and a female. The transition funding provides financial support for a military spouse and the kids in the event that the service member is guilty of domestic abuse. This is important because the unemployment rate in the military service family community is 26 percent. So, military spouses are much more likely to be financially dependent on the service member. Veteran’s Caregivers are even more likely to be financially dependent, because many of us have cut back on hours at work or quit our jobs completely to care for our veteran. My proposed bill would mandate that the Department of Veterans Affairs allocate transition funds, just like the DoD does, to provide support for veteran’s Caregivers for up to 18 months in the event that a veteran is found guilty of domestic abuse. Kristy was the Caregiver Program Coordinator at the VA in White City, Oregon, when she was murdered. The Kristy Huddleston act provides these funds for caregivers, and also makes available medical care and mental health services.

David Masciotra: This is extremely important, and I’m sure it is incredibly frustrating that the Senate is ignoring it. Why does this issue receive so little media coverage and political attention?

Stacy Bannerman:I’ve asked myself that question many times, most recently when the issue arose of domestic violence in the NFL. I thought it was fascinating that around a dozen female Senators wrote a letter to the NFL commissioner asking him to implement a zero tolerance policy against domestic violence in the NFL. That’s all well and good, but the Senators who actually have direct oversight over the VA and DoD did not do the same thing with them. What that speaks to is the unwillingness within virtually all segments of society to take a look at the invisible line item in the cost of war, because that’s what we are.

It is particularly true with the post-9/11 wars because those wars have been fought by such a small segment of the population. The consequences of those wars have been highly, lethally concentrated. The 99 percent that has not been directly touched or impacted by these wars have been groomed to believe that all returning vets are “heroes.” Unfortunately, that shuts down a willingness and honesty to take a real look at how the consequences of the wars continue when the veterans come home.

Just recently, an Operation Iraqi Freedom veteran murdered six people in Pennsylvania. Prior to the killings, a judge called him a “hero” and said he was “happy to have him in the courtroom” during sentencing for his second DUI. The judge let him loose, and he ended up killing his ex-wife and five of her relatives.

David Masciotra: Since 9/11, with the enlargement of the national security state and the expansion of the apparatus of the war, so many women and children have suffered such brutal terror and violence. It is a reverse of lifeboat ethics; women and children first.

Stacy Bannerman: Anyone who works for the VA, or has been there for any amount of time, will acknowledge that. It was a Vietnam vet who worked for the VA who once told me, just as a statement of fact, “it is always the wives and children at home who bear the brunt of the burden of these wars.” Keep in mind that we’ve always known this. That’s why when the draft was still operational, married men with children were always exempt. We knew it, but we as a nation decided to betray that knowledge. The war was marketed to the public with the idea that the military could go to war, but the country did not have to go with them. This was very appealing to many Americans, and we see evidence of that when Senator Lindsey Graham makes the remark- such a bastardization of the social contract, “Isn’t there a social contract; your sons, your daughters, individuals will not have to be drafted because others will come forward and do the job voluntarily?”

David Masciotra: It isn’t that anyone wants to see the painful, and as you say, lethal consequences of war to spread throughout society, but when those consequences are concentrated among one percent of the population, it allows for the remaining 99 percent to turn their heads. What do you think, then, should happen, politically and culturally, in addition to the passage of the Kristy Huddleston Act, to understand the severity of the problem and take action to alleviate it?

Stacy Bannerman: People need to understand that there is no such thing as containing the collateral damage of war. The damage of war is uncontainable. Veterans’ families will live with these consequences for the rest of their lives, and for several generations. The legislation is essential, and I promise you, it will save lives. But it is not enough. We as a nation need to get clear about how the prosecution of these wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has shown that we are not who we claim we are as Americans. If we can have a cultural conversation about domestic violence in the NFL, then for the love of God, we need to have one about intimate partners in military violence, because that domestic violence, make no mistake about it, has been federally funded.

Because we don’t have the resources and wherewithal, there is an underground railroad to try to help some of the military families who have been abused. Right now, we’re helping one woman whose husband has racked up more than half a dozen abuse, stalking, violation of protective order, and vehicle theft charges, but her husband is still in uniform. The Department of Defense gave her relief funds, but it was only a few hundred dollars. That won’t get her very far.

There is some conversation in the VA about getting programs started to try to wrap their arms around this problem, and that’s good, but time is of the essence here. We are losing lives. We need increased emphasis and funding on this issue.

I wrote the language for the State of Oregon Department of Justice in the Stop Violence Against Women Act that specifically identifies veterans’ wives as an at risk, underserved population. That language needs to go national, because if it does, it will increase funding, and it will increase support services and cultural competency.

We need to understand that wives of combat veterans with PTSD are at the highest risk of any population group in America for domestic violence.

David Masciotra: You mentioned a woman you are trying to assist whose husband is still in uniform. Similar to the sexual assault epidemic in the military, is their a problem with Pentagon culture surrounding this issue?

Stacy Bannerman: Well, how many wars has the DoD been fighting on how many fronts for how long? I’m not excusing it, but we need to understand that when politicians make a decision to fight two wars simultaneously without sufficient forces, this is going to happen. The deploy, rinse, repeat deployment cycle is part of the problem. We kept sending the same people to fight the same goddamn wars, and they brought the war home. Yes, there needs to be increased awareness, training, and responsive action. But everyone gets a part of the blame here. America was happy to have these wars. Over ninety percent wanted the war in Afghanistan. More than seventy percent supported the invasion of Iraq, but they didn’t want to pay for them. So, this is what you get.

David Masciotra: What explains this dramatic increase in abuse since 2009?

Stacy Bannerman: They call it “post” combat stress, and it is especially bad when someone has PTSD, TBI, or even a combination of both. The wheels don’t start coming off, typically, within the first six months. It is two, three, four years out, or longer. The new secretary of the VA, Robert McDonald, projected that the peak of veteran needs from these wars would occur in forty years. I don’t think so. It’s going to crest much earlier than that. The post-9/11 troops were a lot older to begin with than GIs of earlier wars, and they are coming home with a lot more wear-and-tear from battle. This is the most married fighting force in US history. That’s significant because it is easier to contain the damages of trauma in isolation. When you come home, with trauma, and you have a wife and children, it is impossible to avoid directly impacting them. I’m referring very specifically to those returning combat veterans with PTSD or TBI, or a combination of both. In those cases, you might as well punch a ticket for problems. And it doesn’t end there. Everything we’ve seen speaks to the trans-generational transmission of combat trauma. In the handful of studies I’ve read, children of Vietnam combat vets are two to three times more likely to commit suicide. We’ve got to stop this.

David Masciotra: Those who feel called to contribute to the effort to stop it should do what?

Stacy Bannerman: Contact representatives on the state and local level regarding the Kristy Huddleston Act. There needs to be a call for a Congressional hearing on the issue. I would love to see PSAs, and that can be done at the local level, on this issue. It begins with education. I would encourage those who run shelters for women escaping domestic violence to increase their cultural competence to meet the needs of this specific population. What else can people do? Listen. If people know the wife of a veteran, especially a veteran with PTSD, they can ask, “How are you doing?” And they can keep asking. Obviously, they need to have a relationship to do that, but I had been writing and speaking on this issue for half a decade before anyone asked me, “What about you?” I said, “What about me what?” And they said, “Has this happened to you?” And I said, “Yes.”

 

David Masciotra is the author of Mellencamp: American Troubadour (University Press of Kentucky). He has also written for Salon, the Atlantic and the Los Angeles Review of Books. For more information visit www.davidmasciotra.com.

 

 

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