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Bringing the Violence Home

The military is doing little to reduce the heightened risk of domestic violence when soldiers return home from Iraq.
 
 
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As thousands of soldiers start streaming home from Iraq, families and communities are bearing the burden of their wounds of war. At Fort Carson, Colorado, where some 12,000 soldiers have already returned from Iraq, many are displaying a vast range of serious mental health problems. Kaye Baron, a clinical psychologist in Colorado Springs with the Department of Veterans Affairs told UPI, "The pattern I'm seeing is that they are not being evaluated very thoroughly."

Over the past two years, several returning soldiers have turned their guns on their families and themselves. In mid-March of this year, Army Special Forces soldier Bill Howell, home just three weeks from the frontlines of Iraq, assaulted his wife, and then pulled out a .357-caliber revolver and committed suicide. A month later, another Iraq veteran at Fort Lewis, Washington, turned himself after killing his 28-year-old wife.

The link between domestic violence and post-war trauma has been well documented in previous wars. During a six-week period in 2002, three soldiers recently returned from Afghanistan at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, killed their wives in similar incidents. Two of the accused men committed suicide, while the third did the same nearly a year later.

In Iraq, while the war itself was brief in Iraq -- seizing Baghdad within weeks -- the prolonged occupation has meant lengthy tours of duty for the troops. Moreover, soldiers that might well have died in previous wars have been kept alive because of better equipment and intensive battlefield medicine. As a result, many are returning home with serious injuries that require not just physical rehabilitation but also long-term psychological counseling. Dr. Gene Bolles, who served for two years as the chief of neurosurgery services at Landsthul Regional Medical Center in Germany, recently told a Boulder, Colorado audience that thousands of GIs have been admitted to Landsthul for psychiatric care.

Even without physical injuries, soldiers have a hard time leaving war behind. The term 'post-traumatic stress disorder' was first used to describe the symptoms of soldiers returning from a combat zone after the Vietnam War. The diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder tends to be invoked only when the symptoms such as anxiety, sleeplessness and depression interfere with a person's ability to function on a daily basis.

While the Pentagon is offering some psychiatric help to soldiers and their families, all too often they are not receiving timely or adequate domestic violence prevention or counseling services. Even where there are support-groups at various military bases, many are hesitant to attend their meetings, fearing the stigma attached to psychological problems. Sara Corbett, in an article for the New York Times Magazine, writes of hundreds of soldiers who "by choice or by circumstance, are gutting out the effects of their injuries without the help of peers or mental health counseling."

The burgeoning demand for services at the Miles Foundation underscores the military's failure to adequately address domestic violence. Since its founding in 1996, this Connecticut-based private, non-profit organization has offered assistance to victims and survivors of domestic violence in the military community.

There has always been a significantly higher incidence of domestic violence among military families than in the civilian population, which has 3.1 incidents of domestic violence per 1,000 people. According to Dept. of Defense figures, however, these incidents have been decreasing steadily. The rate of reported domestic violence incidents in the military was 18.6 to 25.6 per 1,000 military personnel between 1990 and 1996; it decreased to 16.5 per 1,000 in 2001.

Kate Summers, director of services at the Miles Foundation, says that the military's latest numbers are deceptive. "The numbers were lower in 2001 because the Dept. of Defense changed their methods of counting incidents, and revised the severity levels of incidents. They are only counting spouse abuse, not intimate partner violence involving fiancées, boyfriend/girlfriend situations, or former spouses," she says

The Pentagon has taken some steps in recent years to address the problem. The National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2000 required the DoD to establish a Defense Task Force on Domestic Violence, whose purpose "is to improve the military's responsiveness and effectiveness in addressing matters relating to domestic violence."

In October 2002, the Congress approved an amendment to the final version of the Defense Appropriations Bill that provided $5 million -- cut back from the original amount of $10 million that was proposed -- to fund victim advocates within the military services. But as Summers points out, "Victim advocates in the military help those affected by abuse navigate the system. None of the money was earmarked toward prevention."

Congress is also currently considering an authorization bill that includes a provision requiring the Pentagon to address sexual violence in the military. There is no specific funding figure attached to it; the DoD is supposed to report back to Congress in March 2005.

While these steps are encouraging, the military -- both the leadership and the soldiers -- remains staunchly resistant to acknowledging domestic violence as a serious problem. The Miles Foundation has come under fire from some in senior military leadership who describe its members as "unpatriotic" and "traitors." But as the soldiers come home, groups such as these may be the only hope they have of avoiding Bill Howell's fate.

Bill Berkowitz is a freelance writer covering right-wing groups and movements.