Military Service and Domestic Violence: How It Impacts Survivors

The military is a crucial part of the U.S. government. They protect U.S. interests through military operations in the U.S. and around the world. When you combine active-duty military, military reserve, and family members, over 4.5 million people comprise the Department of Defense community. These are people who are either in dating relationships or married. But with the cycle of deployment, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), alcohol abuse, and sexual assault, the emotional trauma of military service and domestic violence are intrinsically interconnected for both survivors and partners who are abusive.

Reducing Domestic Violence Within Military Service Communities

More than 1.3 million active-duty service members serve in the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force, Space Force, and Coast Guard. Nearly 17.5% of active-duty military service members are women, less than 50% are married, and 35% have children.

Each U.S. military branch has its subgroups and groups. These groups become integral to the military community and support system as military service progresses. An influential member of each group is the Command Leader, essentially the supervisor or leader of the group. In addition to reporting when a partner is abusive, they also report incidents of domestic violence that are known or suspected of occurring. When a relationship is deemed abusive, they monitor both partners to assist in expediting a transfer if necessary.

The Family Advocacy Program (FAP) is another crucial part of the military service community. The program addresses issues related to child abuse, neglect, problematic sexual behaviors, and domestic abuse. Through advocacy, counseling, and education, they ensure survivors’ safety and treatment when domestic violence is reported. These services are available to anyone, military or civilian status.

Factors Contributing to Domestic Violence in Military Service Communities

In the military, domestic violence survivors experience unique experiences and cultural influences. Some of these challenges are shared by domestic violence survivors, while others are unique to military members and their families. Below are common factors that can create added challenges for survivors and their families.

Stress and Pressure of Serving

Active Duty Stress

It can be stressful and challenging to serve in the military. It involves extended time away from family and friends. This time is often in another state or country. This time away may also be in a combat zone. This means that everyone is on high alert for danger, as well as working long hours with limited sleep. These high-intensity situations are taxing for military service members and impacts their mental health.

Post-Traumatic Stress

An individual suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) may experience flashbacks, severe anxiety, and uncontrollable thoughts about the experience as a result of experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event or series of events. Unfortunately, many military service members experience PTSD. In addition to substance misuse and comorbid psychiatric disorders, individuals with PTSD have a higher prevalence of risk factors associated with increased violence, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Deployments and Frequent Moving

Service members are frequently deployed or relocated due to their assignment to different bases or operations. Military personnel and their families may become increasingly isolated from their support systems due to this move. In addition, frequent moves can make finding resources in your new area or building a community difficult. Moving into military housing when relocating is expected, where service members remain connected to their communities. However, for domestic violence survivors, this may be challenging as they may hesitate to talk about their abusive experiences to people who know their partner.

Stationed Abroad

Being stationed outside the U.S. has its own unique challenges. Someone stationed outside the U.S. may experience a lack of privacy due to living on the base and being surrounded by other military members. Finding someone to talk to about such a personal topic might be challenging. If a survivor acts against their abusive partner, they may also fear retaliation from other military personnel while on base.

Additionally, there may also be a language barrier. This can make it extra challenging to find a support network, domestic violence resources, or care. Depending on someone’s location, there may also be limited DV services available. It is also more challenging to leave a violent partner when you are stationed outside the U.S., far away from friends or family in the U.S.

Other Contributing Factors Include: 

Financial Hardships

Many survivors fear losing benefits or facing financial difficulties if they leave an abusive partner. However, this can be exacerbated if their partner is in the military. The military provides most resources, like healthcare and housing, for active-duty service members and their families. This dependency on the military can create many issues when someone experiences abuse. If a survivor left, they could lose housing, healthcare, childcare, financial support, and other benefits. This financial abuse can severely limit a survivor’s options when experiencing abuse.

Survivors who are still on active duty may also fear losing their security clearance if they report the abuse to their commanding officer. This could lead to them losing their job and is another reason why many survivors may not disclose the abuse. For survivors who are veterans, there is the added challenge of finding a job to support themselves. Sadly, many veterans struggle to find employment after serving.

Easy Access to Firearms

A considerable risk factor for domestic violence in military service is access to firearms. Some service members may take their guns with them when they return home, or they may have access to an armory on base. Access to a gun increases the risk of homicide by an abusive partner by 500%. Domestic violence survivors must understand the risks of firearms in an abusive relationship and take steps to safety plan. Survivors connected to the military may also use those firearms for self-defense. It’s important to safety plan around firearms, regardless of why the gun is in the home.

Substance Abuse

Being with an abusive partner is already a difficult and dangerous situation. Substance abuse, such as alcohol or drug abuse, only makes matters worse. Though drugs and alcohol do not cause abuse, the risk of all types of abuse (physical, digital, emotional, financial, and sexual) increases when a partner is under the influence. A recent behavioral health investigation by the Army found that 22% of military service members reported heavy drinking, sleep problems, and job dissatisfaction.

Although substance abuse among veterans is well documented, it is just as problematic among active-duty members of the United States Armed Forces. In addition, alcohol and prescription drugs (including sedatives and opioid painkillers) are more commonly abused than illicit drugs.

Sexual Assault

All forms of abuse can be difficult to endure. But, we know that survivors of sexual abuse are often hesitant to talk about it even if they have previously opened up to a friend, counselor, or Hotline advocate about other forms of abuse. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs uses the term military sexual trauma (MST) to refer to sexual assault or threatening sexual harassment experienced during military service. MST includes any sexual activity during military service in which you are involved against your will or when unable to say no. People of all genders, ages, sexual orientations, racial and ethnic backgrounds, and branches of service have experienced MST. Like other types of trauma, MST can negatively affect a person’s mental and physical health, even many years later.

Help is available.

Any abusive relationship is complicated. This is especially true for someone in the military or dating a military service member. Though there are unique challenges with military service and domestic violence, there are also resources focused specifically on domestic violence survivors connected to the military. You can search our local resources page to find resources that meet military service members’ or veterans’ specific needs. Military OneSource is also a helpful resource if you need support. Our advocates are available 24/7 through chat, text, and call if you have questions or are unsure of your situation. You are not alone.

Read part two of our blog to get more in-depth information on the Family Advocacy Program and other resources available to military personnel experiencing abuse.