Intimate partner violence (IPV) is a significant problem within the military and among veterans just as it is within the civilian population as a whole.

While there are many similarities among these groups, the challenges military and veteran-related IPV victims face are often more pronounced. Services and support provided from the military services, the Reserve and National Guard components, and the Department of Veterans Affairs also differ greatly.

Intimate Partner Violence and Active Duty Military

While some studies have found higher rates of IPV in the military than in the civilian population, there have been questions about whether these studies controlled for variables specific to the military population. In 2010, the Department of Defense (DoD), the Department of Justice (DOJ), and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) collaborated for the first time to include two random samples from the military in the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (NISVS). The NISVS found with few exceptions, that past year and lifetime prevalence (occurrence) of IPV, sexual violence, and stalking in the civilian and military populations are quite similar, with no statistically significant differences.

The dynamics and impact of IPV for military-related victims is very similar to that of victims who have no connection to the military. They remain hidden for the same reasons (e.g., shame, isolation, victim blaming, financial concerns, etc.). However, military life and cultural norms present additional challenges for IPV victims in need of help. These challenges include a lack of separation of work and private life, a dependence on the military, geographic relocation, deployments, and combat exposure. Deployments and combat exposure particularly create unique stresses on military families. Long separations can result in feelings of distrust and uncertainty about the future. Some military personnel who served in combat will experience common stress reactions, such as sleep problems, bad dreams, irritability, anger, flashbacks, substance misuse and abuse, and agitation as a part of normal readjustment. Anger and aggression are common war zone stress reactions and can have a negative effect on relationships and, for some, increase the risk of violent and abusive behavior, especially if abusive behavior existed prior to combat exposure.

It is important that IPV victims, who are active duty service members or whose perpetrators are active duty service members, as well as victim advocates understand that there is no outright confidentiality in the DoD system. However, a restricted reporting option exists that can provide a measure of confidentiality related to some disclosures. The restricted report option provides an avenue for victims to seek medical care, counseling, and advocacy services without notifying command of the incident or initiating a law enforcement investigation. To initiate a restricted report, a victim must make a disclosure to a victim advocate, victim advocate supervisor, or healthcare provider. There are some exceptions to the restricted reporting option, such as a serious and imminent threat to the victim’s (or others) health or safety. After considering both the risks and benefits of a restricted report, a victim may choose to make an unrestricted report to military authorities, which will initiate an investigation by law enforcement and command.

IPV victims can choose to pursue a military protective order (MPO) and/or a civilian protection order (CPO). While MPOs are not recognized by civilian law enforcement and courts, federal law mandates CPOs (both civil and criminal) be enforced on military installations through the Armed Forces Domestic Security Act. Military commanders and military law enforcement personnel are required to take all reasonable measures necessary to ensure that a CPO is given full force and effect on all DoD installations.

As in the civilian population, access to firearms is a serious concern regarding incidents and threats of IPV. It is against federal law for anyone subject to a current qualifying protection order to possess firearms and/or ammunition for the duration of that of a qualifying CPO. Anyone convicted of a misdemeanor conviction of domestic violence is prohibited from possession for life. For an active duty service member, this prohibition often results in discharge from the military. An “official use exemption” to the firearm prohibition exists that allows military personnel who are subject to a CPO to possess their service weapon while on duty. For the exemption to apply, the service member must be authorized or required to receive or possess a duty weapon to perform official duties. The official use exemption does not apply to personal firearms and is not available to someone convicted of a domestic violence misdemeanor.

It is the policy of DoD and the military services that military IPV offenders will be held accountable for their behavior and it is the commander’s role to ensure this through appropriate disposition under the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) and/or administrative regulations. The military commander has a range of options to correct/change an offender’s behavior short of punishment and is required to resolve the charge at the lowest possible level, considering all facts and circumstances. The purpose of these options is to achieve and maintain good order and discipline, but commanders have discretion within this framework. Of note, commanders, and the senior enlisted personnel who advise them, play a vital role in the military response to IPV. As in the civilian system, many believe that IPV offenders in the military are not held accountable despite DoD policy.

The Family Advocacy Program (FAP) is a DoD program authorized by Congress and designed to address prevention, identification, evaluation, treatment, rehabilitation, follow-up, and reporting of family violence. FAP is responsible for risk and danger assessment and safety planning, bringing victim safety concerns to command and law enforcement agencies, and providing support and advocacy services, as well as ensuring that offenders receive appropriate intervention and treatment services. There is some standardization in FAPs across the military services, but the options available to a military-related IPV victim will depend to a significant extent on which service is responsible for taking action, the size of the installation, what training has been provided to the personnel, and what resources are available locally or service-wide. In addition to FAP, a number of other individuals and organizations on a military installation are instrumental in preventing and responding to IPV. Community-based victim advocates should know the roles and responsibilities of these key players and establish collaborative relationships with them.

Intimate Partner Violence and the Reserves & National Guard

IPV victims who are members of the Reserve or National Guard, or whose perpetrators are, generally must seek legal assistance from the civilian justice system and services from community-based domestic violence programs in their area. Active duty military service members are considered to be in a military status 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, subjecting them to discipline under the UCMJ and providing eligibility for DoD and FAP services. Reserve personnel are either in a civilian status or federal military status (if on orders) while National Guard members can be in civilian status, federal military status, or state/territorial military status (the latter due to National Guard commands being under the day-to-day control of state or U.S. territorial governments).

Unless Reserve and National Guard personnel are serving in a federal status (per Title X of the United States Code), they are not subject to the UCMJ and their commanders usually cannot subject them to military discipline. In these circumstances, incidents of IPV they commit or experience are generally investigated and prosecuted by the civilian criminal justice system. Additionally while in a non-federal status, Reserve and National Guard members, their family members, and their IPV victims are not eligible for services through DoD, including the FAP. Separate FAP offices do not exist within Reserve and National Guard organizational structures and National Guard commands typically do not have specific policies and protocols in place for responding to IPV. Reserve and Guard personnel and their families would need to seek services from community-based IPV programs.

Intimate Partner Violence and Veterans

Veterans are individuals who previously served in the Armed Forces. Once they either retire or separate from the military, any IPV incidents would fall under the jurisdiction of the civilian criminal justice system. Veterans no longer fall under the jurisdiction of UCMJ nor under the disciplining authority of any military commander. Veterans are also no longer eligible to receive assistance from FAPs, though retirees may be able to receive some FAP services at some installations. Veterans therefore must generally seek legal assistance from the civilian justice system and services from community-based domestic violence programs.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) does not have a program equivalent to DoD’s FAP to address veteran-related IPV. However, the VA began planning in 2014 for implementation of a new program based on the recommendations of a VA-chartered Domestic Violence Task Force. The DV/IPV Assistance Program (the Program) will provide an integrated approach to addressing DV/IPV among veterans and their partners. It will draw on the resources that address immediate concerns of involved individuals such as mental health, primary care, women’s health, and Veterans Justice Outreach staff. Additionally, the program will include wrap-around VA programs and services that address long-term and psychosocial concerns, such as housing, education and employment, and establish a network of local community partnerships.

In Phase I of the implementation process, the VA will pilot screening, assessment and intervention services for veterans who experience violence in current or former intimate relationships, as well as training for employees and managers in recognizing and addressing workplace domestic violence. Phase II will address screening, assessment and intervention services for veterans who use violence in current or former intimate relationships. The VA plans to pilot some promising intervention practices for the use of violence in intimate partner relationships. While a handful of VA medical centers (VAMCs) presently have offender intervention programs, the Program calls for developing evidence-based intervention programs which will then be rolled out nationally.

A pivotal component of the Program is the establishment of the Domestic Violence Coordinator (DVC) position. The DVCs will be licensed independent mental health providers. When the Program is rolled-out nationally, every VAMC will appoint a DVC to assist both veterans who experience DV/IPV and veterans who use DV/IPV. If a family member of a veteran who is using DV/IPV requires assistance, the DVC will provide the family member with a hand-off to community-based domestic violence resources. The DVC will also provide training and consultation services to and work with VA and Vet Center staff to help all veterans and their families affected by DV/IPV.

Military/Civilian Coordination

Both the civilian criminal justice and military justice responses to IPV involve a number of agencies that handle each case, creating potential gaps and barriers that can negatively affect case outcomes. For example, the quality of the initial police report significantly influences subsequent decisions related to conditions of release and the prosecution of the case. In the 1980s, advocates seeking to improve the civilian justice system’s handling of IPV cases developed the strategy of a Coordinated Community Response, or CCR, which focused on removing gaps in service and improving interagency communication to achieve a more consistent, effective, and just intervention. Objectives of a CCR include enhanced victim safety and autonomy and effectively holding perpetrators accountable for ending their violence. 

IPV cases involving military-related victims or offenders require additional coordination between civilian and military justice systems and social services. When communities and the military do not work together, the CCR objectives become more difficult to achieve. BWJP managed a demonstration initiative, funded by the Office on Violence Against Women, that implemented Military-Civilian CCRs in two pilot sites. This initiative produced effective guidelines for coordinating the response of civilian and military agencies to IPV cases. To learn more about Military-Civilian CCRs, see the demonstration initiative report, Collaborating for Safety: Coordinating the Military and Civilian Response to Domestic Violence - Elements and Tools.