When The War Comes Home

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Then the struggle turned violent. Unable to sleep or confide in his wife about his combat experiences, he was constantly on edge—snapping at his family for no apparent reason, even as he experienced flashbacks of  his combat experiences.90,v

Then one night, Chris (whose full name has been withheld) and his wife got into an argument and he found himself lunging at her. She called  911 and police later charged him with “terroristic threats”—a common domestic abuse-related charge.

Filled with shame, Chris struggled to reconcile the image he had of himself – a war hero who was protecting his country from “real terrorists” – to the person he was now labeled as: A terrorist to his family.

His case is not unusual.  As America marks Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) Awareness Month, we must redouble our efforts to address the pain and tragedy suffered by many of our veterans and their families.

According to the Department of Defense, there were 16,109 incidents involving veterans and their families that “met criteria for domestic and child abuse” in 2014, the last year for which such data is available.  That represented an increase of 189 domestic and child abuse incidents from the year before. (However, taking child abuse and domestic abuse separately, there were 498 fewer incidents involving domestic abuse.)

While domestic abuse is prevalent in all families, regardless of ethnicity, religion, class, or military experience, working with military families who are experiencing abuse has unique challenges.

In their 2011 Victim Advocate Guide, the Battered Women’s Justice Project, which has studied the intersection of military service and domestic abuse, found that most returning military personnel “do not become abusive to their partners and/or families.”

Nevertheless, it added:

…there are reports of increased violence upon return in some relationships with a history of controlling behavior and/or physical violence prior to deployment to the war. And there are reports of psychological and/or physical violence upon return from the war in some relationships with no history of violence prior to deployment.

According to a 2009 report from the Department of Veterans Affairs Office of Public Health and Environmental Hazards, 81 percent of veterans suffering from depression and PTSD , such as Chris, engaged in at least one violent act against their partner in the previous year. And male veterans with PTSD are two to three times more likely to engage in domestic violence than  those without PTSD. Anna Zaros

A veteran has been trained to think about violence differently than a civilian. Service members risk their lives on behalf of our country, and they use violence to protect themselves and their comrades;  but their military training, including the hierarchachal structure of chain of command and violent tactics, do not often translate to civilian life. While this is not an excuse for abuse, a service member’s experience can intensify domestic violence in the home, and make it more difficult for an individual to change  his or her abusive behavior.

Now, caregivers and advocates have some new tools to address the problem.

One example is CHANGE STEP, a program created by the Domestic Abuse Project, a nationally recognized leader in trauma-informed work with men who have demonstrated abusive behavior. The program, designed specifically for veterans who have been abusive to their intimate partners, aims to replace abusive behaviors with actions that build and support healthy relationships.

CHANGE STEP is tailored specifically to veterans of the armed services and incorporates military culture into its approach—with special attention to the effects of combat.After his arrest, Chris was ordered through probation to join CHANGE STEP. With nine other veterans he participated in a 24-week program that brought him face to face with the roots of his own violent behavior.

A crucial element in the program is assigning new members to a  “battle buddy“—a fellow participant nearing the end of his time in the program, who could hold an individual accountable for his actions while empathize with his  combat experiences.Chris had to complete assignments in order to “graduate,”  including preparation of a plan to maintain self-control , and a presentation to his peers where he took responsibility for his abusive behavior. Case managers helped Chris navigate the veterans’ benefits system so he could receive the medical care he needed to treat his PTSD.

Chris was able to learn and practice healthy behaviors for dealing with the stresses of civilian life.Domestic violence interventions often focus on the victim, and not the perpetrator. Yet working with perpetrators is essential to ending the cycle of violence in families. Abusive behaviors are learned, and we can teach perpetrators how to approach conflict in a healthy way.

More needs to be done.

For military service members and veterans, the challenge of ending abusive behavior is unique. Members of the military who experience symptoms of PTSD from combat exposure may struggle to reintegrate into their families, and are often unable to adjust to the new normal of life after deployment—potentially contributing to a downward spiral towards domestic violence.  But their families need attention as well—and existing domestic violence programs rarely take the special needs of military families into account.But CHANGE STEP is an impressive start.

If you know a veteran who needs this help, please don’t hesitate in telling him about the program—or request a training to facilitate a CHANGE STEP program in your community.The veteran—and his family—will be grateful.


Sean Fields, PsyD, MA is the Internship Program Supervisor, Youth Therapist, and Change Step Therapist at Domestic Abuse Project. At Domestic Abuse Project, Sean provides group and individual therapy to children impacted by domestic violence, as well as adult men who have used abusive behavior. Sean served in the U.S. Army National Guard and Reserves for 10 years.

Anna Zaros, MA, is the Director of Development and Communications at Domestic Abuse Project. Anna holds a bachelor’s degree in Theology and Religious Studies and a master’s degree from the University of Notre Dame in International Peace Studies. They welcome comments from readers.

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