Illustration by Chad Wys
While rising through the ranks of the Army, Ron Higgins’s drinking had gotten steadily worse. It reached a breaking point for his wife on a Sunday morning in 2017. Higgins began his day with a few beers. Then a few more. He was working up to his usual, 18 to 24, with hard liquor chasers, when he began yelling at Laura, calling her names, degrading her — a familiar routine.
They had been married seven years, moving every few years to a new state for Ron’s next assignment. The emotional abuse had begun after their daughter was born and worsened as his drinking did, particularly after he returned home from deployment to a combat zone. When she moved with him to his next duty station, it was overseas, far from Laura’s family and friends. He went first, and Laura joined him a few months later.
“When I got over there, he fell back into the old patterns immediately. The insults were immediate,” she said. And when he started his drunken scolding that Sunday, “I just felt in my gut it was going to be different,” Laura told HuffPost. “In the States, I spoke the language, I knew the people, I knew the neighbors. I was now in a foreign country. I didn’t even know how to call 911. There were no protections in place.”
As Laura began cleaning up after dinner, Ron became extra belligerent. He called her a bitch, a whore, a cunt. He threatened to beat her — that was new. He didn’t back down when their 3-year-old daughter came in, as he had in the past. She recalled two years earlier when he had grabbed and twisted her wrist, the only time he had physically hurt her, and she saw that same rage in his eyes again. Laura ran to hide herself and their daughter in their bedroom, but he followed her.
“Internally, I was a raging lunatic, I was shaking, but I had a 3-year-old who didn’t know anything, so I was trying to remain as calm as possible and make a plan,” Laura said. Her mind raced with questions she didn’t have answers to. “How do I get out of the house? How will I get money? How do I get a bus or a taxi? How do I find a hotel? Where is a hotel? How will I pay for a hotel? Do I go to the embassy? Where is the embassy? If I don’t have my passport, how can I prove I’m an American citizen?” At a loss, she texted the only local person she knew in the country, another officer’s wife.
Over several hours, the officer’s wife stayed with Laura while the officer, who had a higher rank and the authority to act as Ron’s supervisor, and another officer tried to calm her husband down. Later, the supervisor came in and asked Laura if Ron could stay the night. Ron promised to stay in their bedroom while Laura slept with her daughter in the girl’s room. The couple just needed a little time apart, the higher-ranking officer said. It would be better in the morning.
Laura felt uneasy about the arrangement.
“I had just ratted him out to his peers and people whose respect he wanted, and I just gave them a reason not to respect him,” she said.
But reluctantly she agreed. “He had nowhere to go,” she said.
Neither did she.
Ron and Laura are not the couple’s real names. HuffPost is protecting Laura’s identity because she fears retribution from her ex-husband and she says she doesn’t want to hurt his career — as long as he stays in the military, he’s less likely to be around her and their daughter since they don’t live near any duty stations. Laura felt jumpy speaking to a journalist at all. She didn’t want to share his rank, his job in the Army, what country they were stationed in or even how far that country was from the U.S.
Laura is one of many women HuffPost interviewed for its investigation “A Forgotten Crisis,” which examines what happens when a military spouse experiences domestic violence. HuffPost discovered that when military spouses ask for help, they don’t get the support they need.
Often spouses are stationed on remote bases, far from friends and family, disconnected from familiar support services. When they experience domestic violence, there is often literally nowhere for them to go. Fear of losing financial security looms large ― when service members are dishonorably discharged, they lose benefits and so do their families. If a victim does get the courage to report, the authorities responsible ― military police and the Family Advocacy Program ― are not always effective at providing help. In the end, many victims feel entirely alone, abandoned by the military.
When There Is Nowhere To Go
Though the rates of reported domestic violence among military spouses appear similar to rates among civilian spouses, the obstacles to getting help and seeking justice are vastly different.
When Laura reached out for help, it was not a neutral party who came to her side. Instead, a superior officer acting as her husband’s direct supervisor was called in, an immediate conflict of interest. Justice in the military relies on the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), similar to the civilian penal code, and a court-martial system in which the accused’s supervisor, say, the captain of a unit, has control over whether domestic violence charges are investigated or prosecuted.
And they rarely are. For women living on bases or overseas, such a failure of justice leaves women more trapped than ever.
(Although domestic violence in the military most often involves female victims and male offenders, there are also many male survivors of abuse. In keeping with Laura’s story, however, this story focuses on the struggles of female military spouses.)
On the night in 2017 when Laura reached out for help, chaos ensued the moment her husband’s commander left the scene. Ron burst out of the bedroom and came at Laura again. “He called me a worthless mother, a bitch, and said he was going to beat me,” Laura said. “He was in my face, and our daughter was standing right next to me, screaming.”
She tried to text the supervisor’s wife, but Ron grabbed the phone and threw it across the room. She maneuvered her way to it and managed to text, “Come back,” and the door code before Ron snatched it again. His supervisor returned in time to restrain him while Laura grabbed her daughter and fled.
They stayed at the supervisor’s house that night because the base didn’t have anywhere else for her to stay.
Geographic isolation is a huge obstacle faced by women trying to flee domestic violence, said Lisa Colella, executive director of Healing Household 6, a nonprofit organization unaffiliated with the military that’s aimed at helping veteran recovery and domestic violence in military families. “A lot of these people are far away from home, and they don’t have anywhere to go,” Colella said. “They live in base housing, which is with their husbands.”
Service members move to a base in a different state or country every three years on average. That means starting over in a brand new city, where a spouse rarely knows anyone. With no family or friends in the area, a military wife’s social network often centers on other military families stationed there, but a woman may not feel safe telling her husband’s co-workers or their wives about the abuse lest her husband or his command find out.
In an unfamiliar city, she’s also less likely to know what social services or shelters exist or where to turn for help, all of which is magnified if she’s in a foreign country and doesn’t know the language. Laura didn’t call the local police the night she hid in the bedroom because she didn’t know the number and couldn’t speak the language. Had she not texted the military wife, “I think I would have just screamed loud enough to wake the neighbors or something,” Laura said.
The frequent moving can also limit women’s financial independence. Though some military wives have their own careers, many others don’t because it can be difficult to maintain work outside the home at all. Financial independence is key to being able to leave an abusive situation.
“It takes four to five months to find a job, and you’re only there for two years,” Laura said. She managed to get a job at every duty station except the overseas one, though it always started out with a holdover retail job until she could find a decent office job.
According to a 2018 report from the Council of Economic Advisers, military spouses earn 26.8% less in wages and salary income than nonmilitary spouses and have nearly twice the unemployment rate of other civilians. Additionally, half of military spouses who work part time expressed a desire to work full time.
“You might have a husband who deploys constantly and you’ve never had child care, never worked a day in your life or never used your education to get a job,” Colella said.
Staying can be risky for reasons beyond the abuse itself. “Your spouse can go in and revoke housing at any time he wants,” Colella said. If the service member forfeits his housing, his spouse can’t stay ― effectively leaving her homeless.
Reporting Could Mean Losing Everything
By the time Ron was stationed abroad, he had near complete control of their finances, Laura said. Before leaving the U.S., Laura was making only about $1,000 a month, all of which went to bills and child care. “I had to rely on him,” Laura said. “I had no choice. I just didn’t make enough money.” Once overseas, she might have been able to find a job if they lived near the base, but they lived too far for the commute, and she had no other options.
It’s difficult to get accurate statistics on the prevalence of domestic abuse because it’s so heavily underreported, according to Casey Taft, a professor of psychiatry at Boston University Medical Campus and a principal investigator in the Behavioral Science Division of Veterans Affairs’ National Center for PTSD. One of the most common reasons for not reporting domestic abuse is fear, but for women married to service members, that fear extends beyond personal safety.
“Sometimes military spouses are reluctant to disclose their report of abuse because it will have negative repercussions in their family in some way,” Taft said.
Reporting abuse could “potentially impact [a service member’s] ability to get a promotion or higher rank, limiting the amount of money he could make,” said Rita Smith, director of external relations at DomesticShelters.org and former director of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. “It could even trigger a dishonorable discharge,” which translates to a loss of housing, health care and retirement benefits for the family. “The ripple effect could be huge.” And if the survivor isn’t thinking about that, Smith said, “they’re telling her that,” — abusers will use such threats as a control tactic. In fact, Ron told Laura that night it would be “international kidnapping” if she went back to the U.S. with their daughter, essentially a threat that he could send her to prison.
This reality can leave women in a no-win situation. The longer the relationship, the higher the stakes can be, explained Don Christensen, a former lead prosecutor for the Air Force and current president of Protect Our Defenders.
“Let’s say you’re in your mid-30s and you have a couple kids and your husband is four or five years away from retirement and you have not been part of the workforce for 15-20 years,” Christensen said. “Your only hope for your future is this guy’s retirement, and you know if you come forward, he’s going to lose his retirement, and that hugely disincentivizes coming forward. It puts military women at a huge disadvantage because they are economically much more dependent on their spouse than a civilian woman is.”
Financial abuse, in which a spouse controls all the finances and doesn’t allow his partner any access to money or forbids a partner from working, is extremely common, Colella said. It may be difficult or impossible for wives to set up their own accounts if living abroad, and those without their own jobs have no other income source besides their husband’s.
Ron and Laura had begun sharing one bank account and one credit card after their daughter was born and Laura had stopped working for a while, leaving her dependent on Ron’s income. When she went out for groceries or household supplies, he began demanding to see her receipts. “What did you buy at Starbucks?” he would ask her after seeing the charge. “Why did you buy a cookie? You’re fat. Starbucks is expensive.” And the night he threatened to beat her, he took away her wallet. If she tried to book a plane ticket home on their credit card, he told her, he would call and cancel it.
“Veterans have a lot to lose when we get involved,” Colella said, and those losses extend to spouses, too. “You have this culture where everything you need, everything that you rely on is your husband’s. Everything’s tied to their service and their Social Security number, right down to just health care, especially if you have special needs children.”
Military installations provide nearly everything a family needs, such as discounted groceries and personal items at the base commissary, health care at base clinics and subsidized child care. But these services require a military ID, and anyone who leaves the base for shopping or services elsewhere can’t return without their ID. So a service member can cut off access to basic needs and services simply by taking away a spouse’s military ID, Colella explained.
A Culture of Silence and Apathy
Looking back, Laura recalls red flags she wishes she had paid closer attention to. Some stemmed from Ron’s relationship with his mother, an unhealthy, co-dependent relationship, in her words. Other red flags took the form of verbal abuse. After they were married and stationed in another state, Ron began to call Laura fat and criticized her eating habits, even though they were too poor to eat much more than ramen noodles. “Every couple of weeks there would be a blowout fight,” she said.
When they spent an evening at a friends’ house once, the friends became concerned when Ron yelled at her for going to bed early. Laura told them it was always like that. She was used to the drunkenness, the shouting, the insults, the controlling behavior. But he had physically hurt her only one time, two years before the overseas duty station, when he twisted her wrist after throwing his dinner at the TV. He had been angry that she and their daughter had eaten before him when it was getting late.
At the time of the wrist incident, Laura had already hatched an escape plan. She had stashed a bag of clothes and essentials in the trunk of her car several months earlier, waiting for when the moment felt right. At that time, she had a job, she had money, and she had three people ready to help when she and her daughter would disappear for a week and then show up at her family’s house. But she never did.
“I think the reason why I didn’t leave was ― it’s very cliche ― but when it was good, it was the way it was. I think there was a true sense of love between us,” she said. When he didn’t drink, he was the man she fell in love with and married. Theirs had not been a whirlwind romance. It was a sweet courtship, with long periods apart when they learned their love lasted. They felt comfortable together— unless he was drinking.
“When he drank and when he came into those moods where he had complete control over me, that’s when he turned into his demon self,” Laura said. And after their daughter arrived, the drinking kept increasing.
Laura told two of Ron’s supervisors about his drinking, once in the U.S. casually, when Ron berated her when she came to pick him up, and once overseas when the supervisor outright asked about it. But nothing came of it. “They didn’t want to do anything about it,” she said. “They protect their own.”
That night of his worst drunken rage, Laura didn’t see the point in calling the base military police (MPs) because it would have taken so long for them to arrive. Where Ron actually worked was only a few minutes from their home, but the main base was 45 minutes away. And it’s uncertain how helpful they might have been. Many of the women HuffPost interviewed reported that MPs were often dismissive of their concerns and didn’t always appear to believe their accounts.
Laura did know about the Family Advocacy Program (FAP) and had sought their help previously in the States. FAP is a military agency available to address domestic and child abuse in military families, including prevention and intervention, according to Jessica R. Maxwell, a spokesperson for the Department of Defense. “Military law enforcement and command are required to report incidents of known or suspected domestic abuse to [FAP],” Maxwell told HuffPost. FAP also receives “referrals from legal, medical providers, chaplains, child care providers and providers in military family support agencies, as well as also self-reports by victims.” Off-base incidents can be reported to civilian police or MPs and then to FAP.
It was FAP that helped Laura find the therapist she and Ron briefly saw in the U.S. But when the therapist pointed out Ron’s unhelpful behavior, he refused to go back. Before he left for the overseas post, Ron told Laura he would contact FAP there, before she arrived, to set up a therapist for them. He never did ― he said he didn’t need to change ― and Laura hadn’t been there long enough to contact them herself.
But FAP also lacks teeth. Its job is to offer safety and support to families and rehabilitative services to offenders, but they aren’t involved in the law enforcement or judicial process, and they don’t know what isn’t reported.
A serviceman’s commander remains the first line for disciplinary action. Christensen believes this at least partly explains underreporting of domestic violence in the military because it’s “so often discounted and funneled into the Family Advocacy Program instead of the criminal justice program.”
Commanders can issue a military protective order (MPO), similar to a restraining order, but it’s literally just a military order — it doesn’t have the force of law behind it. Ron’s supervisor actually requested an MPO to protect Laura and himself from Ron after that night, but Ron’s captain refused, and it might not have meant much since MPOs apply only on base.
“The problem with MPOs is that often law enforcement, especially civilian law enforcement, isn’t going to know anything about it,” Christensen said. “There’s no way for civilian law enforcement to do anything about it. If the MPO says not to go to that person’s house and the person lives off base, they can’t call 911 and say there’s a no-contact MPO. The civilian police would say, ‘So?’”
Civilian police or courts also can’t do much if a serviceman is deployed overseas. A court might order a soldier to give his kids ID cards, for example, to ensure they can receive health care or order a service member to provide his family housing, but if he’s thousands of miles away in a war zone, civilian courts can’t actually enforce those orders.
Commanders’ priority is their mission and command, including the role they need an abusive subordinate to fulfill. FAP policy requires that all commanders receive training on prevention and response to domestic abuse within 90 days of assuming command, Maxwell said. But that doesn’t mean it sinks in.
Christensen said he’s seen “a lot of hostility” toward abused women, who may be perceived as trying to ruin their partner’s career or starting trouble. “There’s definitely a dismissive attitude towards the victims,” he said.
There’s also a certain desensitization that can warp a commanders’ perception of what is actually “violent,” Colella added. After all, many commanders have served in wars.
“You’re working with people who have seen the worst of the worst of humanity. What I perceive to be a violent act or something disgusting or inhumane is not the same as what my husband does,” said Colella, whose husband has had four deployments and has told her of grisly scenes he’s witnessed.
Perhaps that’s why Ron’s supervisor thought it was fine to leave Ron at the house. But Laura knew it wasn’t, even though she struggles to articulate exactly how she knew she was in serious danger that night. She recalls how he didn’t back down, even in front of their daughter, and how he had never before repeatedly threatened to beat her. She remembered how he seemed when she first arrived from the States. “He had no patience anymore. No understanding, no reciprocation of love,” she said. “There was just nothing.”
Nothing is also what she sees the military doing about domestic abuse. She ideologically supports the soldiers 100%, but she described a stigma against women, especially confident, educated women, in military culture that’s “really hard to break.” It’s all about supporting your soldier, she said.
“It feels like women are told to just be there and blindly do everything” to support the soldiers, “no matter how painful or wrong it is, rational or irrational, because that’s your lot in life,” she said. “Don’t stick up for yourself, don’t speak your voice,” basically don’t do anything to rock the boat.
In The End, She Got Away
Laura was fortunate in one way, however, that many others aren’t: She had a support network back in the U.S. Her brother’s sister booked her and her daughter a ticket to fly home a day later. Her brother and parents have helped her get financially back on her feet since then. Now she and Ron are divorced, and although they periodically see each other for the sake of his visitation with their daughter, she feels safest when he’s away.
She tried to follow up with reports to the Army but never heard back and wasn’t able to get records of the incident from the Army. “The moment I left, I was blacklisted,” she said. “No one’s ever talked to me about it, ever.”
Other women have told HuffPost similar stories: They tried to get some acknowledgment from the military about what happened, or even acknowledgment that they felt unsafe, and the response was silence. Now Laura is just trying to move past it.
“I feel at peace that I don’t have to deal with it anymore. When I was with him, I would go to bed happy when he wasn’t there. When he was there, I tried to go to bed when he was on the phone with his mom or working so I wouldn’t have to deal with it.”
Laura draws solace from the fact that he’s still on active duty. “I don’t want him out of the military because he’d be back here and in my and my daughter’s life even more.”
Amanda Kippert and Melissa Jeltsen contributed reporting.
This story is part of “A Forgotten Crisis,” a series on domestic violence in the military.
Are you a military spouse experiencing abuse? There are places you can turn for help. Find your local Family Advocacy Program by visiting militaryonesource.mil, reach out to HealingHousehold6.org for military-specific support in times of family crisis, or speak to a trained domestic violence advocate in your area or locate the nearest domestic violence shelter by visiting DomesticShelters.org. You can also speak to a supportive advocate at the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-7233.