She Dedicated Her Life To The Military. Why Didn't It Protect Her From Abuse?

A HuffPost investigation found that the military routinely ignores domestic violence by service members, with devastating consequences.

Photos by Lexey Swall

VIRGINIA — When Leah Olszewski was 12, she saw “Top Gun” and that was that — she wanted to join the military. It fit all her fledgling interests as a kid: adventuring outdoors, helping others and working as part of a team. At 14, she walked into a Marine recruiting office in Dublin, California, where she lived at the time, and announced her intention to enlist. The recruiter told her to come back when she was older.

At 22, she got her wish and joined in the Army. But it wasn’t until almost two decades later that she fell in love with a charismatic airman of her own.

Erik Cardin wasn’t a fighter pilot in the Navy, like Tom Cruise’s character Maverick, but an Air Force senior master sergeant who provided logistical support for military planes. The two connected on Tinder in 2016 while both were living in Florida. On their first date, they went to the beach and, lying on their towels under a scorching July sun, bonded over the similarities in their lives.

Both of them were outdoorsy people in their early 40s who had dedicated their lives to the military. Neither had children or had ever married. Olszewski, who is tall and lanky with hip-length brown hair and hazel eyes, was pumped about her career prospects. By then, she was a major in the Army National Guard, and her side hustle, a tactical apparel company for women called FemTac, had just received an influx of funding.

“I was in a great place when I met Erik,” she recalled. “We just clicked.” Cardin was a Christian, like her, and attractive ― 6-foot-4 with blonde hair and a lean, muscular body. But there was a wrinkle: At the end of the month, he was being reassigned to Travis Air Force Base in California, over 2,000 miles away.

The news was disappointing, but it wasn’t a deal-breaker for Olszewski. In the military, someone was always leaving. For the next month, the two fell fast over seafood dinners, sleepovers and saccharine text marathons heavily peppered with emoji. Once Cardin left Florida, the relationship intensified with phone calls and a few passionate visits. On one trip to Reno, Nevada, she said, Cardin quipped that next time, she should bring her white dress. Things were moving fast, and by April 2017, less than a year after their first date, Olszewski moved to California to be with Cardin.

It was supposed to usher in a new phase of their relationship: more serious, more committed. Instead, Olszewski says, it marked the beginning of Cardin’s violence toward her. Name-calling. Shoving. Verbal threats. And that was only the start. The bruises, the kicking and choking, came later.

Olszewski agonized over whether to report Cardin to authorities, as she didn’t want to jeopardize his job. Domestic violence is supposed to be a career-ender for a military service member. And as a military officer herself, she didn’t want to appear weak. Her entire life, she pushed herself to her physical limits. She was tough. That was the word her friends used to describe her. Admitting a man hurt her was embarrassing, almost like she’d failed.

Lawyers for Cardin said he denies physically abusing Olszewski. They say she is making up false allegations and hurting real victims of domestic abuse.

Left: Leah Olszewski is still afraid of her ex-boyfriend and sleeps with a gun close by. Right: Erik Cardin on Tinder earlier this year.
Left: Leah Olszewski is still afraid of her ex-boyfriend and sleeps with a gun close by. Right: Erik Cardin on Tinder earlier this year.
Lexey Swall for HuffPost

A Forgotten Crisis

Back in 1999, Congress authorized the creation of a Department of Defense task force on domestic violence after “60 Minutes” aired an explosive expose finding that service members who abused their families were rarely punished. The task force, comprising 24 military and civilian experts, spent three years meeting regularly to come up with a plan to address domestic violence in the military.

The day the task force presented its findings to the House Armed Services Committee just happened to be the same day the Iraq War began.

Deborah D. Tucker, the co-chair of the task force, recalled that, in between hearing testimony, the committee received status updates from the battlefield. “I was sitting there knowing that we had poured heart and soul into this, and our timing could not be worse,” she said. “The organization was at its greatest stress, and not prepared to be innovative.”

The task force made 200 specific recommendations, all of them united by a central theme. The military needed to stop tolerating domestic violence and start holding abusers accountable for their crimes. In the years since then, the military has incorporated about half of the recommendations, Tucker estimated, crucial steps in bringing it in line with civilian procedures on domestic violence.

But 20 years later, victims are still being failed by the system.

A HuffPost investigation found that to this day, service members are rarely investigated or punished for acts of domestic violence. Victims are routinely ignored, with devastating consequences. Over the course of six months, HuffPost interviewed many military wives and girlfriends who said they were abused by their partners. Their stories, which take place all over the country, among all branches of the military, are stark in their similarities.

Many of the women were afraid to report the abuse to the military because of potential consequences to their partner’s career and due to their reliance on their partner for housing or financial support. But once they did report, they were told to seek marriage counseling or talk to a military chaplain. Abuse was minimized and recast as “relationship problems” or a result of stress from deployment. Women were urged to be supportive and to put up with violence, echoing desperately outdated views about domestic abuse.

Many of the women are still afraid of their former partners. Some have been unable to get protective orders on the outside because there is no official record of their partner’s abuse, as paperwork does not travel seamlessly from the military world to the civilian one.

In conversation after conversation with victims, one of the biggest issues they identified was the chain of command. In the civilian world, victims of domestic violence turn to criminal courts to hold abusers accountable, a system with its own entrenched shortcomings. But the military is governed by a separate set of laws, called the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ). Under the code, critical decisions about if and how to punish abusers are made by military commanders.

“A commander must believe a victim over his own fellow soldier. He must believe that domestic violence is a crime worth punishing. And he must take action, even when it is unpopular.”

When reports of domestic violence are made, commanders — many of whom are young and inexperienced — are responsible for initiating investigations into their own subordinates. They decide if an offense should result in administrative action, loss of pay or rank, or a referral to a court-martial, the military’s version of a civilian criminal trial. It is an inherently fraught structure with clear conflicts of interest. A commander must believe a victim over his own fellow soldier. He must believe that domestic violence is a crime worth punishing. And he must take action, even when it is unpopular.

In 2018, then-Defense Secretary James Mattis called out commanders for failing to use the military justice system to punish service members for breaking the law and urged them to flex their power. “It is a commander’s duty to use it,” he wrote in a memo. “Leaders must be willing to choose the harder right over the easier wrong.”

Others believe the system needs a more radical overhaul.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) has proposed legislation that would take felony-level cases out of the chain of command and put them into the hands of trained military prosecutors instead. “Our military families have sacrificed so much to protect us, but Congress and the Defense Department must do more to protect them from violence and abuse,” she said in a statement to HuffPost.

Gillibrand’s bill has faced pushback from military leaders, who are reluctant to remove commanders from the process. The thinking is this: Commanders are responsible for maintaining order and discipline among their troops. If another authority comes between them and their ability to punish their subordinates, unit cohesion will suffer.

Tucker, who co-chaired the Defense Task Force on Domestic Violence, said members of her group floated the same idea to handle domestic violence cases, 20 years ago. The military experts in the group wanted no part of it, she said.

“That’s a Kool-Aid that they’ve been drinking forever,” Tucker said. “If you say it might be possible to adjudicate criminal conduct in a different way, it deeply disturbs them.”

Leah Olszewski, who has been in the military since she was 22, goes for a run in Virginia.
Leah Olszewski, who has been in the military since she was 22, goes for a run in Virginia.
Lexey Swall for HuffPost

Military Aspirations

As soon as Olszewski moved in with her boyfriend, she recalled, the dynamic shifted. Cardin was fun and romantic, but his mood darkened in a flash. Sometimes he’d push her up against the wall, she said, and scream in her face, accusing her of infidelity or criticizing her for wearing too much makeup.

“If you want to step to me like a man, I will knock your fucking front teeth out,” he raged at her in June, according to an audio recording reviewed by HuffPost. “Shut the fuck up, woman!”

Olszewski was so confused by his mood swings that she decided to record their conversations, she said, because she couldn’t believe they were happening. Lee Bals, an attorney for Cardin, did not dispute that his client had threatened Olszewski during an argument. “He knows that was not an appropriate thing to say and regrets saying it,” Bals said.

Jenna, one of Olszewski’s family members whom HuffPost is identifying with a pseudonym due to the nature of her work, said that Olszewski called her often that summer, distraught over Cardin’s behavior. She recalled a specific incident in which Olszewski said Cardin threatened to hit her and asked her to pick which of his hands she wanted to deliver the blow. “I told her to leave him,” Jenna said. “She’d say, ‘Yeah, you’re right.’ And then next thing I know, she’s still staying there.”

“Domestic violence is supposed to be a career-ender for a military service member. And as a military officer herself, she didn’t want to appear weak.”

Olszewski was baffled by Cardin’s personality shifts. He could be loving one second, intimidating and frightening the next. She blamed herself and tried to work out how she might have been causing him to erupt. She’d dated other men in the military, men who’d done and seen traumatic things at war, men with PTSD and physical scars, but none of them were violent like Cardin. In text messages, she urged him to be kinder and promised to try harder herself.

“I thought I could reason or be logical with him,” she said. “I was constantly dancing and jumping and it was never the answer.”

Olszewski didn’t want to give up on Cardin so quickly. It wasn’t in her nature. A few years earlier, she had graduated from the military’s grueling survivalist training program, called SERE, which teaches soldiers how to resist as prisoners of war. If there was one thing she knew how to do, it was survive.

Scope Of The Problem

It is impossible to know how rampant domestic violence is in the military.

Nationally, an estimated 1 in 4 women experience severe physical violence at the hands of an intimate partner in their lifetimes. The rates appear to be similar among women who marry active-duty men, although domestic violence is notoriously underreported. The true numbers are likely much higher.

The most current data comes from the Family Advocacy Program (FAP), a Department of Defense program that is responsible for supporting victims of domestic abuse and child abuse. Every base in the country has a FAP office.

In 2018, nearly 17,000 incidents of domestic abuse were reported to FAP, according to an annual Department of Defense report. But the data is limited. The report only includes abuse between partners who are married, formerly married, share a home, or have a child in common. Information about dating partners is not included, which leaves out a large swath of what is actually occurring.

The report also does not track what happens to service members who are found to have committed abuse.

Until 2018, domestic violence wasn’t even listed as a crime in the UCMJ; it was prosecuted under general categories like assault. The lack of labeling has serious repercussions for gun ownership.

Under federal law, anyone convicted of domestic violence is not allowed to purchase or own guns, period. The military is responsible for reporting domestic violence convictions under the UCMJ to the federal gun background check system so that individuals who are banned from owning guns can’t buy them. It has failed spectacularly in this duty — as evidenced on a November morning in 2017, when Devin Kelley stormed into a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, and killed 26 people.

Kelley had a long history of domestic abuse and had been kicked out of the Air Force for assaulting his first wife and stepson. Kelley should not have been able to buy a gun due to his domestic violence conviction. Except no one in the civilian world knew that. The Air Force failed to report Kelley’s crimes to the requisite database, an oversight that appears now to have been more routine than an outlier.

The military hastily promised to rectify the problem, pledging to retroactively add prohibited service members to the list and to ensure new records were entered into the background check system in a timely fashion. Whether it is happening is another matter. Earlier this year, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) warned that the Department of Defense is still not fully complying with reporting laws.

“These missing records undermine the effectiveness” of the background check system, the senators wrote in a letter to U.S. Attorney General William Barr, and “put innocent lives at risk.”

A suitcase is filled with documents and notes about Leah Olszewski's ex-boyfriend Erik Cardin.
A suitcase is filled with documents and notes about Leah Olszewski's ex-boyfriend Erik Cardin.
Lexey Swall for HuffPost

Deciding To Report

Olszewski checked her rearview mirror, once, twice, as she carefully steered her car toward the Vacaville Police Department in Northern California. It was a warm July day in 2017, and her hands were shaking.

Earlier that day, she and Cardin had argued in the living room — about what, she could not remember. As she turned to walk away, she said, Cardin grabbed her by the neck and squeezed her throat, strangling her, then pushed her about 10 feet across the room and forced her to the ground.

“I couldn’t breathe,” she recalled. “I said, ‘Let go, let go,’ and he eventually did, but it took a while.” Afterward, Cardin sat down at the dining room table like nothing had happened. So she tried to pretend, too. She carried on like everything was fine.

An hour or so later, Olszewski decided to drive to the closest police department. She wasn’t sure what to do when she got there: She wanted to tell someone, but she didn’t want Cardin to get in trouble. If he was arrested and convicted of domestic abuse, he would lose his right to own a firearm, a consequence that could have serious repercussions for his military career. If his commander found out about her allegations, he could face demotion and punishment.

“How can someone who says they love you do such terrible things to you? I wasn’t able to reconcile that in my head.”

- Leah Olszewski

Ultimately, she decided to protect him. Olszewski, who speaks with the precision of a lawyer ― her friends describe her as highly intelligent and analytical ― asked a police officer to explain exactly what would happen if she made a formal report. She needed to know her options. “Wants to talk to officer about a poss DV [domestic violence],” the paperwork from that day reads. Olszewski “didn’t want a record of it.”

Cardin denies strangling Olszewski. “That did not happen,” Bals, Cardin’s attorney, said when asked about the allegation.

About a month later, Olszewski turned 43. Angela Miller, a friend of hers from Florida, reached out to wish her a happy birthday. Over the phone, Olszewski admitted how bad things had gotten at home. Cardin had left bruises on her, she said. As they spoke, Miller said, she became increasingly worried. She recalled opening her computer and Googling flights from California to Florida. She urged her friend to leave Cardin immediately.

Olszewski wanted to stay, though she struggles to explain this decision now. It was as if she was in a fog, she said, the abuse twisting everything up in her head. She’d moved across the country for Cardin. She loved him. When he wasn’t hurting her, she said, he talked wistfully about wanting to build a life with her, raising children.

“I am an extremely loyal person and I am a believer in people,” she said. “I was also in a state of shock. How can someone who says they love you do such terrible things to you? I wasn’t able to reconcile that in my head.”

An image in a binder Olszewski keeps is titled "Eriks Bathroom Photo 1 on 18 Dec 2016 after he blew up at me over I cant even remember."
An image in a binder Olszewski keeps is titled "Eriks Bathroom Photo 1 on 18 Dec 2016 after he blew up at me over I cant even remember."
Lexey Swall for HuffPost

A New Hope

In September 2017, Olszewski’s period didn’t come. She took two pregnancy tests in early October, she said, and both came out positive. She kept the information close to her chest, not ready to share it with Cardin yet.

On Oct. 11, before bed, the couple argued. Olszewski decided to sleep in the guest bedroom, she said, and was lying down on the bed when Cardin barreled through the door. He kicked her in the abdomen with such force, she said, that it sent her flying into the closet door, knocking it off its track. By the time she got off the floor, he’d left the room. She followed after him, hysterical, and told him she was pregnant. As soon as she came close to him, Cardin yanked her by the hair, she said, and tossed her to the ground.

Cardin denies kicking Olszewski or pulling her hair. His lawyer said Cardin was not aware that Olszewski was pregnant and expressed doubt that it was true.

Panicked and scared, Olszewski called 911 but hung up when Cardin got close to her. The police called back, multiple times. Finally, she connected with a dispatcher. Olszewski told the woman that she was reluctant to say what was happening because she didn’t want her boyfriend in trouble with the Air Force. The dispatcher told her to focus on herself. After some cajoling, Olszewski disclosed the kick and the hair-pulling and estimated that it was the fifth time Cardin had put his hands on her. She cried.

But by the time the Vacaville police arrived at the house, she had changed her mind about talking. She didn’t want Cardin to lose his job. A police officer, who spotted a small bruise and abrasion on her arm, said she was “extremely apologetic” about calling 911 and was adamant about not wanting to get anyone in trouble. She refused to give a statement.

When cops interviewed Cardin, who had left the house, he denied assaulting Olszewski but admitted to grabbing her by the shoulder blades a “little less than five times” to move her out of his way, according to the police report.

The officer concluded that due to Olszewski’s lack of cooperation and Cardin’s denial, he could not determine if battery had occurred. No arrests were made.

The couple never reconciled, and after that night, Cardin did not return to the house they shared. He went off the radar, Olszewski said, not returning texts or emails and leaving her in the dark about making rent and paying bills. A few days after the incident, she said, she miscarried. The lack of communication from Cardin was devastating to Olszewski, who sought closure. She emailed him again and again. She wanted him to come back, no matter what had happened. She promised to continue to love him and to stay with him if he got counseling.

“I am sitting here wondering what the heck is going on,” she wrote to him in an email. “It’s unbelievable and more painful than you can imagine.”

Leah Olszewski photographed in her apartment in Virginia.
Leah Olszewski photographed in her apartment in Virginia.
Lexey Swall for HuffPost

The Endless Quest For Help

About a month after the alleged assault, Olszewski finally heard from Cardin. He texted her to say he was coming by the house to grab some of his belongings. Fearing for her safety, Olszewski called his commander, Lt. Col. Nate Flint, for help.

She’d talked to him on a few occasions about her troubled relationship with Cardin, she said, but hadn’t disclosed the physical abuse. Now, crying and scared, she told him everything: The strangulation attempt, the kicking, the 911 call. “Run away, Leah,” she says Flint replied. “He’s doing you a favor.” She took his comments to mean that she would be better off without him in her life.

HuffPost reached out to Flint, who has since retired, via his wife, who referred the request to the public affairs office at Travis Air Force Base. When asked about Flint’s reaction that day to Olszewski, a spokesperson for the Air Force said the information was protected by the Privacy Act and offered no further explanation.

Flint failed to tell Olszewski about the Family Advocacy Program on Travis Air Force Base, which is dedicated to helping victims of abuse, and did not commit to opening an investigation, Olszewski recalled.

When Cardin arrived at the house, he walked around cracking jokes while she cried, Olszewski said. “I felt violated,” she said. Cardin’s nonchalance paired with Flint’s indifference to her plight was all too much, she said. That night, she checked herself into a hospital to be treated for depression and anxiety. “I felt like I was not safe from anybody or anything,” she said.

A few weeks after she was released, she decided it was time to cooperate with police. She was done protecting Cardin, she said. A month and a half after the alleged incident, she contacted the Vacaville Police Department again and filed an official report about the events of Oct. 11, telling an officer that her boyfriend had kicked her, pulled her hair and thrown her to the ground. After reviewing the case, the Solano County District Attorney’s Office declined to pursue charges.

“There was a lack of sufficient evidence to prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt,” Sharon Henry, chief deputy district attorney, told HuffPost.

Olszewski also decided to make a full report to the Family Advocacy Program. If Cardin’s command wouldn’t help her, perhaps the program dedicated to domestic abuse would. She handed over her police reports, as well as audio recordings of Cardin threatening, yelling and cursing at her. Then she waited.

The Failures Add Up

HuffPost interviewed many victims like Olszewski, who said they encountered similarly unsympathetic commanders. They rarely opened investigations and there were almost never any charges.

“It’s under-prosecuted and underreported,” said Don Christensen, a retired Air Force colonel who spent two decades working in the military justice system as a defense lawyer, judge and prosecutor. He now runs Protect Our Defenders, a national nonprofit dedicated to ending rape and sexual assault in the military.

“There are a lot of people in the military who just view women as these evil temptresses with nothing better to do than ruin innocent men,” Christensen said. “In the 23 years I’ve been doing this, I can think of maybe two or three domestic violence cases that went to trial.”

Lisa Colella, the founder and director of Healing Household 6, a nonprofit that helps military families dealing with domestic violence, said that commanders have the freedom to make decisions that they are not necessarily equipped to make.

“They’re not psychologists, they’re not doctors,” she said. “They are wonderful at what they do, but this isn’t really their field … Their interpretation of an event when they know someone personally might be very different than me sitting behind a desk facing a stranger who’s been abused.”

Also complicating matters is the fact that the military normalizes violence. Commanders may not think a push or a slap merits attention, given the level of violence they see in training or on the battlefield.

Every commander is required to undergo a training on the dynamics of domestic violence within 90 days of assuming command. Air Force spokesperson Lynn Kirby described the initial training as an in-person, “desk-side” briefing in which a FAP staff member teaches the commander the protocols for responding to allegations of domestic abuse. HuffPost was not able to obtain the training material or ascertain its length.

Commanders are required to take certain steps after hearing a domestic violence allegation. When Olszewski told Flint that Cardin abused her, a formal process should have kicked into gear. According to a Department of Defense directive, he should have started an inquiry into the incident, and if the evidence supported her claims, brought charges against Cardin under the UCMJ. To the best of Olszewski’s knowledge, this did not happen.

“In the 23 years I’ve been doing this, I can think of maybe two or three domestic violence cases that went to trial.”

- Don Christensen, retired Air Force colonel

Flint also should have provided Olszewski with information on the Family Advocacy Program, which provides clinical services to both victims and abusers. FAP does not have the authority to punish offenders ― that responsibility is given to commanders. Instead, the program focuses on treatment and rehabilitation. Once a report of domestic abuse is made, a committee meets to see if the allegations meet the criteria under the Department of Defense, and if so, the case will be entered into a central registry.

“FAP has the responsibility to intervene to offer support and safety for victims and children who may be impacted, as well as to provide rehabilitative services to the offender,” said Jessica R. Maxwell, a Department of Defense spokesperson. “FAP does not advise the offender’s command on investigative or disciplinary matters to avoid conflicts of interest that would interfere with the exercise of professional discretion and impartial judgment in providing treatment to offenders and victims alike.”

Flint did not tell her about FAP, Olszewski said. But she eventually found out about the program on her own and made a report. In late 2017, a committee met to consider Olszewski’s complaint. It determined that her allegations did not meet the criteria for abuse, according to documents reviewed by HuffPost.

Then things took an unexpected turn. Cardin filed a counter-complaint with FAP, alleging that his ex-girlfriend had sent him emotionally abusive emails and texts following the Oct. 11 incident, and was threatening to ruin his career. These were the messages Olszewski wrote in the days and weeks after Cardin left without explanation. Early in 2018, the committee met and decided his report did meet the criteria for abuse.

In their eyes, she was the abuser. A FAP employee even asked Olszewski if she wanted to take a domestic violence offenders course, she said. She declined.

Undeterred by these setbacks, Olszewski went up the chain of command. She filed a complaint about her interactions with FAP with Air Mobility Command, a military organization with oversight over Travis Air Force Base. And in meeting after meeting, she pressured anyone who would listen to open a criminal investigation into Cardin and to take her allegations seriously.

Eventually, the Air Force did. While it investigated her complaint, she obtained a military no-contact order that barred Cardin from interacting with her.

Olszewski waited and hoped. She wanted Cardin to be held accountable for assaulting her, she said. Months passed. Then, one day she checked her email and it was all over. On Sept. 4, 2018, almost 11 months after the night she says Cardin kicked her, she found out that he would not face any charges under the UCMJ. Within two months, he retired from the military.

In December, she received a letter from Air Mobility Command acknowledging that FAP had not “considered all appropriate evidence” when making a determination in her case. Still, it doubled down on its decision not to prosecute Cardin.

“The Air Force Office of Special Investigations, the appropriate commanders of the personnel involved, and the Staff Judge Advocate at Travis Air Force Base carefully considered this possibility,” the letter read. “After evaluation of the facts and evidence, they appropriately decided military justice action was not appropriate in this case.”

Leah Olszewski holds a binder of documents stemming from her allegations against Cardin. More are stored in this suitcase.
Leah Olszewski holds a binder of documents stemming from her allegations against Cardin. More are stored in this suitcase.
Lexey Swall for HuffPost

On Her Own

Last month, Olszewski arrived at a hearing for the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Military Personnel clutching a big white folder of documents.

She’d been contacted by a staff member from California Rep. Jackie Speier’s office, who had asked her to testify about her experience for a hearing on domestic violence in the military. The walls of the room were lined with portraits of old white men, former chairmen of the House Armed Services Committee. Not a woman among them. Olszewski wore black slacks, her hair loose down to her hips. She was nervous. She’d stayed up late the night before to finish writing her testimony. It seemed like an impossible task. How could she explain the events of the last two years in a five-minute speech?

She couldn’t fit in everything. There was so much.

“I have battled the Air Force to do the right thing. Every entity on Travis Air Force Base, from command to Family Advocacy to Security Forces, failed me. They just waited on the senior master sergeant to retire,” she said, referring to Cardin.

She spoke in measured tones, describing failure after failure that had led her to this moment. As she got to the part about the miscarriage, she broke down in tears. She only found out about FAP by accident, she explained. No one in the Air Force seemed to care what happened to her. Her ex had faced no consequences. “I live in fear, heavily burdened every day,” she said. “How many others are there and what does it take?”

Olszewski told HuffPost that after command and FAP refused to help her, she hadn’t given up. That wasn’t her way. Unlike many other victims of military domestic violence, she had an advantage: She was military herself. She understood the acronyms and could navigate the complicated bureaucracy. “I followed the chain of command from Travis all the way up to the secretary of the Air Force’s office,” she said, making phone calls and filing complaints.

She left California as soon as she could, she said, and returned to Florida. There, she tried to use the civilian court system for support, with little luck. She attempted to obtain a permanent protective order against Cardin, which would have barred him from owning firearms, but her petition was denied. Circuit Judge Ross Goodman concluded that there was simply not enough evidence indicating potential for future domestic violence, though he told Cardin he had “strong suspicions that you may very well have done much, if not all, that has been alleged against you.”

Olszewski was able to obtain a temporary protective order in California, where the alleged abuse took place. But it will eventually expire. Even though two years have passed since the night she said Cardin kicked her, she is still afraid of him. They both currently live in the Washington, D.C., area. A few months ago, she believes she saw him in the parking lot of a professional event she’d posted about on Linkedin. Since then, she has been overly cautious about disclosing her location online. She is also enrolled in the address confidentiality program in Virginia.

Still, she is planning on moving soon because of her fears. She is also planning to leave her commission in the National Guard. A few weeks after the hearing, Olszewski said, she came to a difficult realization. She couldn’t see a future for herself in the military anymore.

“I can no longer say the military has any integrity or does the right thing or has standards and I will caution others going into the military,” she wrote. “After 22 years around the military, when I used to be the biggest believer and advocate and would have taken a bullet for so many, I am done… No more. I can no longer put on a uniform and feel good about it.”

Tara Haelle and Amanda Kippert 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, reach out to 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 You can also speak to a supportive advocate at the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-7233.

If you have been abused by someone in the military, we want to hear your story. Please email

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