By Lauren R. Taylor
Tuesday, December 4, 2001
The Defense Department tells service members and their leaders that domestic violence will not be tolerated and says commanders "must take steps" to prevent it, help victims and hold those who commit it accountable.
WASHINGTON (WOMENSENEWS)--The Defense Department has issued a memo denouncing domestic abuse by service members and calling on military commanders to take action against perpetrators and to protect victims.
Some advocates of domestic violence survivors laud the action as sending a strong anti-abuse message. Others say policy statements are meaningless as long as the Pentagon fails to provide adequate services for victims of abuse.
Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz declared that "domestic violence will not be tolerated in the Department of Defense," in a Nov. 19 memo to the department's leadership. "Domestic violence is an offense against the institutional values of the Military Services of the United States of America," Wolfowitz wrote. "Commanders at every level have a duty to take appropriate steps to prevent domestic violence, protect victims and hold those who commit it accountable."
The Wolfowitz memo is a powerful acknowledgement of the problem of domestic violence within the military services and a strong statement against it, say some members of the Defense Department's task force on domestic violence.
"Now there's no way to deny or minimize that there is a problem," says Deborah Tucker, co-chair of the joint military-civilian task force and executive director of the National Training Center on Domestic and Sexual Violence in Austin, Texas. Wolfowitz is "sending a message out from the very top throughout the armed services," she says.
Christine Hansen, executive director of the Miles Foundation, a nonprofit organization that helps abused military spouses, says the memorandum is fine, but she wants to see some action.
"The department has been at this for a significant number of years now," Hansen says. "I would like to see some real progress made in practice, rather than just policy and position statements."
In February, the domestic violence task force issued its first annual report and sent it to Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. The report asked the secretary to issue such a "zero-tolerance" memo and, while praising the military for the steps it has taken to combat domestic violence, made more than 75 recommendations aimed at bolstering the military's prevention and intervention efforts.
Active-duty service members and their spouses report 20,000 to 23,000 spouse abuse incidents every year. Some women's advocates and family violence service providers contend that the rate of unreported abuse is much higher.
The legislation that created the task force required that the task force make annual reports to the defense secretary and, in turn, that the secretary forward the reports to Congress within 90 days of receiving them. Rumsfeld has not yet forwarded the first report to Capitol Hill, and it appears to be stalled in the Pentagon, awaiting Rumsfeld's review and approval.
Some on the Hill are unworried about the delays, ascribing them first to the change in administration and later to the response to the Sept. 11 attacks. Others accuse the Pentagon of foot-dragging. All involved say the hang-ups are more bureaucratic than substantive and issue reassurances that the report will soon be on its way.
In addition to setting out the zero-tolerance policy, Wolfowitz endorsed some of the task force's recommendations on preventing and responding to domestic violence in the military.
The deputy secretary called on the services to increase anti-violence education efforts; inform military spouses about military and civilian resources to prevent domestic violence; improve coordination between military and civilian service agencies and law enforcement; and train commanders, health care workers and others in responding to violent incidents.
Congress mandated the creation of the task force in 1999 after media reports spotlighted the prevalence of violence in military families. The task force, made up of 12 civilian and 12 service member representatives, conducted a year of investigation before it issued its first report.
Hansen says the memo is far from enough. The Pentagon should, among other things, make its counseling, legal, medical and other services available to victims who are not married to their abusers. Former companions, dating partners, spouses and significant others were all left out of Wolfowitz's memo, she said.
"A policy statement from leadership can aid those who are working in the field providing services directly to victims," Hansen said. "But it is necessary to enhance those services first and foremost. All the other things should flow from that."
Lauren R. Taylor is a free-lance writer and self-defense instructor based in Silver Spring, Md.
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