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NEWS | Feb. 19, 2013

'Domestic violence can't happen to me' -- yes it can

By Paula Spooner Family advocacy outreach manager

Too many people believe that domestic violence can't happen to them. In fact, perhaps even you may be a member of that group.

I am referring to those who prefer to think they are different from the rest of the pack: smarter, more aware and somehow protected from unhealthy people who might otherwise target and injure them. I will admit that I was once one of those people, but I was very wrong.

Fourteen years ago, I married my second husband after a two-year courtship. My personality was no different back then than it is now: strong, confident and outgoing. I was more than content in my career and delighted daily in my three children. My life was full, and the future seemed virtually unlimited.

But then, within several months of our marriage, after a cross-country move took us far away from family and friends, my new husband abruptly became verbally abusive to me and my children. Swiftly progressing to severe emotional abuse, it deteriorated from there. The suddenness and rapidity with which it progressed stunned and bewildered me to the point that I struggled to wrap my mind around the reality of it. It seemed surreal. Because it was such a departure from what I was accustomed to, I initially found myself meticulously examining what I might have said or done to provoke these cruel outbursts in him. Eventually, I realized the behavior was his responsibility, not mine.

Even then I felt stuck: He was a well-respected, high-ranking military officer. I was an Air Force civilian working in family advocacy. How could I, a person who knew all about domestic violence, who in my own mind should have "known better," tell anyone what was going on? Who would believe me? How could I even begin to explain it? He soon made the decision for both of us, and one evening he was arrested. The aftermath was embarrassing and messy, yet also a tremendous relief. My colleagues were supportive, pragmatic and understanding. The kids and I began the painful process of healing. From start to finish, the total length of that marriage was less than one year.

I tell you this for a couple of reasons. First, in the past, family advocacy only offered one option for reporting domestic violence: an unrestricted report. If I had chosen to make a report, it would have provided my family much needed access to family advocacy program support and counseling, but it would also have launched an official investigation involving law enforcement and my then-husband's command. Prior to his arrest, I hadn't yet made some critical decisions. In addition, I had multiple concerns about a formal investigation. How would he react? We were both assigned to the same squadron -- same flight, in fact. Given both of our very visible positions, I was acutely aware of the sensitivity of the situation.

On the positive side, once the formal investigation was launched, it proceeded smoothly. My husband was held firmly accountable. In fact, we both were held accountable to ensure that we followed every military and civilian expectation to the letter. This protected both of us. It provided boundaries, structure and reassured the kids. These were all helpful things that oddly contributed to a more amicable outcome.

Today, family advocacy also offers a restricted reporting option. With this option, a victim can confidentially disclose details about a situation to specific individuals and receive necessary treatment, counseling or victim advocacy support and not trigger an official investigation. Service members or their partners, they don't have to be married, who desire a restricted report may disclose to a victim advocate, family advocacy staff member, health care provider, sexual assault response coordinator or chaplain. An unrestricted report is the only option if the disclosure is made to a command or law enforcement official.

Victims can obtain any needed medical care, create viable safety plans, explore and clarify their feelings and then decide how they wish to proceed. This option puts the control and timing of the process fully in the hands of the victim, which is tremendously reassuring. Privacy and confidentiality are total unless the privacy of the victim becomes outweighed by risk of harm. A restricted report may be changed to an unrestricted report by a victim at any time. Once it changes to an unrestricted report, however, it cannot be changed back to a restricted report.

The second reason I shared my story is to reinforce a point that should be obvious, but too often isn't. Interpersonal violence never discriminates. It doesn't seek out a particular personality type, educational level, military rank, socioeconomic status, ethnic culture or religion. Anyone can become the target of abusive relationship behaviors, particularly when those behaviors aren't revealed until the relationship is well established and strong bonds are formed.

Don't ever delude yourself into thinking that someone you believe you know well couldn't possibly be a victim of violence because "He's such a big, athletic guy!" or "She's just not the type. She's way too strong willed!" It's very tough to reach out and ask for help. So do the right thing and ask the simple question, "I'm concerned. Is everything OK? I'm here if you want to talk."

Trust me on this.

For more information on reporting options, interpersonal violence dynamics and how you can be a positive voice in your squadron, call your base family advocacy office or your nearest Airmen and Family Readiness Center.