Military has failed to address domestic violence, survivors say

Just weeks after she gave birth abroad in 2018, Liz Knight called Army police after, she says, she was physically assaulted. 

“He had put hands on me and was physical,” Knight said. “It was my breaking point. I had a 5-week-old infant. I felt like I needed to protect myself and my son.” 

Military police investigated and found probable cause to charge the alleged perpetrator with assault. As is typical with the military disciplinary process, the consequences were determined by his commander, who issued a local letter of reprimand — which meant, Knight said, that it was wiped from his record the minute he left South Korea.

Knight was one of nearly 40 domestic violence survivors who reported abuse to the military whom CBS News spoke to over the course of a two-year investigation. Those service members, military spouses and partners said the system is broken and the military failed to protect them.

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Several women told CBS News that the military did not take their allegations of domestic violence seriously.  CBS News

“The soldier is an asset. They need him. They have spent a lot of money to train him to do his job. And who am I?” said Knight. “As long as I’m removed and I’m not part of the problem, then they have their soldier.” 

Roughly 100,000 incidents of domestic abuse have been reported to the military since 2015, CBS News found the military has not kept comprehensive data on the problem so it’s impossible to assess the full scope. And while the Pentagon has made combating military sexual assault a priority and formed an independent review commission to address the problem, the new investigation reveals domestic abuse is a similar crisis on the home front. Some survivors told CBS News they felt they were in more danger after they reported. 

In 2019, now-retired Master Sergeant Erica Johnson told Air Force leaders she was being physically and sexually assaulted, triggering an investigation by the Air Force’s Office of Special Investigations. “There was no doubt in my mind he was gonna kill me,” Johnson said. 

But the investigation “didn’t go anywhere,” she said. “They wouldn’t accept evidence from me. They didn’t use my statements. It just didn’t make any sense.” 

Johnson hasn’t received a copy of the Air Force’s investigative report into her allegations, but she was told, based on the findings, the commander decided to take no action. 

“I felt so betrayed by the Air Force,” she said. “It was severe betrayal.” 

Army Major Leah Olszewski also reported being physically assaulted to the Air Force. “I had been strangulated. He had also threatened to break my neck, bust my front teeth out,” she said. 

Olszewski, who has become a champion for survivors, told her story to Congress in 2019. She had a miscarriage that she believes was the result of domestic violence. “He kicked me in the side of the stomach. And I flew off the bed into the closet doors. And then he took the comforter, and walked off like nothing had happened.”  

Olszewski said nothing has changed in the two years since she testified. 

Commanders are required to tell victims about resources, send reports to law enforcement for investigation and ensure military offenders are held accountable. The military is supposed to track disciplinary actions taken by commanders in domestic violence cases. However, a report from the Government Accountability Office earlier this year revealed the Pentagon hasn’t kept comprehensive data on those numbers, even though it’s been a legal requirement since 1999. 

Johnson, Olszewski and Knight’s cases did not go to a court-martial. They now fear their alleged abusers could harm someone else. 

“If it’s not someone in the military, a spouse, it’s gonna be somebody in the community,” Olszewski said. 

Johnson said, “The next person, he’s gonna kill. There’s no doubt in my mind. And he knows how to get away with it. He’s told me as much.” 

In June, the Pentagon’s independent commission charged with examining sexual assault in the military recommended moving decisions to prosecute both sexual assault and domestic violence cases to an independent body outside the chain of command. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin agreed: “I support this as well, given the strong correlation between these sorts of crimes and the prevalence of sexual assault.”

Many of the survivors told us they felt they were in more danger after they reported abuse. 

A senior defense official told CBS News the Pentagon is making sure they “get after these problems,” calling the situation “heartbreaking” and “maddening.” 

“Our people and our readiness are inextricably linked. These crimes endanger both,” said Austin in a statement to CBS News. “We find that unacceptable, and we aren’t afraid to change what we do, how we prosecute and how we better prevent them.”


Norah O’Donnell Reports: Sexual Assault in th… 27:16

In a statement to CBS News, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin wrote: 

Sexual assault, sexual harassment and domestic violence continue to plague our ranks. These crimes have profoundly damaging, and sometimes lethal consequences for service members and our families, and fundamentally impact our combat readiness. While I cannot comment on individual cases, I take these issues, and the impact on the men and women of the services, and their families, with the utmost seriousness. One of my early actions as Secretary of Defense was the establishment of an Independent Review Commission on sexual assault and harassment in the military. In July this year, the Commission made 82 recommendations addressing accountability; prevention; climate and culture; and victim care and support. So here’s what we’re doing. First and foremost, we are working closely with Congress on legislative proposals to remove decisions about whether to prosecute sexual assaults and related crimes-including domestic violence-from the military chain of command. Second, the Department will create dedicated offices within each service to handle these specific crimes. Third, we have asked Congress to formally add sexual harassment as an offense under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Finally, my team and I are reviewing an implementation roadmap for the many other thoughtful recommendations included in the IRC’s report.

Taken together, these are among the most significant reforms to our military in decades. Additionally, I have directed immediate steps across the Department to understand what is happening at the installation and unit level. We are assessing compliance with sexual assault and harassment policies and visiting bases around the world that are either showing promise to identify solutions or illuminate bright spots and export best practices. We continue to focus intensively on increasing prevention efforts, training, and streamlining and improving accountability mechanisms. And as always, we continue to focus on the care and support we offer victims. The women and men of our armed forces dedicate their lives to defending our nation, and deserve a workplace and home free of sexual assault, sexual harassment and domestic violence.

President Biden has placed an unprecedented priority on tackling this problem, and we’ve moved out quickly and deliberately to address it. I believe that bold action, commitment, and accountability are required, and that is exactly what we have, and will continue, to do. This is not a short-term problem and will not be solved by short-term strategies. It requires sustained action and commitment at the highest level of the Department of Defense – every commander, civilian leader, and member of the force must be a necessary part of the solution. Our people and our readiness are inextricably linked. These crimes endanger both. We find that unacceptable, and we aren’t afraid to change what we do, how we prosecute and how we better prevent them. This is a leadership issue, and we will lead.