Tamara Campbell started receiving letters from her ex-husband, Bradley Darlington, after he'd been in jail for almost two years.
Sometimes they came to her directly and sometimes they were forwarded to her by her former in-laws. Regardless of how they arrived, the letters violated the victim/witness program procedures in place at Naval Consolidated Brig Chesapeake, where Darlington was incarcerated.
One communication was a card featuring a detailed drawing of the eyes of a peacock feather. Inside, Darlington wrote to Campbell, "I saw this and thought of you. I know it's not a phoinex [sic] feather, its a peacock feather, but we had a couple laughs over it in the past."
Campbell lifted her sleeve to show a tattoo of a phoenix feather on her upper arm.
"He's talking about this. He actually beat me after I got this," she said.
In another letter, Darlington wrote, "No matter what happens, we are all conected [sic], we will always be family."
On the envelope, he wrote "4 the kids," then crossed out that phrase and wrote, "To Tamara."
In another letter to his ex-wife, Darlington wrote, "I would ride you over bull any day."
Campbell said her ex used to tell her he liked "taking" sex from her because it was like riding a bull.
Darlington, a former Marine, entered a plea deal in a military court at Marine Corps Base Quantico in June 2015, pleading guilty to seven charges, including violating a protective order taken out against him by Campbell, strangling her "with a force likely to produce death" and inserting a loaded handgun into her mouth "while holding her down by the throat," court papers state.
He also pleaded guilty to adultery with another Marine – a violation of Article 134 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice – "being of a nature to bring discredit upon the armed forces"–and to stealing and selling military property and selling Percocet, all while on active duty at Marine Corps Base Quantico.
A military judge sentenced him to 11 years confinement at Naval Consolidated Brig Chesapeake, according to the court-martial order, which was signed and executed in September 2015 by Brig. Gen. Austin Renforth, then commanding general of Marine Corps Training Command.
Darlington was also dishonorably discharged from the Marine Corps.
According to the terms of the pretrial agreement that both Darlington and Campbell consented to, the judge suspended all confinement in excess of five years. The suspension can be vacated if Darlington commits any misconduct or violates any condition of suspension, the pretrial agreement states.
"I was told that if he messed up even once, he will have to serve the full 11 years," Campbell said.
Darlington is not permitted to contact Campbell, either directly or through a third party, according to military protective orders taken out against him and the Department of the Navy's Victim Witness Program procedures.
Yet Campbell has a binder full of letters from Darlington, as well as text messages from his parents and his brother in which he requests communication with their three children, now ages 11, 7 and 4.
There is also evidence of Darlington's misconduct in jail. A Department of Defense prisoner summary data form from December 2016, obtained by Campbell's Marine Corps-assigned lawyer from the Victims' Legal Counsel Organization, states that "Prisoner Darlington has had difficulty adjusting to confinement, receiving numerous disciplinary infractions for prohibited property, disrespect, disobedience and verbalizing threats to staff and prisoners." According to the report, those infractions led him to spend seven months in "disciplinary segregation."
And a brief written by Campbell's lawyer to the commanding general of Marine Corps Training Command – which Campbell forwarded to The Free Lance-Star – details "evidence of [his] repeated, violent misbehavior within confinement."
Darlington entered Naval Consolidated Brig Chesapeake on Dec. 22, 2014. His five years will be up in December.
But Campbell learned recently that her ex-husband is at a Federal Bureau of Prisons residential re-entry management program facility in St. Louis, and is scheduled to be released Friday.
"A friend called me up and told me that he's been posting on Facebook that he's a free man," Campbell said. "It's terrifying."
Campbell's case shines a spotlight on the military's struggle to respond effectively to domestic violence in a timely and consistent manner.
Her Victims' Legal Counsel attorneys have made multiple requests for the revocation of Darlington's suspended sentence. These requests, which Campbell sent to The Free Lance-Star, have been denied by both the commander of Headquarters and Services Battalion at Camp Lejeune, N.C., and the commanding general of Marine Corps Installations-East.
In an email sent to The Free Lance-Star, Campbell wrote: "The Marine Corps has not held [Darlington] accountable and they have failed to honor the judge's ruling on the plea deal. My abuser will be free soon and I will return to being shackled to the memory of his hands around my neck."
Speaking in the Fredericksburg-area home she shares with her new fiance and her children, she said that all the Marine Corps is doing is giving her abuser "a slap on the wrist."
Domestic violence in the military
Some studies suggest that domestic violence has increased in the military community since the start of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan almost two decades ago.
In 2014, the National Domestic Violence Hotline reported that the annual number of military calls to the hotline more than tripled since 2006.
A report from the Pentagon released in 2011 showed that post-traumatic stress syndrome, or PTSD, an after-effect experienced by some military members after long or repeated deployments, was a contributing factor to family violence, making service members "up to three times more likely to be aggressive with their female partners."
According to the April 2018 Department of Defense report on child abuse and neglect and domestic abuse in the military, incidents of domestic violence increased by 5 percent between 2016 and 2017.
Reported spouse abuse occurred in 24.5 out of 1,000 couples. Rates were highest among enlisted service members in the lower and middle pay grades, the DoD report states.
Those statistics are based only on unrestricted reports of domestic abuse made to the congressionally mandated Family Advocacy Programs at military installations. Unrestricted reports trigger law enforcement and command investigation, as opposed to restricted reports, which are confidential.
According to this report, rates of domestic violence have not changed significantly since 2008.
But they also haven't gone down, said Brian Clubb, director of the Battered Women's Justice Project's military and veteran's advocacy program. He said the Department of Defense has established guidelines meant to improve the response to incidents of sexual assault and domestic violence.
"But like any military command, one might be doing something great and the command next door is not," Clubb said. "So much of the authority and response depends on the individual command and the individual commanding officer. One might say, 'I'm not going to report this or do a [military protective order]' and another might do all that and involve the law."
Lisa Colella, the founder and director of Healing Household 6, a nonprofit based near Camp Lejeune that helps military families dealing with domestic violence and other emergencies, said that when the Family Advocacy Program is informed of instances of domestic violence, they are tracked and reported to the government.
"[Family Advocacy] tries very hard to do all that correctly," she said.
But she said that, in her experience, the command responsible for the accused service member sometimes does not notify the Family Advocacy Program.
"There's a lot of problems with reporting when it ends up going through the command," Colella said.
Risk factors for committing domestic violence and sexual assault may be higher in the military community.
In addition to post-traumatic stress disorder, some of the risk factors for committing domestic violence identified by the Centers for Disease Control include young age, job and economic stress, isolation, lack of social support and disconnect from community organizations.
"There's the cliche that 'hurt people hurt people,'" said Christopher Kilmartin, an emeritus professor of psychology at the University of Mary Washington. "There are survivors of really bad family backgrounds in the military."
Kilmartin specializes in the psychology of masculinity and has been hired by the Army, Air Force and Navy to teach sexual assault prevention. He said the combination of traumatic early childhood experiences and a "hyper-masculine culture" increase the risk of committing domestic violence.
"There is also the hazing model, which retraumatizes people," he said. "Plus, you're going to see physical and psychological male dominance. And they are training people to kill."
The vast majority of men, whether military or civilian, will never be violent. But men commit more than 88 percent of violent crime in the United States, according to the FBI's 2017 report on crime in the nation.
"What to pull out is that in the majority of lethal inter-partner violence in the military, men are the perpetrators, females are the victims, and while it's not in the Family Advocacy Program data, I've been told that the majority of those cases involve firearms," Clubb said. "Those kinds of trends match up with what we see in the civilian population."
Clubb and others have been advocating for the addition of domestic violence as a separate crime under the UCMJ, which occurred this past summer. Previously--when Darlington was convicted in 2015--incidents of domestic violence were charged as assault and treated "just as if you were in a bar fight with a buddy," Colella said.
Advocates felt this did not convey the seriousness of the crime.
"An assault charge doesn't carry any weapon restriction. That's a big one," Colella said.
According to a 2017 report from the CDC, more than half of female homicides in the U.S. are related to intimate partner violence and about 54 percent are gun deaths. Other studies have shown that women are five times more likely to be killed by their abuser if the abuser has access to a gun.
The Marine Corps did not respond to a request for comment on this case. Department of Defense Order 6400.01, which establishes policies and procedures for addressing domestic abuse and child abuse in military communities and was updated in April 2017, states that it is DOD policy to: "promote early identification; reporting; and coordinated, comprehensive intervention, assessment, and support to victims of child abuse and domestic abuse."
'Roses and Thorns'
Campbell met Darlington when they were both in high school in a small town in Indiana. Her home life was bad at the time, she said, and he helped get her out of the situation.
"He was my high school sweetheart," she said. "We were supposed to live happily ever after."
Campbell noticed some of his controlling tendencies right away.
"He was always telling me not to wear low-cut shirts because he didn't want anyone else looking at me, and he wanted me to spend all my time with him," she said.
But she ignored the red flags.
"I'd never seen what a healthy relationship looks like," she said.
After they married and Darlington enlisted in the Marine Corps, Campbell said his behavior became more and more violent.
One time, she said, he threatened to cut off her ring finger and shatter her jaw. Several times, he grabbed her by the hair and slammed her head into the counter, she said.
Still, Campbell said that because of the way she was raised, in a small town where people never divorced, and because of the pressure she felt to be "a good Marine wife," she continued to blame his behavior on stress from his job. Darlington was deployed to Afghanistan and she thought he was suffering from PTSD.
While they were posted at Camp Lejeune, someone gave her a book called "Roses and Thorns: A Handbook for Marine Corps Enlisted Wives." The book's message was that a wife's most important job was to support her Marine husband, Campbell said.
"I thought, he needs more support and maybe I'm not doing enough to support him," she said.
When Darlington was posted to Quantico, the violence escalated and happened "almost daily," Campbell said.
On Nov. 7, 2014, she told him she wanted a divorce. In an incident to which Darlington later pleaded guilty, he left and came back with her gun, an M1911 pistol. He shoved her onto a couch and began strangling her, telling her to open her mouth.
As she begged him to stop, he took his hands off her throat to chamber a round. Then he forced the gun into her mouth and told her his finger was on the trigger.
Campbell said Darlington let her go that day only because his mistress called his cellphone to tell him she was at the house to pick him up.
Even after that incident, Campbell said she continued to post on a Facebook group for Marine Corps wives, asking for advice on how to help her husband.
"I told them I felt he was on the brink of a PTSD meltdown," she said. "I was showing screenshots of his disturbing text messages. They told me I should call the MPs. I said, 'Oh, no, I'm just wanting to get him help.'"
Arrest and conviction
Campbell said she realizes now that she wasn't thinking clearly.
Colella said Campbell's experience of being unable to identify domestic violence in her relationship is something she sees often in military spouses. She said military wives are typically young and isolated from someone who can offer objective advice.
"We have women who have moved from all over the country, from all walks of life, thousands of miles away from anybody who can help them," Colella said. "In a civilian setting, most women know themselves or they have a friend who knows who in the local community can help you. But in the military, this is a very hush-hush thing."
Campbell's situation was forced into the open Dec. 10, 2014 – the second attack to which Darlington pleaded guilty. That day, she again told him she wanted a divorce and he started strangling her.
Campbell described hearing her 3-year-old daughter screaming and how she tried to hold on to her infant son as she struggled for breath and her vision turned to white.
After Darlington let go and left the house, Campbell recalled vomiting into the sink while her daughter watched. Then she had to take her children out to pick up the Christmas gifts that a base organization was donating to her family.
At some point, she posted about the attack in the Facebook group. Another member used the post to pinpoint her location in base housing at Quantico and called her son, a military policeman on the base.
Campbell returned from her errand to find military police, Navy Criminal Investigative Service and social services at her home.
She was taken to Mary Washington Hospital in an ambulance, where a forensic nurse documented the strangulation-related injuries. Darlington was arrested and placed in the Rappahannock Regional Jail.
Soon afterward, Campbell said, Marines from Darlington's command, Weapons Training Battalion, started stopping by her house at random times, often with Darlington on the other end of their mobile phones, asking to talk to her.
Colella said command involvement is another reason why domestic violence incidents in the military community sometimes do not get treated with the seriousness advocates think they should.
If a service member is arrested by military police, his or her command will be notified, Colella said, and sometimes all the command will do is place the person in a barracks for a "cool-out period."
She said this might change with the new option to charge service members specifically with domestic violence.
"But there is still a lot of command involvement," she said. "There's no civilian counterpart where if your spouse hurts you, their boss has a say in how that proceeds."
Kilmartin said commanders are responsible for fostering a climate that either condones or restricts sexist behavior.
"If the tone set by a commander is one that accommodates hostile sexism, women in that unit are six times as likely to experience sexual assault," he said, citing findings from an article published in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine that explores factors associated with women's risk of rape in the military environment. "That's how important the command is."
Colella also said that in many cases, the service member is young and his or her direct superior is also very young, often only 22 to 26 years old, and not adequately trained to respond to domestic violence.
"They've been in battle with this person. Who do you think they believe? The bonds are different. Bond and brotherhood make it very difficult to have someone believe [victims]," Colella said.
Campbell said she felt pressure from her ex-husband's command, as well as the prosecuting attorney, to take a plea deal. She was exhausted and she accepted and tried to move on with her life.
But then, in 2016, the letters from Darlington started coming.
Campbell said the Marine Corps has assigned seven different legal counsels to her. Since she started receiving communication from her ex-husband's family and from him, she has been informing her lawyers of her fear of him, trying to get military protective orders reinstated and attempting to have his suspended sentence reinstated.
In January 2015, she wrote to her first legal counsel describing the anxiety she felt when Darlington's parents contacted her at his request.
"I have felt relaxed and safe since he has been in jail," she wrote in an email she forwarded to The Free Lance-Star. "But with all of this, I feel panicked again and it's like I'm waiting for him to come through that door and try to hurt me again. I don't know what to do, I don't know who to trust."
In November 2016, the senior trial counsel at Marine Corps Base Quantico emailed a military corrections officer at Camp Lejeune on her behalf, asking to have a military protective order placed against Darlington.
Campbell said it seems like no one can agree what command is responsible for Darlington since he was discharged.
In June 2017, she received an email from a captain serving as her victims' legal counsel telling her the Camp Lejeune base commander had denied his appeal to revoke Darlington's suspended sentence. Because it contained new material, it would have to be reviewed by the Headquarters and Support Battalion commander first, he wrote.
That counsel told her he would resubmit the request, but also informed her that he was being transferred out of the Victims' Legal Counsel Organization.
Campbell said the counsel she was assigned next told her within three weeks that he was closing the case.
It was not until December 2018 that yet another legal counsel began working on submitting another request to revoke the suspended sentence.
Campbell learned from the attorney that after Darlington was officially dishonorably discharged from the Marine Corps on March 3, 2018, he was transferred from the Chesapeake naval brig to a federal correctional institute in Loretto, Pa. At that point, it became unclear what entity had convening authority over Darlington, he told her.
According to the Navy's Corrections Manual, SECNAVIST 16.40.9C, the secretary of the Army is responsible for the transfer of military personnel serving long-term sentences from military prisons to Federal Bureau of Prisons facilities.
On Dec. 28, the counsel wrote in an email to Campbell, "As we discussed, I no longer feel comfortable waiting for all interested parties in figuring out who/which command is the appropriate entity for this request."
He attached to the email a draft appeal to the commanding general of Marine Corps Training Command, which he said he hoped to submit by Jan. 4. In the draft appeal, which Campbell forwarded to The Free Lance-Star, the counsel argued that Darlington should be required to serve out the remaining six years of his sentence behind bars because his actions "have, in totality and essence, violated the Pre-Trial Agreement affording him this very leniency."
The appeal mentions the letters Darlington routed to Campbell and the fact that he continued to track her down from prison despite her attempts to avoid him. It cites Darlington's multiple disciplinary incidents and notes that there are several recordings of phone calls he made from the brig in which he admits to assaulting staff and threatens further violence.
The appeal argues that the Marine Corps still has authority over Darlington--even though he was dishonorably discharged--because he is still serving a military sentence and is still bound by the conditions of the Pre-Trial Agreement.
On Feb. 27, Campbell finally learned that Camp Lejeune had agreed to a hearing on her appeal to vacate Darlington's suspended sentence. After being postponed twice last week, that hearing is now scheduled for Monday.
Campbell attends group therapy at Empowerhouse in Fredericksburg. She said that when she tells her story, she hears from military spouses who say it's their story, too.
"I hear military wife after military wife saying the same thing," she said. "Some Army, but mostly Marine. [The Marines] drop the ball so hard. It's disheartening."
Campbell said she thought about coming forward with her story a year ago but it scared her too much. Instead, on Dec. 10 of last year – the day she celebrates as her "Alive Day," when she survived strangulation at Darlington's hands – she had the word "survivor" tattooed on her foot.
But as March 15 grew closer, and after hearing about Darlington's aggressive behavior in confinement, she realized she didn't want to hold back any more.
"He's escalating," she said. "I can't just sit back and say nothing. He's in a reintegration program now. It's terrifying. We don't have time."
She said she wants to raise awareness of domestic violence in the military.
Kilmartin said that in his work on military bases, he sees lots of information being distributed about sexual assault prevention, but not as much about domestic violence prevention.
And Campbell said that throughout her time at Camp Lejeune and Quantico, she wasn't aware of the Family Advocacy program and the option to seek confidential services there. When she finally did reach out to the program, about a month after Darlington was arrested in 2014, she said it provided her with invaluable support.
"They were by me every step of the way," she said.
She wants survivors to know they are not alone, that they have a voice and that there are places, such as Empowerhouse and Family Advocacy, where they will be heard.
"I don't want to be another statistic," Campbell said. "But I figured, I'm already at risk. Why not scream off the rooftops that this is happening?"
This article is written by Adele Uphaus-Conner from The Free Lance-Star, Fredericksburg, Va. and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.