Commands Protect Troops and Fail Families in Domestic Abuse Cases, Victims Say

Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., center, is joined by other members of Congress as she speaks after the group toured the U.S. Border Patrol Central Processing Center Saturday, June 23, 2018, in McAllen, Texas. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., center, is joined by other members of Congress as she speaks after the group toured the U.S. Border Patrol Central Processing Center Saturday, June 23, 2018, in McAllen, Texas. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

For three years, Kate Ranta said she endured escalating abuse at the hands of her husband, Air Force Maj. Thomas Maffei.

The alleged violence began when the couple lived in military housing at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, and, she said, became worse after they moved to Florida, where Maffei planned to retire. One day after a fight, she said, Maffei grabbed a gun and the couple's two-year-old and left home, only to return a short time later to convince the police that he was a war veteran who had been injured in an IED blast in Iraq.

It was a lie, Ranta says. Maffei hadn't seen combat and was, in fact, still on active duty, having forged moving orders and leaving his unit in the Washington, D.C., area without retiring. After the incident, she reported him to his command, launching a lengthy Air Force Office of Special Investigations case, which concluded that he should face a court-martial.

Instead, commanders handled it "administratively," letting Maffei retire with pay. Months later, he showed up at Ranta's house with a pistol, shooting three holes in the door before he forcibly entered the house and shot Ranta and her father, each twice, in front of the couple's four-year-old son.

Related: New Data Finds Child Abuse, Neglect Still Underreported in the Army

They both survived, and now Maffei faces 60 years behind bars, but only after being prosecuted in civilian court. Ranta is angry at Air Force officials who didn't take action and seemingly wanted only to protect Maffei's retirement pay and benefits rather than hold him accountable.

"All of this was avoidable. I hold his command fully responsible. They knew he was dangerous; instead, they chose not to do a thing about it," Ranta told lawmakers Tuesday during a House subcommittee hearing on military domestic violence.

Rep. Jackie Speier, D-California, chairwoman of the House Armed Services personnel subcommittee, said she called the hearing to shed light on a "forgotten crisis" -- domestic violence in the U.S. military.

"It has been 15 years since a Department of Defense task force analyzed domestic violence within the military, yet we have seen unsettling warning signs since. ...The DoD has not responded urgently," Speier said.

Only last year did domestic violence become a crime under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Before then, perpetrators were charged under a hodgepodge of various offenses.

Congress made it a standalone crime as part of the fiscal 2019 National Defense Authorization Act, saying it would close a loophole in military law that allowed violent offenders to hide the nature of their crimes under generic terms such as "assault."

But Speier said more legislation may be needed to ensure that the services take allegations seriously, and investigate and prosecute service members in a uniform manner.

On multiple occasions, Army National Guard Maj. Leah Olszewski was physically abused by her partner, she tearfully told members of the House Armed Services personnel subcommittee. During one violent episode, she said, her former boyfriend, now a retired senior master sergeant, kicked her with both feet in her abdomen while she was pregnant, causing her to miscarry.

"When command learned of the physical abuse, they simply said, 'Run away, Leah,'" she said.

She added that he has never been prosecuted.

"To this day, I have battled the Air Force to do the right thing. Every entity on Travis Air Force Base, [California], from command to family advocacy to security forces failed me. They just waited on the senior master sergeant to retire," Olszewski said. "I live in fear."

An April 2019 Defense Department Inspector General report found that military law enforcement services' responses to domestic violence incidents were consistent with the DoD instruction on the subject.

But it found that the services' law enforcement organizations faced challenges responding to domestic violence incidents that were nonsexual. Of 219 cases studied, only one-third of crime scenes were consistently processed. And the Family Advocacy Program for the installation was notified in less than a quarter of the cases.

The women testifying Wednesday said they often were unaware of programs available within the services to help domestic violence victims and, when they reached out to civilian advocates, they were referred back to their installations.

There, commands often sided with the military member, deciding not to prosecute under "commanders' discretion," said Brian Clubb, military and veterans advocacy program coordinator for the Battered Women's Justice Project.

"They should not have discretion when it comes to abusing [a] spouse or children. What the hell is that discretion? We should have the ranking members from the Pentagon to come over here. And how they are holding their commanders accountable for failure to deal with this ... they don't want to damage careers? They don't want to damage their own career. They are damaging our military," said Rep. Paul Mitchell, R-Michigan.

Speier suggested that new legislation may be needed to ensure that domestic violence cases are weighed by a senior commander to eliminate any conflict of interest between a suspect and their immediate commanders.

A.T. Johnston, deputy assistant secretary of defense in the Office of Military Community and Family Policy, said the Pentagon takes domestic violence seriously, as strong families are integral to military readiness, adding that it has programs, including the Family Advocacy Program, to help victims.

Speier pointed out, however, that two of three of the victims who testified weren't aware of FAP and, with 70% of military spouses living off installation, they are often isolated, underemployed and living far from family and friends.

If they live with a service member who refuses to share their contact information with their units, the situation is ripe for domestic violence to go unnoticed, she added.

"You've got to look at another way of communicating with families because your resource is being underutilized or not utilized at all," Speier said.

-- Patricia Kime can be reached at Patricia.Kime@Military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @patriciakime.

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