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Lawmakers Hear Emotional Stories From 'Forgotten Crisis' Of Military Domestic Violence

The U.S. Capitol building Tuesday.
Patrick Semansky

Former wives and partners of servicemen who survived domestic abuse told their harrowing stories before the House Armed Services military preparedness subcommittee as they pressed for more attention to and resources for the growing problem within the armed forces.

"We are here today because domestic violence has become a forgotten crisis in our military," chairwoman Jackie Speier, D-Calif., said in her opening remarks before the military preparedness subcommittee.

"The [Department of Defense] must learn to believe women and take action based on their claims and evidence. Favoritism and a complex bureaucracy cannot shield dangerous perpetrators," she continued.

Three survivors of domestic violence shared their stories with the subcommittee. They say the military turned a blind eye toward domestic abusers and, in some cases, actively protect them by overlooking complaints of physical violence and emotional abuse.

Kate Ranta said that despite reporting physical abuse to her husband's commanding officer, he was protected by the system because he might lose his pension so near to retirement. While he was referred to a court martial, he faced no charges; she was instead told the issue was handled "administratively."

But then her husband showed up at her house with a gun, shooting both herself and her father — right in front of their toddler.

"Thomas did this in front of William, his own son, who was only 4 — his own son who screamed, 'Don't do it Daddy, don't shoot Mommy,'" Ranta said. "By some miracle, we all lived."

That led to a civilian conviction for attempted murder and a sentence of 60 years in prison, but Ranta said it didn't have to come to that if the military had simply listened to her.

"We saw justice on the civilian side, not the military side," she said. "[The military] knew he was dangerous, but they chose to do nothing about it."

Army Major Leah Olszewski was living with her Air Force boyfriend when he became repeatedly violent and emotionally controlling. While she was pregnant, he kicked her in the stomach, causing her to miscarry.

But he has yet to face any type of consequences for domestic abuse, with the Air Force inspector general dismissing her complaints.

"As they always have, the Air Force turned a blind eye," Olszewski said. There was "no demotion, no court martial, no consequences."

Outrage was bipartisan on the committee after hearing the womens' testimony. Rep. Paul Mitchell, R-Mich., zeroed in on how commanding officers repeatedly failed to respond to domestic violence complaints from women against servicemen.

"They don't want to damage someone's career? They're damaging their own career,"Mitchell said. "They're damaging the military and families."

Speier lamented an "abuse of command discretion" that has been allowed to fester, deferring to protecting service members over their families and children.

And, the chairwoman said, it was troubling that most of the women who testified didn't know there were resources available for them through the Family Advocacy Program that exists in each military branch.

A.T. Johnston, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for military community and family policy, said in her testimony that hearing the women's heartbreaking stories of how they fell through the cracks is a "call to action to us" to better educate military wives, partners and families of the resources to help.

"You've got to look at another way of communicating with families, because the existence of your resource is there — it's being underutilized or not utilized at all, and I think we need you to show greater accountability," Speier told her.

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Jessica Taylor is a political reporter with NPR based in Washington, DC, covering elections and breaking news out of the White House and Congress. Her reporting can be heard and seen on a variety of NPR platforms, from on air to online. For more than a decade, she has reported on and analyzed House and Senate elections and is a contributing author to the 2020 edition of The Almanac of American Politicsand is a senior contributor to The Cook Political Report.
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