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One woman reported domestic violence to the Air Force. This is how its investigation unfolded.

Survivor: Air Force failed to address domestic violence
Air Force failed to address domestic violence, survivor says 04:42

Emily Brearley sent the Air Force photos of her bruises. She told them she feared for her life after her then-partner, a high-ranking member of the Air Force, had allegedly attempted to strangle her and beat her. 

From the very beginning of the relationship there was verbal abuse, she said. 

Then the alleged physical abuse began. A commander became aware and reported it in 2018 to the military's Family Advocacy Program, which is designed to help victims of domestic abuse. The report went nowhere, said the British-born Brearley, who has worked in Washington, D.C., and earned a doctorate in economics since coming to the U.S. 

Last year, Brearley again reported the alleged violence to the Air Force, even writing a letter to one of her partner's superiors. 

"I gave him a list of all the evidence. I sent him photographs of my bruises. I sent him recordings," she said. 

But the Air Force did nothing to keep her safe, Brearley said. Instead, they promoted her partner. 

Brearley's story is not unique. Nearly 40 survivors of domestic violence told CBS News during a two-year investigation that the military failed to protect them. 

On Wednesday evening, the Air Force said it was launching a review of the cases of domestic violence reported by CBS News LINK. "There is absolutely no place for sexual assault, sexual harassment, or domestic violence in the Department of the Air Force," said Frank Kendall, the secretary of the Air Force, in a statement.

The Air Force's Office of Special Investigations did open an investigation into Brearley's allegations. After a three-month investigation, the commander — who decides whether service members will be punished for domestic violence or if a case will move to a court-martial — decided to take no action against the alleged offender.  

"It was absolutely horrifying to see the lack of alignment with the evidence and the testimony I had given and what was stated in the report. It was a complete cover-up," Brearley said. 

She contacted Air Force leaders and members of Congress asking for help. Without explanation, the Air Force reopened her case and appointed a new investigator who took into account all of her evidence. 

Though that investigation ended six months ago, the military didn't tell Brearley the status of her case. The outcome, disclosed via a Freedom of Information Act request filed by CBS News, was that her former partner would receive verbal counseling and the case would not be referred to a court-martial. 

"My allegations are not taken seriously. Nobody's allegations are taken seriously," Brearley said.  

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said he takes the issue and the impact it has on service members and their families with "utmost seriousness." 

"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," Austin said in a written statement to CBS News. 

He said the Pentagon isn't afraid to change how it prosecutes these cases and better prevent domestic violence. 

Brearley turned to Kayce Simmons-Munyeneh, a longtime victim specialist for the Washington, D.C., Metropolitan Police Department, for support during her experience. Brearley also sought help from the Pentagon's Family Advocacy Program. 

"Anyone that was worth their salt would know she was in danger. And they didn't seem to be listening to her," Simmons-Munyeneh said. "They asked her, could she think back to favorable moments with the abuser? That's pretty much the worst thing you can ask someone who's experienced victimization."

"There was a lot of discussion about what the abuser did professionally, and how good he was at it," Simmons-Munyeneh said. "There was more concern for his career and his status than for the victim." 

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.

In a statement to CBS News after our report aired, secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall wrote:   

I am extremely troubled by the claims of inappropriate handling of domestic violence complaints highlighted in your broadcast and have directed the Department of the Air Force Inspector General to conduct a comprehensive review of those cases. The review will address not only the investigation and disciplinary actions associated with these cases, but also the support provided to victims. There is absolutely no place for sexual assault, sexual harassment, or domestic violence in the Department of the Air Force.

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