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Military's domestic violence crisis compounded after 20 years of war

Ex-Army attorney on military's domestic abuse crisis
Former Army attorney on military's domestic violence crisis 04:01

Deployment. Post-traumatic stress disorder. Self-medication with alcohol. Domestic abuse. And finally, in some cases, sexual assault.

It's a cycle retired longtime Army attorney Captain Tony Hosein has seen many times.

Hosein, who served as a legal assistance and special victims attorney for the Army before he retired in February, had helped dozens of domestic violence survivors — "I've seen the worst of the worst." But cases typically only got to his desk once an abusive situation had escalated.

"A lot of times domestic violence leads to sexual assault. And I believe it should receive the same attention and they should have the same resources available to them," he said. 

A two-year investigation by CBS News found roughly 100,000 incidents of domestic abuse have been reported to the military since 2015. Many of the nearly 40 survivors who had reported domestic violence to the military and who spoke to CBS News described a broken system. 

"I started off very idealistic, you know, wanting to help, wanting to do better. And just somewhere throughout the years, it just — I felt like I was spinning my wheels," Hosein said. 

"Incidents of spousal abuse in the military" were "more than twice that of the national population," according to 2019 data cited by the nonprofit Blue Star Families. 

Liz Knight was one of those helped by Hosein. While military police investigated and found probable cause to charge the person she accused of physically assaulting her, Knight's case did not go to a court-martial. The alleged perpetrator instead received a local letter of reprimand, which, she said, was removed from his record when he left South Korea. 

"There was no protection for me. There was no help. There were no resources," Knight said. "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? As long as I'm removed and I'm not part of the problem, then they have their soldier." 

The Army values the soldier more than the victim's safety, Hosein said, because "the Army is tasked with fighting this nation's wars. So, the most important thing to the Army is its soldiers." 

"Soldiers are great at what they do. They are great at fighting this nation's wars," he said. "But when they come back home, there's a disconnect. They're not in battle anymore. A lot of 'em have PTSD and other traumas." 

Before Hosein stared working with survivors, he was a defense counsel for soldiers who were alleged to have committed sexual assault and rape. That gave him an unusual perspective. "There are people who have done horrible things that I may have helped, you know. But I got to see the other side, and the hurt, and the trauma, and the pain from the victim's perspective," he said. 

Defense Department policy mandates that commanders ensure military offenders are held accountable. Commanders also have the power to make decisions about the outcome of a case, including whether it goes to a court-martial. Hosein said those decisions about the outcome of a case, including whether it goes to a court-martial, should be made by a prosecutor or a judge.  

"Great for the soldier. But for the victim it looks like they're in a system that's rigged against them," he said. "Until there's drastic change, I think we'll still see the same trends. Domestic violence in the military, I think, will persist." 

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. 

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.

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