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Survivors of domestic violence accuse military of "purposeful" cover-up

Military domestic violence survivors seek justice
Military domestic violence survivors waiting for justice 05:39

When the Air Force reopened its investigation into Leah Olszewski's domestic violence case two years ago, they reviewed evidence most would consider damning — bodycam footage of her bruises after she called 911, an audio recording of her ex-partner threatening to knock her teeth out and accounts from four other victims who had experienced similar abuse. But the deadline to file charges came and went, and the military did not pursue the case. 

In 2021, the Olszewski case was one of several detailed as part of a CBS News investigation about the military's failure to protect victims of domestic violence and adequately discipline abusers within its ranks. Now, Olszewski, an inactive Reserve Major with the Army, believes the case stands as evidence of a fresh concern — how military brass are generous with promises of reform in the spotlight of a public relations scandal, but less so when the attention fades.

"Leaders should not be making promises that they can't fulfill or have no intention of fulfilling," said Carol Thompson, a former military prosecutor who is representing Olszewski and three other women making similar claims.

The four women are among nearly 40 domestic violence survivors CBS News spoke to over the course of a two-year investigation who reported abuse to the military. That investigation found that roughly 100,000 incidents of domestic abuse have been reported to the military since 2015.

Their harrowing stories in 2021 of abuse spurred immediate pledges of support and action from military leaders in the Army and Air Force. In response to CBS News' reporting, Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall ordered a comprehensive review of "the investigation and disciplinary actions associated with these cases" and made personal assurances to the survivors, according to new audio recordings obtained by CBS News of a phone call just weeks after the reports aired.

More than two years later, the women CBS News spoke with say the military failed to deliver on its public and private assurances.

Instead, they say the Air Force's Inspector General report, made public in January, revealed the investigators had narrowed their scope. The report recommended the Air Force do more to establish trust with domestic violence victims, but did not examine "whether law enforcement conducted investigations correctly" or whether the appropriate disciplinary actions were taken. 

Three women interviewed by CBS News
L-R: Leah Olszewski, Liz Knight and Erica Johnson criticized the military's response to their allegations of domestic violence.  CBS News

As a result, the four women — Olszewski, former Air Force Master Sergeant Erica Johnson, and civilians Emily Brearley and Liz Knight — have filed legal action under the Federal Tort Claims Act, accusing the military of "a purposeful public relations cover up." 

Citing ongoing legal proceedings, Kendall declined to comment on specific cases but provided a statement to CBS News saying, "we are implementing a series of changes to reinforce trust with survivors and strengthen our domestic violence prevention and response efforts, ensuring that we provide the best support possible to victims of domestic violence."

"The Air Force is totally committed to getting this right to protect all those who've experienced abuse and to prevent this type of inexcusable trauma," he said. 

In an interview with "CBS Evening News" anchor and managing editor Norah O'Donnell, Thompson said that while all her clients would like to see their cases brought to court martial, only Emily Brearley's assault allegations remain within the statute of limitations. 

An Air Force Inspector General's review of Brearley's case concluded "the steps taken comported with Air Force and DoD standards for responding to [domestic violence]," despite not prosecuting her alleged abuser. Thompson pressed the Air Force for a legal review earlier this year, and last month — five years after she first reported the abuse — criminal charges were filed in Brearley's case. It is not yet clear whether the case will be brought to court martial. 

But for Olszewski, Johnson and Knight, justice remains elusive. 

"There's a lot of evidence," Thompson said of their cases. "There was enough evidence that for any reasonable prosecutor to look at that could have said, I think this should go forward to a court martial." 

In Olszewski's case that evidence includes a recording of her former partner threatening to "knock her f—ing teeth out" and bodycam footage showing fresh bruises after a 911 call — which Air Force investigators reviewed in both their original and supplemental investigation into her case. The supplemental investigation also uncovered four additional victims of her ex-partner, including one woman who had reported his behavior to the Air Force a decade earlier. 

Thompson says that if the Army had acted when they were first notified about her abuser, Olszewski's life may have been different, "maybe Leah would never even have met him."

Carol Thompson
Attorney Carol Thompson  CBS News

Last year Olszewski raised her concerns about the looming deadline for charges in her case in an email to Secretary Kendall, who responded that a "decision will be made before the statute of limitations expires," according to emails obtained by CBS News. In her FTCA claim she alleges the Air Force "allowed the standard five-year statute of limitations to run out on the assaults."

In Erica Johnson's case, investigators found what they called "previously unknown audio recordings," including one where her former partner appears to admit to abusive actions including "pushing" her. However, Johnson said her client had already provided that recording to prosecutors during the original investigation.

Liz Knight, whose alleged abuser is in the Army, reported being physically assaulted after giving birth abroad in 2018. The military police investigated and he was issued a local letter of reprimand – which was "erased from his record upon his departure" from that duty station, according to her FTCA claim.

According to Knight's FTCA claim, after she spoke out to CBS News in 2021, Army Inspector General Lt. Gen. Donna Martin assured her the Army would re-investigate. Despite that assurance, an investigation into her case wasn't reopened until almost a year later and only after Knight's own lawyer made the request. By that point, the statute of limitations for a court martial had passed. Her alleged abuser is still on active duty. 

An Army spokesperson told CBS News in a statement that military police and Army's criminal investigative division, "have independently investigated Ms. Knight's concerns, and Army commanders acted on those completed investigations within their proper authorities."

"The Army has received Ms. Knight's tort claim and is investigating its legal and factual sufficiency," the Army's statement went on to say. "The Army is committed to preventing harmful behaviors and promoting resilience, strong families, healthy coping skills, and relationship support."

The military has yet to take any disciplinary action against the alleged abusers of Olszewski, Johnson or Knight. One retired honorably while the other two remain in the service. The women's attorney calls that a failure by an institution where one's honor is paramount. 

"Individuals who commit domestic violence, who abuse the most intimate relationship — those are individuals that you cannot trust. And those are individuals that simply should not be in the service," Thompson said. 

The Air Force says they are now hiring more domestic abuse advocates to support victims and command teams, as well as new civilian staff to improve education and training efforts, according to a department spokesperson. They also have updated instructions that now require set times throughout a case to provide updates for victims throughout the process. 

The spokesperson also pointed to the upcoming implementation, as ordered by congress, of the Office of Special Trial Counsel, which places prosecution decisions on major crimes including domestic violence into the hands of independent prosecutors. 

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