The Air Force has 90 days to decide how best to support victims of domestic violence within its ranks and families.
Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall launched the three-month review Jan. 25, saying in a letter to airmen and Space Force guardians that the department can do more to win survivors’ trust.
“This is a warfighting issue, a readiness issue and a leadership issue,” Undersecretary Gina Ortiz Jones added in a Jan. 27 press release.
The decision follows news reports on the military’s failures to help those in abusive relationships, a 2021 deep dive by the Air Force inspector general and other debates on how to structure the health and financial support services available to airmen and their households.
To properly design an arsenal of support services and therapy options, Air Force officials will tap the expertise of outside advocacy groups that work with military spouses who have faced domestic violence.
The Air Force also wants its own units to look inward at whether they offer a safe space for those in crisis.
“Every member of our Air Force family deserves dignity and respect, and those who exhibit the strength and courage to seek support must be able to do so with the knowledge they will be treated with genuine care and competence,” said Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. CQ Brown, Jr.
More than half of the Air Force and Space Force personnel who responded to an internal survey in 2020 said they had been mentally or physically abused in the two years prior. The questionnaire garnered around 68,000 answers from active duty and reserve airmen and guardians, as well as civilians.
Nearly two-thirds of women and about half of the men who responded described incidents ranging from workplace bullying to rape or murder. Most said they did not report the abuse to their commanders or to law enforcement.
Since the survey, Kendall and other senior leaders have met with domestic abuse and sexual assault survivors to better understand the scope of the problem.
“We are an institution based on character and integrity, and our actions must reflect that,” he wrote.
An “interpersonal violence” task force created in 2020 to tackle the issue found that base-level support services were confusing and uncoordinated and discouraged victims from reporting incidents of abuse.
In response, the Air Force has launched pilot programs to increase awareness of and access to financial and health aid programs. It has tried to adopt a “no-wrong-door” policy so that those in crisis can easily find the help they need, even if they aren’t sure where to start.
Several other changes are in the works to shrink the prevalence of domestic violence.
The Air Force Office of Special Investigations is adding nearly 90 more staffers and growing the team that solely works on domestic violence cases. It’s also bolstering training for all who investigate violent crimes and funneling more experienced agents onto the beat.
The service’s special trial counsel office has the final say on whether to court-martial those accused of domestic violence.
“The office will streamline the investigation and trial process, decrease case processing times, ensure experts in domestic violence investigate allegations immediately after an offense is reported, and prosecute the cases where appropriate,” the Air Force said.
The Uniform Code of Military Justice now lists domestic violence as a standalone offense, a shift that allows for better record-keeping and more severe punishments.
“Eligible domestic violence victims are also now assigned a victim’s counsel (lawyer), which will ensure they receive privileged, confidential legal advice and other legal assistance and support services,” the Air Force added.
Officials are also working to overhaul the process through which abused dependents can apply for financial aid after their abuser is booted from the military.
Rachel Cohen is the editor of Air Force Times. She joined the publication as its senior reporter in March 2021. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Frederick News-Post (Md.), Air and Space Forces Magazine, Inside Defense, Inside Health Policy and elsewhere.