Last week Stacy Bannerman, well-known advocate for military families, published an article titled, “Husbands Who Bring the War Home:” Author of When the War Came Home, Bannerman has been credited with helping to secure passage of the Military Family Leave Act in 2009.
As weary American troops return from their Iraqi deployment, the Bannerman column is important and timely. And the harrowing account of Kristi, victim of an attempted strangulation by a husband who had just returned from a 10-month deployment, was riveting.
But was it true?
As a columnist who specializes in the field of domestic violence and who has spoken with countless victims of abuse, I found myself feeling increasingly unsettled as I worked my way through her engaging yet enigmatic essay.
The question of the veracity of her claims is paramount because the partner abuse field is strewn with the battlefield debris of half-truths, misrepresentations, and utter fabrications. University of New Hampshire researcher Murray Straus has written of domestic violence researchers who “have let their ideological commitments overrule their scientific commitments.” And University of Pennsylvania School of Social Work Dean Richard Gelles has coined the whimsical phrase about the ubiquitous partner abuse “factoids from nowhere.”
So I sent Ms. Bannerman an email requesting documentation of her various statements and claims.
She cheerfully answered a couple of my questions. But when pressed for citations of the research studies, Bannerman firmly demurred: “I am sorry that my travel schedule doesn’t allow me to provide any further assistance.”
Knowing that her article had garnered extensive media attention and could well shape future legislation, that brush-off hardly seemed to fit the ticket. So I did some digging. And to my dismay, I learned that “Husbands Who Bring the War Home” likely contains more fiction than fact.
Let’s put the issue into perspective. Partner abuse is a problem in our society. But research paints a very different picture than the Dagwood and Blondie comic strip stereotypes.
The largest study on partner violence in military families was conducted by Richard Heyman of the State University of New York-Stony Brook. His survey of over 33,000 active-duty Army personnel found 4.4% of female soldiers had committed severe domestic violence in the past year, compared to only 2.5% of the men. Other studies with military personnel reach a similar conclusion: Women are as likely, if not more likely, than men to engage in partner aggression.
So let’s dissect the eight key claims in Bannerman’s 1,400-word article. I’ll first quote her statement, then tell you what my investigation turned up.
1. “The journal Disabled American Veterans stated that veteran interpersonal violence often involves ‘only one or two extremely violent and frightening abusive episodes that quickly precipitate treatment seeking.’”
I visited the website of the Disabled American Veterans Magazine. Entering the terms “interpersonal violence,” “partner violence,” and “domestic violence” into the magazine’s search engine, I searched every issue of the magazine from 1960 on. The Bannerman statement could not be verified. (When I later informed Ms. Bannerman of this fruitless search, she did not offer any comment.)
Conclusion: The statement appears to reflect the fanciful musings of an imaginative commentator.
2. The Veterans Administration “found that the majority of veterans with combat stress commit at least one act of spousal abuse in their first year post-deployment.”
Even after I offered to extend my deadline to accommodate Ms. Bannerman’s travel plans, she still did not provide the source of this claim. So I searched high and low — no luck. Finally I contacted the Veterans Administration. Tina Crenshaw, PhD of the National Center for PTSD replied, “I checked with a couple of researchers in this topic area — they were not aware of research supporting that statement.”
Conclusion: Add this gem to your Factoids from Nowhere collection.
3. “[S]ince 2003, there has been a 75 percent increase in reports of domestic violence in and around Ft. Hood.”
Bannerman emailed me, “As for the Ft. Hood figures, they were drawn from an article in USA Today.” But the USA Today article that is linked to her article says nothing about domestic violence, much less reports on an alleged “75 percent increase” in partner abuse.
Conclusion: Factoid from Nowhere No. 2.
4. “He [Kristi’s husband] called a domestic violence hotline, and the person he talked to discouraged him from going to the men’s group because he doesn’t fit the abuser profile.”
This incident was so out-of-order that I called Susan Risdon, spokeswoman for the National Domestic Violence Hotline, and read her Bannerman’s statement. Without missing a beat, Risdon skewered the claim: “Our advocates would never give that response to a caller.”
Conclusion: Let’s put this improbable tale out of its misery – can we all agree this is Factoid from Nowhere No. 3?
5. “Staff at the shelter told her that…her husband made too much money for her to stay there, anyway.”
This statement is not likely to be true because none of the three federal programs that fund domestic violence shelters — the Family Violence Prevention and Services Act, the Violence Against Women Act, and the Victims of Crime Act — requires means testing for shelter residents. And virtually every abuse shelter in the country receives federal monies.
Conclusion: Hardly a spit-and-polish claim.
6. The Blue Star Families “hasn’t released the findings [on its 2010 military family survey], but my hunch is that they’ll show near-epidemic numbers of veteran violence in the home.”
I queried Ms. Bannerman, “What was the basis for your ‘hunch’?” You guessed it. No response.
Conclusion: Is the idea to engage in responsible journalism, or scare the living daylights out of military wives?
7. I posed this question to Bannerman: “It is well-known that women are as likely to be partner abusers as men. Knowing that many women have served in combat zones, why did your article omit mention of their needs for counseling and treatment?”
Ms. Bannerman did not judge this question worthy of an answer.
Conclusion: According to the VA, “Women may take longer to recover from PTSD and are four times more likely than men to have long-lasting PTSD. Women with PTSD also are more likely to feel depressed and anxious.” So why did Bannerman opt to stiff-arm the needs of post-deployment women with PTSD, who are also at increased risk of partner abuse?
8. This was my last question: “The beginning of your article recounts three late night phone calls from ‘Kristi’ to you. Since the main point of your article is that the problem of domestic violence should be taken seriously, why did you not contact the police as soon as you received the calls?”
Bannerman replied, “I did not contact the police, since she [Kristi] specifically asked me not to.”
Conclusion: This must qualify as the most disingenuous part of the entire narrative. The caller was not indulging in a frat-house prank, and Ms. Bannerman surely understands the mortal risks of partner violence. But when confronted with a here-and-now, life-and-death situation, Bannerman nods back to sleep, miffed by the late-night distraction.
I contacted Dr. Donald Dutton, an internationally recognized expert on intimate partner aggression at the University of British Columbia. Dr. Dutton replied, “The Daily Beast article feeds into the stereotype of domestic violence as perpetrated by brutal men against hapless women. But the U.S. Army data indicates that partner abuse is perpetrated more by women. Apparently Stacy Bannerman believes that we shouldn’t allow a stereotype to get confused by the facts.”
On January 28, 1993, a group of women issued a warning that the upcoming Super Bowl would be the “biggest day of the year for violence against women.” Three days later the Washington Post ran a front-page story revealing there was no evidence to support such a claim. The frolic later came to be known as the Super Bowl Hoax.
Nearly 18 years later, a similar battle plan is being followed: Assemble lurid anecdotes and apocryphal statistics, issue dire warnings, and stampede loyal military wives into demanding draconian domestic violence measures.
But in the final analysis, it’s the true victims of true domestic violence who have most to lose from the data-fragging, fear-fostering, and political-posturing that envelop much of the current domestic violence debate.
Because after all these years, it’s about time that we take desperation calls from persons like Kristi seriously.