WASHINGTON — The Defense Department and each of the services are drawing attention to the plight of domestic violence because of people like Amanda Tenorio, a victim advocate for Army Community Services at Joint Base Henderson Hall, Va., and a domestic violence survivor.
Tenorio was a 28-year-old divorced mother of two when she started dating a man who quickly turned violent with her. In their year-and-a-half relationship, she said, she sustained regular beatings that caused 35 broken bones in her face, a broken hip, ankles and ribs, dislocated knees and brain injuries that put her into a coma.
Tenorio and other domestic violence survivors are speaking out at installations as part of Domestic Violence Awareness Month, a national designation to bring violence among couples out of the shadows of their homes and into the help of military family advocacy programs.
“Educating the community is really important,” Tenorio said in a recent American Forces Press Service interview. “A lot of people know someone in that situation, but they don’t know how to handle it.”
Kathy Robertson, the department’s Family Advocacy Program manager, said the programs, which are on all military installations and include more than 800 clinical social workers, are designed to help couples through problems before they turn violent, but also respond to emergencies that require health care, police and shelter interventions.
“Our whole focus is on treatment and intervention and trying to help both the victim and the abuser,” she told AFPS.
The services are focused on training all leaders, from platoon sergeants to installation commanders, Robertson said, to recognize problems and encourage help before violence occurs.
Military leaders and domestic violence workers worry about increases in domestic violence during what is a volatile time for Americans, Robertson said. People in stressful situations, whether related to the economic recession, military downsizing, or dealing with the aftermath of combat, are at greater risk for violence, she said.
“War doesn’t necessarily make you more violent, but it does change you,” she said. “We are all very concerned about this financial situation. When you lose your job and your mortgage has gone under and you’re just making ends meet, things can get out of hand.”
Case workers are trained to help manage stressful situations before they boil over, Roberston said. They start with a safety assessment of the couple, then tailor intervention to meet their needs, she said. Treatment may mean learning how to talk through problems, practicing taking a “time out” when angry, or swearing off alcohol, which makes some people more violent, she said.
“Everyone has rough times in a relationship. We want to help them get those communication skills to work with each other.”
If violence has occurred, it can be reported to a family advocacy office, either as a “restricted” report, which means the command and police will not be notified, or “unrestricted,” which means they will, Robertson said. A restricted report is kept confidential except in cases in which an advocate determines a victim is in imminent danger, she said.
Robertson stresses that family advocacy programs are not involved in discipline and a report of domestic violence to a commander doesn’t necessarily mean a service member will be punished. “What the commander often does, is take that service member out of the home for 72 hours just to keep [the victim] safe,” she said. An abuser who shows concerted effort to get better “goes a long way” in a commander’s decision about discipline, she added.
In fiscal 2011, military family advocacy social workers supported 14,237 people, in response to domestic violence reports. Victim advocates worked with 18,055 during that time, Defense Department records show. The family advocacy program, Military OneSource and military family life counselors supported many more who sought help without a report being filed, Robertson said. She also noted that half of all reported cases were from a female service member abused by a civilian man.
Domestic violence cases involving a service member or one of their family members are usually handled in the civilian system if they occur off-base. Military family advocates are able to coordinate services in the civilian system, such as temporary shelter, which the military does not provide, Robertson said. Victim advocates are available 24 hours a day and 7 days a week — many are personally familiar with domestic violence and have worked with the civilian system, she said.
Tenorio, an Army contractor whose case did not involve the military, uses herself as an example to break down stereotypes of domestic violence victims. “Everybody has an image of a poor, uneducated, drug abuser,” she said.
In fact, Tenorio has a bachelor’s degree in social work and sociology and worked as an intern in domestic violence facilities. The fact that she didn’t see the relationship for what it was, underscores the denial and rationalization that happens with domestic violence, she said.
“I was aware it was domestic violence, but I was not calling it that in my mind,” said Tenorio, who was working as a travel agent in the Washington, D.C., suburbs after taking several years off to be home with her children.
Eventually, Tenorio said, “I reached point where I knew this was not going to get better.” She recalled what a frustrated police officer told her when she wouldn’t cooperate to get her abuser locked up: “The next time this happens, one of you is going to end up dead.”
“I didn’t want it to reach the point where I was dead and he was in prison,” she said. “I was to the point where I would rather go to prison, but I never got to the point, mentally, where I could see myself killing him.”
Far from killing him, Tenorio said, she didn’t even fight back until the end, because even blocking a blow in self-defense would agitate him more. “If I did nothing, his aggression would die down quicker,” she said.
Looking back, Tenorio said, she sees “classic red flags” from the start of their relationship: his jealousy, possessiveness, talking down about her while inflating himself and a temper that exploded over things like lost car keys or her cell phone ringing.
The violence started three months in and followed what Tenorio and Robertson say are classic domestic violence patterns of abuse followed by “honeymoon” periods of perceived remorse by the abuser: apologies, professions of love, and promises of change.
But, Tenorio said, as the relationship went on, the honeymoon periods were replaced with accusations of “Why do you make me do this to you?” or outright denial. “He asked me, ‘Who did this to you?’” she said.
Control often is a centerpiece of abusive relationships, Tenorio said and hers was no different. “If he saw that he was losing control of me, that would set him off.”
Tenorio said victims often feel isolated, as she did. She lived with her abuser and was fairly new to the area and had no local family, while he had a network of support in parents and friends.
Much of the abuse took place in public and, while most witnesses ignored it, some called police, Tenorio said. In one instance, local police pressed charges, but Tenorio agreed to go along with a lie her abuser and his mother concocted to have the charges thrown out, she said.
“I told [police] we got in a fight and I just want my things and want him to go and leave me alone,” she said. “But it’s never that easy. It’s easy to say it, but with a classic abuser, that’s losing control of me and he wouldn’t allow that.”
“I thought the best thing for me to do was to stay on his good side,” she said.
Tenorio said she had little faith in police and courts because her abuser had a history of criminal problems and had gotten out of all of them. Each time they separated, he always found her, even when she moved, she said.
Perhaps the worst abuse Tenorio describes was a two-day ordeal in which her abuser bound, gagged and blindfolded her in a chair in a motel room, then poured gasoline around the room, promising to set it ablaze if she upset him. He eventually released her, but after another beating and a series of events involving her trying to escape and some witnesses attempting to help, she said, he drove them out to a long, dark road at night, repeatedly smashing her head against the windshield and passenger window until it broke. She managed to get into a convenience store when he stopped for gas and the cashier locked the door behind her and called 9-1-1. Tenorio laid down on the store tiles and slipped into a coma. She awoke in a hospital two days later, she said, with a name plate that said “Carla Doe.”
Still, Tenorio stayed with her abuser a year longer, even nursing him back to health after he was shot in a drug deal, and suffering more beatings until finally escaping and calling police. She was taken to a domestic violence shelter and her abuser was put in jail without bail, she said.
Tenorio’s abuser is serving a 15-year sentence in a Virginia prison and was recently extradited to Maryland for multiple felonies, related to the violence that put her in a coma, she said. With the help of a domestic violence officer, she rented a new home, got a new job as a property manager, while volunteering with civilian domestic violence groups. She also gained custody of her two children and last summer began working for the Army’s victim advocate program.
“I think everything played out for me the way it was supposed to,” Tenorio said. “The detective knew what was going on from the first time she saw me, but knew I was in victim mode and something just had to click in my mind to leave the relationship.”
With her social work degree, Tenorio’s personal struggles and new understanding of the system, she became passionate about helping others. “It sounds so easy to say ‘just leave,’ but you can’t really comprehend someone’s fear until you’ve been through it,” she said.
Tenorio’s experience shows how domestic violence is complicated by the psychological state of the victim and the abuser, Tenorio and Robertson said. Getting a protective order may seem obvious, but it often leads to more violence, they said.
Robertson said she is glad to have Tenorio and other survivors of domestic abuse as part of the military’s family advocacy program. “Domestic violence is hard,” she said, and advocates must understand the complexities.
“You can help them leave, but victims still have a tie to that person,” she said. “There’s a whole cycle of the honeymoon period and the flowers and the ‘I’m-so-sorries.’ It’s a very vicious cycle.”
Early intervention by family advocates can prevent violence, Robertson said. Bystanders can help too, she said.
“Let that person know there are resources out there,” she said. “Acknowledge that you heard something [or saw something], and let them know there is help.”