Joan Smith: The soldiers who can't help bringing their work home

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The American army has various names for it: it's called "spousal aggression" or "intimate partner violence". These are posh terms for wife-beating, and it's a huge problem in the US military. In the year 2000, after three soldiers at Fort Campbell in Kentucky were charged with murdering their wives or girlfriends, Congress set up a task force to investigate domestic violence on military bases and make recommendations. One of the first places it visited was Fort Bragg in North Carolina, which became notorious only two years later when four army wives were killed by their husbands or ex-husbands in a six-week period; three of the cases involved Special Operations soldiers who had been in Afghanistan, and two of the perpetrators killed themselves as well. In all, there were 832 victims of domestic violence at the base between 2002 and 2004, according to the army's own figures.

In this country, the problem of domestic violence in the military has rarely surfaced in the media, but a new report from the National Association of Probation Officers (Napo) suggests that it needs to be addressed urgently. The study looked at the proportion of veterans in the prison population in England and Wales and found that it has more than doubled in six years; about 8,500 are in jail and another 12,000 are on probation or on parole. In 90 cases where veterans were given a community sentence, half were "chronic" misusers of alcohol and drugs, and almost half were suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or depression. And the most common conviction among this group of men was for domestic violence. In 10 other cases, the main offence was against a child.

Previously unpublished figures in the IoS last month showed high levels of PTSD among veterans of the Afghanistan conflict. There is nothing surprising about this or about the link with domestic violence; soldiers who have lived for months under combat stress, never knowing when they might be blown up by a roadside bomb, perhaps witnessing close friends with limbs blown off, find it hard to adapt to civilian life. Their families want to do everyday things, while they are troubled by flashbacks to scenes of carnage. Earlier conflicts have confirmed a tendency among a significant minority of veterans to take out their frustrations on close family members; a friend of mine was one of the founders of Medica, an organisation set up to counsel women raped in the Bosnian war, and she observed a huge upsurge in domestic violence when the conflict was over.

In the US, the problem predates the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, suggesting that aspects of military life – the harshness of military regimes and the inevitable focus on violence as a solution – encourage attitudes which make some men more likely to use their fists at home. The task force on domestic violence reported in 2003 and since then American servicemen (or women) accused of domestic violence have been ordered into anger-management classes or couple-counselling. Two years later, though, Boston University School of Medicine described "intimate partner violence" in the US military as a "serious public health problem". Last year, three women soldiers were murdered in six months at Fort Bragg, allegedly bypartners who had served in Iraq.

This is a long-running scandal. Families of British soldiers in Afghanistan naturally feel immense relief when they return home uninjured, but some of them will have to cope with grave psychological damage inflicted by the conflict. It appears to be a burden which they are expected to bear alone.

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