The Pentagon has spent more than $1 billion on a program meant to help survivors of domestic abuse since 2015. But advocates and survivors told CBS News that they couldn’t get help.
“I’ve never had anyone report to me that they received any type of help with moving, any type of help with food assistance, any type of help with just getting a protection order,” said Lisa Colella, who runs the private nonprofit Healing Household 6, which aims to support veterans’ caregivers and survivors of domestic violence. “I don’t think the program is useful at all.”
That military program, called the Family Advocacy Program, is one of the resources commanders are required to tell victims about following the reported allegations of abuse, according to Defense Department policy.
The military also offers domestic violence survivors a benefit called transitional compensation — a stipend intended to help survivors pay for basic living expenses after they leave an abusive home.
Colella, who quit her restaurant job to become an advocate for domestic violence victims, said the assistance isn’t reaching survivors.
“In all of the 700 people I’ve spoken to, I’ve only known two that have said that they even qualified for it, and only one that could show me a record of payment for that,” Colella said.
Commanders decide whether service members will be punished for domestic violence and if the case moves to a court-martial.
Of the hundreds of survivors Colella has helped, only two of the cases went to a court-martial.
“You only get the compensation if your spouse is convicted of some type of assault or domestic violence and were removed from the military. So the criteria is almost impossible to meet,” Colella said.
The lack of support for survivors is a story CBS News heard repeatedly during its two-year investigation into domestic violence in the military. Roughly 100,000 incidents of domestic abuse have been reported to the military since 2015, CBS News found. And many survivors who reported abuse to the military told CBS News that they feared for their safety. None of those cases went to trial.
“There was no protection for me. There was no help. There were no resources,” said Liz Knight, who called Army police weeks after giving birth after she was allegedly physically assaulted.
Colella’s work as an advocate started unofficially when she managed a restaurant in North Carolina near Camp Lejeune. Her staff would open up to her about problems at home after their spouses returned from deployments. She started her nonprofit in 2014.
“They were angry, that they were drinking more, that they were blocking them out of bank accounts, that all they had was their tip money to feed their children,” Colella said of the stories her staff shared.
Of the 100 servers who worked for her, she said about 75 to 80 were military spouses and about half had told her they were victims of domestic violence.
“I realized that there wasn’t a lot of help. So I decided to just do this myself,” she said. Colella’s organization offers survivors who experience domestic violence and abuse help navigating the reporting process, getting financial assistance, finding food and shelter and locating mental health resources, and educates spouses about domestic abuse.
Erica Johnson, a retired Air Force master sergeant who reported being physically and sexually assaulted, said the lack of support “is a pretty extensive epidemic.”
“Victims have needs. And they need to get what they deserve in terms of mental health, and support, financial situations,” Johnson said.
Colella said a culture of tolerance can cause “significant trauma” for survivors. “Women who are abused have a very difficult time seeking employment, staying with employment. There’s the consequence of losing health care. There’s the consequence of not being able to support your children and having them taken from you,” she said.
Survivors said they are still dealing with trauma.
“It’s mostly the nightmares, and waking up at night, and not being able to have relationships, because I’m terrified,” Johnson said.
Knight said she frequently has anxiety. “I’ll never be the person I was before I met him.”