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Domestic Violence in the Military

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Laws current as of June 21, 2024

I have heard the terms “domestic abuse” and “domestic violence” used by military personnel. Is there a difference?

In the military, “domestic abuse” and “domestic violence” are two different terms.

Domestic abuse is used in the military as a broader term that includes all forms of relationship abuse against a current or former spouse or intimate partner, including physical harm and non-physical harm, like harassment and emotional abuse. The military considers domestic abuse to include a pattern of behavior resulting in emotional/psychological abuse, economic control, sexual abuse, “spousal neglect,” and interference with personal liberty.1 “Spousal neglect” is when an adult fails to provide necessary care or assistance to a spouse who is incapable of self-care physically, emotionally, or culturally.2

For the purpose of the military’s Family Advocacy Program (FAP), domestic violence is defined as an offense against you under the United States Code, including the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), or state or local law, if you are:

  1. the abuser’s current or former spouse;
  2. the abuser’s current or former intimate partner with whom s/he shares or has shared a home;
  3. the abuser’s current or former romantic or dating partner; or
  4. someone who shares a child in common with the abuser.1

To qualify as domestic violence, this offense must:

  1. involve the use, attempted use, or threatened use of force or violence against you; or
  2. be a violation of a lawful order issued for your protection.1

Domestic violence is also the name of a specific offense under the UCMJ.3 Offenses under the UCMJ can be punished in a variety of manners, including trial by court-martial.

If your relationship with the person who is harming you does not meet any of these requirements, you could still qualify for a civil protection order (CPO) in the state where you live. Go to the Restraining Orders section and enter your state in the drop-down menu to see if you qualify for a CPO.

1 Department of Defense Directive 6400.06, sections 3 incorporating change 2, May 16, 2023
2 Family Advocacy Program Content Guide
3 Uniform Code of Military Justice, Article 128b; 10 U.S.C. 928b

What is the military’s response to domestic violence, and how does it differ from the civilian response?

The program that helps families with domestic violence, child abuse, and child neglect within the Department of Defense (DoD) is the Family Advocacy Program (FAP). The FAP works with key military departments and civilian agencies to:

  • prevent abuse;
  • encourage early identification of abuse and prompt reporting;
  • promote victim safety and empowerment; and
  • provide advocacy and appropriate treatment and services for affected service members and their families.

One of the main differences between the military and civilian responses to domestic violence is the authority of the commanding officer when a service member commits abuse. The commanding officer can use judicial, administrative, or other punishments to respond to the reported incident. The commander consults with the Staff Judge Advocate, which is a military lawyer, to make sure the commander is following the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ). Ultimately, the commander is able to determine whether to charge the service member with an offense and the appropriate punishment or discipline.

I am experiencing abuse in my relationship. How do I get help in the military system?

The military uses a coordinated community response model (CCR), which brings together everyone who has an interest in an incident of abuse or neglect to improve interagency coordination. The goal is that the victim will be provided support and resources in addition to what the Family Advocacy Program (FAP) staff provide.  FAP takes a holistic approach when working with those impacted by domestic abuse. The FAP provides clinical and non-clinical support services for victims, abusers, and children impacted by domestic abuse. Services include victim advocacy, support, risk assessment, safety planning, treatment, counseling, and case management services.1

If you are experiencing domestic abuse you may be eligible for FAP services if you and the abuser are:

  • current or former spouses;
  • current or former intimate partners who have a child in common or live(d) together; or
  • current or former dating partners.2

Note: The services available to dating partners may be limited.

If none of these apply to you, FAP victim advocates may still provide risk assessment, safety planning, and offer information and referrals to help you access services offered in the civilian community.1

To find a domestic abuse advocate in your local area go to, the DoD Domestic Abuse Victim Advocate Locator on Military OneSource. To read more about the FAP, go to The Family Advocacy Program and Confidentiality.

1 Department of Defense website, Family Advocacy Program
2Family Advocacy Program Overview, “Eligibility requirements” section

 

Where could a victim report domestic violence within the military system?

The Services take the “no wrong door” approach when reporting domestic abuse. A victim may report domestic abuse directly to military law enforcement, the Family Advocacy Program (FAP), a healthcare provider, a chaplain, or the victim’s or abuser’s command. If the abuse is reported to someone working in another program or office who helps Service members, the victim should be referred to the proper support services. 

Depending on who you report the abuse to, it will be considered either “unrestricted” or “restricted.”

Unrestricted reports

If you first report the abuse to military law enforcement or command, this qualifies as an unrestricted report and will result in an official investigation of the incident. Law enforcement and command are both also required to notify the FAP of the incident.  

Restricted reports

A restricted report allows an adult victim of domestic abuse who is eligible to receive medical care from the DoD to report an incident to an individual in a named position without initiating the investigative process or notification to the victim’s or abuser’s commander or supervisor. Someone is “eligible to receive medical care” from the DoD if s/he is an active-duty Service member or is married to an active-duty Service member. The individuals in a “named position” who can be contacted to make a restricted report include:

  • a domestic abuse victim advocate (DAVA);
  • a DAVA supervisor;
  • a FAP clinical provider; or
  • a health care or medical provider.

To learn more about what happens after making a restricted or unrestricted report, see If I tell someone in the military that I am experiencing abuse in my relationship, will it be kept confidential?

You may also choose to report domestic violence outside of the military system. Please see your state’s page in our Know the Laws - By State section to see how the civilian justice system handles domestic violence where you live.

If I tell someone in the military that I am experiencing abuse in my relationship, will it be kept confidential?

There are three groups of professionals who have been granted the authority to keep information about domestic abuse confidential under the “restricted” reporting option. They are victim advocates, Family Advocacy Program (FAP) clinicians, and medical professionals.1 However, even those three groups of professionals must report the abuse to military law enforcement and command if they believe that it is necessary to prevent or lessen a serious and immediate threat to your health or safety, or that of another person.1

You are also able to have privileged, confidential communications with a chaplain.

Making a restricted report to the FAP will still allow you to access victim advocacy services, such as safety planning, as well as medical treatment, without launching a criminal investigation or notifying command.

Reporting the incident to persons other than those mentioned above may result in a report being “unrestricted,” meaning that it will not be kept confidential. An FAP advocate can help you consider if, when, and how to make an unrestricted report and assist you in accessing additional services.

With an unrestricted report, you or any concerned person may notify command, the FAP, or military law enforcement about the abuse. Upon this report, an official command or criminal investigation of the abuse will start, and you and any other victims will have access to medical and clinical services.

You may also decide to seek help outside of the military, where different confidentiality rules may apply. Shelters and domestic violence agencies in your area can help you think through your options. To find help in your area, go to our Advocates and Shelters page and enter your state in the drop-down menu. Shelters near military installations are typically familiar with military and civilian policies and practices and can also help you access an FAP victim advocate if you decide to do so.

1Department of Defense Instruction, Number 6400.06

What are some possible punishments that a commander can bring against a Service member who commits abuse?

The Office of Special Trial Counsel (OSTC) has the exclusive power (authority) to determine if a domestic violence offense should be tried by a general or special court-martial.  If the OSTC determines that the allegation will not be tried by a general or special court-martial, the matter will be sent (deferred) to the abuser’s commander. The commander can  begin administrative discharge proceedings, including:

  • administrative discharge from Service;
  • nonjudicial punishment, which can include a reduction in rank and forfeiture of pay; or
  • other administrative action.

Alternatively, the commander can decide that none of these are appropriate and not take any action.

Note: If the abuser is not a Service member, the commander has fewer options for holding the abuser accountable because civilians are not subject to the Uniform Code of Military Justice. The installation commander could bar the abuser from the installation. The commander may also encourage you to seek community legal services and remedies, such as a civil protection order (CPO), and to work with the Family Advocacy Program (FAP) to plan for your safety.  It is important to note that the FAP will not make any recommendations or carry out any disciplinary or legal actions against abusers.

What options do victims have for protection orders? What are the major differences between a military protective order and a civilian protection order?

In both the military and civilian justice systems, you can seek a protection order requiring the abuser to stay away from you, your children, your home, your workplace, your school, and to not commit any violent acts against you. Civil protection orders have different names in the various states, but the military protective orders (MPOs) are consistently called that among all the Services. You can have both an MPO and a civil protection order (CPO) at the same time. An MPO cannot go against (contradict) or be less restrictive than a CPO.

However, the procedure for getting an MPO and a CPO and how long the orders may last are quite different in both systems. When a commander is issuing an MPO, the abuser does not have to be served with notice, does not have the right to a hearing, and does not have the right to testify. An MPO is issued by a commander to an active-duty Service member to protect a victim of domestic abuse, child abuse, or sexual assault and to control the abuser’s behavior.  A victim, victim advocate, installation law enforcement officer, or a Family Advocacy Program (FAP) clinical provider may request that a commander issue an MPO. If you are concerned for the safety of your children while you seek safety from domestic violence, be sure to work with your victim advocate to address this issue.

If you have an MPO and you live outside the military installation, it is important to know that civilian law enforcement cannot legally enforce the MPO. However, MPOs must be entered into the National Crime Information Center database by military law enforcement, which makes them visible to civilian law enforcement. Civilian law enforcement may, but are not required to, contact the Service member’s command to inform them of the breach of an MPO. Civilian law enforcement can only legally enforce CPOs. See our Military Protective Orders section for more information on MPOs, including enforcement of MPOs.

Can victims in same-sex relationships receive help?

The Department of Defense’s eligibility criteria are the same for all individuals experiencing abuse, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.

If I am a civilian advocate who works with victims, what do I need to know?

The Department of Defense’s Family Advocacy Program provided the following information for accuracy. Inclusion of this information does not imply endorsement of WomensLaw.org by the Department of Defense.

For civilian advocates working with victims who are in the military or who are being abused by a service member, it is important to know that the DoD does not tolerate domestic violence. DoD seeks to prevent and respond to all cases of abuse through the Family Advocacy Program (FAP). An FAP is located at every military installation in the U.S. and overseas where families are assigned. However, DoD recognizes that families and individuals seeking help for abuse have the right to choose which services work best for them, including civilian programs outside of the military. DoD partners with civilian domestic violence programs and community-based advocates to protect victims, lessen the impact of abuse, and give victims a choice in their path to safety.

In the military, commanders have a broad range of authority over service members. Victims of domestic violence, whether active duty or civilian, may be reluctant to report abuse due to concerns of loss of privacy, potential repercussions to the service member’s career, and the potential impact on the family’s financial security. Additionally, when military and/or civilian authorities fail to take appropriate action following a report of domestic violence, the abuse might happen again, and it could be worse. The possibility of retaliation can keep the victim from seeking help or reporting the domestic violence incident. DoD policy provides several reporting options and services to address these concerns and encourage victims to seek help, as outlined in Where could a victim report domestic violence within the military system?

Will the military take away the abuser's firearms?

If the abuser has a misdemeanor conviction for domestic violence or a felony conviction in a civilian court, a conviction for most offenses at a general court-martial, or a conviction for domestic violence at a special court-martial, then it is unlawful for that person to possess firearms. Certain CPOs may also make it illegal for a person to possess a firearm.1 In these situations, the military will:

  • remove any government-issued firearms and ammunition;
  • suspend or take away the abuser’s right to have government-issued firearms and ammunition; and
  • tell the Service member to get rid of any personally owned firearms and ammunition due to it being illegal to have them.2

A Service member or civilian employee of the military can also be placed on a “do not arm” list for a variety of other reasons, which would temporarily prevent access to government-issued firearms. If they are not placed on a “do not arm” list, Service members may continue to use firearms in the line of duty even if subject to a CPO, but not following one of the criminal convictions mentioned above.3

If you have an MPO and you are concerned about the abuser’s access to firearms, you can work with your FAP victim advocate to create a safety plan to reduce your risk. You may also want to file for a civil protection order (CPO), which can make it illegal for the abuser to have firearms.

1 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)
2 See Department of Defense Instruction 6400.06
3 18 U.S.C. §§ 925(a)(1); 922(d)(9), (g)(9)