Massachusetts School of Law Interviews Veteran Jennifer Norris About Violent Crime in the Military & Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

Massachusetts School of Law explored violent crime in the military with Jennifer Norris, Military Justice for All, and the impact it has on civilians too. Jennifer talked about her experiences with four different perpetrators within the first two years of her enlisted career, the reporting & adjudication process, and the retaliation that ensued and eventually ended a fifteen year career. Also discussed was the jurisdictional hurdles that arise with a transient population like the military. For example, Jennifer was not able to press charges against one perpetrator because he moved out of state after learning he was getting reported. Another perpetrator was active duty Air Force at Keesler Air Force Base, therefore a state National Guard commander did not have jurisdiction of a federal employee. And finally, although Jennifer was able to move forward with two other cases involving high ranking National Guard members with over eighteen years of service, unlike the civilian world, after the cases were adjudicated, they retired with full military retirement benefits and no public records.

Jennifer also shared that although the Department of Defense downplays violent crime in the military and sexual assault appears to be closely monitored by some female members of Congress, everything is not under control. The crime appears to be escalating. The military doesn’t just have a sexual assault issue, they have a domestic violence and homicide issue as well. They also have a pattern of ruling soldier’s deaths both stateside and overseas as suicides, training accidents, and illness despite families strongly protesting and evidence revealing otherwise. Domestic violence is more likely to lead to homicide and unfortunately the two issues have not been given the attention they deserve because until you do the research yourself and see how many families and communities have been impacted by the crimes, suspicious death, and homicide of a soldier or civilian, you wouldn’t know because Congress and the main stream media do not give it the attention it deserves. Homicide and independent investigations of all suspicious deaths should be given the highest priority not only because people have lost their lives and families deserve answers but because someone needs to be held accountable. We must prevent others from becoming victims of these crimes too.

Jennifer discussed the lasting impacts the crimes and retaliation had on her. Jennifer was empowered after doing all that she could do to protect others from getting harmed by the same people, but her squadron did not see it the same way. After the cases were adjudicated, Jennifer faced hostility from a couple of the perpetrator’s friends and her Chain of Command once she returned back to work. She eventually had to transfer to another squadron. It was the professional and personal retaliation that made her start feeling more intense feelings of anxiety, depression, and even suicidal thoughts. And unfortunately her next squadron wasn’t any more welcoming then the last. She was told shortly after arriving that ‘no female makes it in the satellite communications work center’ and that she was experiencing hostility from her new Chain of Command because the old squadron called and informed them she was a ‘troublemaker.’ The retaliation had a direct impact on her mental health and cemented an already traumatizing experience with further abuse, indifference, and judgement. By the time she got to her third squadron (almost ten years after the first attack), she learned that the Department of Veterans Affairs treated Post Traumatic Stress resulting from military sexual trauma.

After Jennifer informed her third squadron that she was getting help for the PTS at the Department of Veterans Affairs, she was immediately red flagged and asked to leave the squadron until she could produce a note from her doctor giving her permission to be at work. She did this and jumped through the other hoops asked of her in an attempt to save her career but lost confidentiality in the process. Jennifer walked away from her career in the end because she refused to release her VA records for a security clearance investigation. The entire experience not only opened her up to judgement again (simply because she asked for some counseling due to what someone else did) but she had to prove that she was ‘fit for duty’ while the perpetrators were enjoying full military retirement benefits. Jennifer chose a second chance at a civilian career when she refused to release her confidential VA records for her security clearance investigation because she wanted to ensure a future free of a tainted security clearance. It makes zero sense that someone who is a victim of crime be negatively impacted by the crimes of others in yet another way. The hypocrisy of the system is truly revealed when you look at how the perpetrators were let off the hook but the victim of crime loses their military career because they had the strength to first report and then eventually ask for help.

Letter of Support for Save Our Heroes in Our Shared Quest for Military Justice Reform & Constitutional Rights

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October 1, 2016

U.S. House of Representatives
United States Senate
Washington, DC

To Whom It May Concern:

This is a letter of support for Save Our Heroes. We recognized immediately that Save Our Heroes and victims of crimes both want similar changes in the military justice system. Save Our Heroes is asking for three specific legislative/policy changes to restore fundamental fairness in the military justice system:

1. Remove all Commanders authority from decision-making in the legal system.
2. The number of panel members should be increased to 12 for General Courts Martial.
3. Any conviction at Courts Martial shall require a unanimous verdict.

These requests by Save Our Heroes are similar to the overall changes that victims of crimes in the military have lobbied for, specifically that Commanders be removed from the reporting and decision-making process because of fear of bias, lack of investigative training, and the power to discharge and/or punish with the stroke of a pen. Save Our Heroes is requesting the same changes because ultimately both the victims and accused are looking for a military justice system that mirrors the civilian justice system while respecting the need of the Commanding Officer to ensure discipline is maintained within their command. We want a justice system where crimes are reported to legal authorities and not a Commander who is an authority figure with the power to impact your entire life. We want a justice system where crimes will be investigated thoroughly by unbiased military criminal investigative organizations looking for the truth. We want a justice system that provides the same constitutional rights as those provided in the civilian justice system. Save Our Heroes is specifically asking for changes that are commonplace in the civilian justice system, like a jury of twelve of our peers and a unanimous verdict. Our military deserves no less.

Victims of crimes in the military are asking for a military justice system that provides due process for the accuser and the accused. Crime victims want the ability to go to trial based on an independent prosecutor’s decision to charge because there was sufficient evidence to move forward with a case. Crime victims want those people who level false accusations, and engage in other abuses of the process, to be held accountable. While we recognize that false reports represent a small percentage of total reports (between 2-8 percent based on Bureau of Justice Statistics data), those who do falsely accuse are hurting the real victims of these crimes and should be held accountable through the same impartial military justice system. Both the accusers and the accused are asking for due process, which is best accomplished by a system that mirrors the civilian justice system. Currently, Commanders have control of the process when the accused, accuser, defense attorneys, and prosecutors should have control over the process.

Sincerely,

Jennifer Norris, Military Justice for All
Stephanie Schroeder, US Human Rights Network & UN Board Member
Brian Lewis, Men Recovering from Military Sexual Trauma

Give Our Troops Constitutional Rights for Veteran’s Day, Pass the Military Justice Improvement Act (MJIA)

MJIA

The Military Justice Improvement Act (MJIA), although not the final answer, is a great first step in our fight for justice for crime victims. Currently, the Department of Defense (DoD) estimates that 26,300 service members are victims of military sexual assault (touching). These numbers do not include other violent crimes, sexual harassment, stalking, bullying, hazing, etc. Of those numbers, the DoD estimates that more then half of them are male victims, which proves that this is not a female issue but instead a repeat offender issue.

The military’s current justice system elevates an individual Commander’s discretion over the rule of law. The MJIA legislation would help us create an impartial system where victims would feel safe to report. They are telling us in their own voices that they do not trust the Chain of Command to handle their cases effectively. Recent DoD studies have shown that 62% of those who reported were in fact retaliated against which reinforces others to remain silent.

The MJIA would not only give them a safe place to report confidentially but would allow a legal professional to determine whether or not a case should be tried in a court of law. The biggest problem with military sexual assault is underreporting. We can’t fix the problem unless the soldiers feel safe enough to report. We can’t rid the military of perpetrators if we do not work together to get a conviction and protect our military and civilians.

Learn more here.

Sgt. Bill Coffin Murdered Ex-Fiancee After Civilian Courts Issued Protective Order, Judge Alleges Army Routinely Ignores Court Orders (1997)

US Army

In 1999, the television program 60 Minutes reported on the hidden War at Home in the U.S. military. They reported that at the time of airing, Pentagon records showed that 58,000 military spouses were victims of domestic violence and that rate was three times higher than the civilian population rate. The overall concerns were that the military justice system was a system that routinely failed to punish even the most violent and abusive servicemen. As a result, it often left an abused spouse alone without protection to fight a secret war. 60 Minutes highlighted the cases of three Fort Campbell soldiers who were charged with killing their wives or girlfriends (Bill Coffin, Dane Zafari, Tracy Leonard) and one Navy spouse who was a victim of domestic violence.

One of the cases singled out was that of Fort Campbell Sergeant Bill Coffin who murdered his ex-fiance Ronnie Spence after a civilian judge granted her an emergency protection order. In December 1997, Sgt. Coffin murdered Ronnie in front of their baby daughter in a shared home near Fort Campbell, Kentucky. Sgt. Coffin shot her twice through the trailer, entered the home and then shot her in the face and through the heart. While Ronnie was lying dead on the floor, Sgt. Coffin emptied the gun into her. Several weeks before the shooting, court records showed that Sgt. Coffin had repeatedly threatened to kill Ronnie and his superior officers at Fort Campbell knew about the threats.

I think they should have confined him to that army base. They should have gotten him some help. They should have stopped him, they should have intervened. They did nothing. -Kathy Spence (mother)

60 Minutes interviewed Kentucky Judge Peter MacDonald who stated that domestic violence cases involving Fort Campbell soldiers routinely showed up in his courtroom. He said that Army commanders regularly ignored court orders issued to protect the abused spouses. Judge MacDonald issued the emergency protective order requiring Sgt. Bill Coffin to stay away from Ronnie Spence. Sgt. Coffin instead shot and killed her. According to 60 Minutes, Sgt. Coffin pleaded guilty to domestic violence and other charges, and was sentenced. Judge MacDonald felt the readiness of the troops was more important than the protection of the battered and abused spouses.

In an in depth investigation, 60 Minutes learned that the Army’s domestic violence guide for commanders listed a number of things that could have been done in Sgt. Bill Coffin’s case but were not. The guide included restricting an abuser to the barracks or assigning them to the quarters of a superior. They also learned that the military spends millions yearly on a Family Advocacy program designed to treat and prevent domestic violence. But Sherry Arnold, a licensed clinical social worker, who helped run the program for the Marines in Camp Pendleton in California, said the Commanders have preconceived notions. She often witnessed victim blaming, minimization, a hands off approach, an ‘it’s a family matter’ attitude, and indifference to the seriousness of the situation and escalating violence.

Robert Clark, the commanding general of Fort Campbell, Ky., where several particularly violent incidents have occurred, said the military does a good job handling domestic violence cases. But Peter MacDonald, chief district court judge in Kentucky with jurisdiction over Fort Campbell, said the Army routinely ignores his court orders designed to protect abused spouses. “They have no conception of what’s going on in domestic violence.” –Deseret News

After the public learned of the scandalous way the U.S. military handles felony crimes like domestic violence, rape, and stalking, the Pentagon was ordered by Congress to investigate domestic violence in the armed forces. Congress recommended stronger protections for battered spouses and stiffer penalties for the servicemen who abuse them. In 2000, Major Joanne P.T. Eldridge suggested a proposal to add anti-stalking provisions to Article 134 in the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Since 1999 and long before this, domestic violence has continued to be an on-going serious invisible issue in the military. Both military spouses and service members are victims of domestic abuse. The year 60 Minutes aired the ‘The War at Home’ programming, Fort Campbell soldier Barry Winchell was murdered because a couple soldiers suspected he might be gay. Barry’s murder prompted the lift of the controversial Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy.

The year after 60 minutes aired, civilian spouse Michelle Theer conspired with her lover, Army Ranger John Diamond, to kill her husband Air Force Captain Frank Theer for the life insurance money. In 2002, four wives were slain in six weeks at Fort Bragg in North Carolina. They were Teresa Nieves, Jennifer Wright, Andrea Floyd, and Marilyn Griffin. In 2008, Army Lt. Holley Wimunc was abused, stalked, and murdered by her Marine husband. In 2011, Holley’s father advocated for H.R. 1517 sponsored by Representative Bruce Braley. This law was aimed at protecting both domestic violence and sexual assault victims. This law would have required the removal of Commanders from the investigation and prosecution of felony crimes. The Holley Lynn James Act and any subsequent legislation, like the Military Justice Improvement Act, suggesting the removal of the Commander from the processing of felony crimes have been unsuccessful.


Rep. Bruce Braley introduces the Holley Lynn James Act — a bill to help victims of sexual assault and domestic violence in the military get justice. The bill is named after Holley Lynn James, a constituent of Rep. Braley who was killed by her husband while both were in the service. 

Related Links:
60 Minutes: “The War at Home” (transcript)
Spouse Abuse A Military Problem
Domestic Abuse Reported Higher in Military
Domestic violence in military higher than U.S. average
Stalking and the Military: A Proposal to Add An Anti-Stalking Provision to Article 134, Uniform Code of Military Justice (2000)