Originally published in the Hampshire Daily Gazette in March 2007.
Among the many men who walk through the doors of the Men’s Resource Center for Change are soldiers returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Some of these men have been ordered to attend one of the many batterers’ intervention groups we run for men who act abusively in their intimate relationships. We’ve been teaching men in these groups that there is never any excuse to abuse another person—and a lot more—since 1989. We give men tools to stop perpetuating domestic violence in their families. The truth is, many of these returning vets are haunted by much more, by deep and complex problems associated with being at war.
These men need a lot more attention than a weekly two-hour, narrowly focused domestic violence prevention group can provide. Often husbands and fathers, these returning vets, along with demonstrating reprehensible behavior toward their wives or girlfriends, are also military men who, in too many cases, have been deeply traumatized by their time at war. Many are suffering from post-traumatic stress brought on by their wartime experience. Even if some were previously abusive before heading overseas, how futile, and shameful, that their plight is now being left, in many cases, to a weekly batterers’ intervention group. Where is the range of federal veterans’ services to be doing the heavy lifting? These men need in- and out-patient services, group therapy and individual counseling—along with support services for their families, employers, and coworkers—to assist them on the arduous journey of healing. Batterer intervention groups like ours can only play a small role.
Not long ago a longtime facilitator in several of our batterer intervention groups described for me the pain he is seeing every week in these suffering vets. They feel duty-bound, he shared, not to talk about what they did – or saw – in Iraq and Afghanistan, adhering to an oath of silence. They may be in a numbed silence in group, but before they got there their pain, feelings of helplessness, and stomach-burning anger had boiled over, scalding the safest person they could direct their rage at: their partner, often the mother of their children. While their abuse must be confronted—and it is—it also must be understood as a symptom of the stress and strain they brought back with them from Iraq and Afghanistan.
Does the Department of Veterans Affairs even know of the incidence of vets’ in batterers’ programs like ours? It would be a big step forward if the VA began coordinating its services with organizations like ours that work with men. They would better understand the work we do and how it could enhance their efforts. We know these men need more help than we can provide. And certainly returning women serving in the wars need help, too; they’re experiencing stress and emotional wounding the same as their male counterparts. They also deserve complete and comprehensive services.
Meanwhile, this heartbreaking war, now in its fifth year, grinds on, and too many returning vets feel ground down. Many citizens are working to end the madness; still more are needed sound the call of a farewell to arms. Of course, it is to expect a batterers’ program could care for the complicated, wide-ranging emotional needs of our vets; it is also naïve to expect the Democratic majority in Congress to strengthen its backbone enough to end the war on its own. But it isn’t hard to connect the dots from the Bush administration’s bankrupt war policy to its bankrupt veterans policy for our psychically wounded military brothers. One only need look at the scandal at Walter Reed Army Medical Center to get an idea of the depth of the failure.
From our perspective, any rallying cry to end the war must also include a demand that we help our returning vets begin to heal. Isn’t it time we proclaim more than just “Bring Our Troops Home”? Shouldn’t we also add, “…and tend to their inner wounds”?