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Legal Information: Federal

Domestic Violence in the Military

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Updated: 
October 9, 2019

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 violence 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 be a pattern of behavior resulting in emotional/psychological abuse, economic control, sexual abuse, “spousal neglect,” and/or interference with personal liberty. “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.

Domestic violence is used by the military to specifically name the offense under the United States Code, the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), or state law that:

  • involves the use, attempted use, or threatened use of force or violence against a current or former spouse or intimate partner; or
  • is a violation of a lawful order, such as a military protective order (MPO) or a civil protection order (CPO) that was issued for the protection of a current or former spouse or intimate partner.1

In 2019, the UCMJ was updated to include domestic violence as a specific crime for which the accused can be prosecuted 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 6.4-6.6, incorporating change 4, May 26, 2017

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 Family Advocacy Program (FAP) provides clinical and non-clinical services for victims, offenders, and children impacted by domestic abuse. Services include victim advocacy, support, safety planning, offender treatment and rehabilitation, and case management services. Counseling services are available for victims who want them, upon request.

If you are a non-military victim who is being abused by a service member, you may be eligible for the full extent of the FAP services if you:

  • have a child in common with the service member;
  • live with or have lived with the service member; or
  • are or were married to the service member.

If none of these apply to you, FAP victim advocates will still provide non-military victims with basic information about how the military system works, safety planning, and offer information and referrals to help you access services offered in the civilian community.1

Every installation where families are assigned is required to have at least one victim advocate; larger installations often have several. FAP victim advocates are available to explain the range of FAP services for which you may qualify, work with you to get a military protective order, assist you with preliminary safety planning, and refer you to civilian resources, including support for getting a civil protection order (CPO) if you request one. To read more about the FAP, go to The Family Advocacy Program and Confidentiality.

1 Department of Defense website, Family Advocacy Program

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

If you are a victim of domestic violence, you may report the abuse to military law enforcement, the Family Advocacy Program (FAP), a healthcare provider, or to the victim’s or abuser’s command. However, where you first report the abuse will determine if the report is “unrestricted,” which means an official investigation will take place, or if it is “restricted,” which means that an official investigation usually does not take place.

Unrestricted reports

If you first report the abuse to law enforcement and/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 for a risk assessment and safety planning.

Restricted reports

If you report the abuse to the FAP and elect a restricted report, law enforcement and command will not be notified by the FAP and there will not usually be an official investigation of the allegation; there are, however, exceptions in cases of severe risk of immediate harm to the victim or another person.

Note: If you are a victims who is a military beneficiary, you have access to medical services and FAP services with both reporting options, restricted and unrestricted. Current or former spouses and intimate partners could qualify as military beneficiaries.

You may also choose to report domestic violence outside 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.

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

Some options that a commander can order against a service member who has abused his/her partner are:

  • a full investigation;
  • criminal charges;
  • imprisonment;
  • discharge from service;
  • demotion;
  • forfeiture of pay; or
  • a determination that no action is warranted.

Note: If you are a service member but the abuser is not, the commander has fewer options for holding the abuser accountable, since civilian abusers are not subject to the Uniform Code of Military Justice. The commander could bar the abuser from the installation, however. 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 to plan for your safety.

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.

However, the procedure for getting an MPO and a CPO and how long the orders may last are quite different in both systems. There is no “due process” for issuing an MPO, which means that 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. Therefore, the order is typically short-term. A short-term MPO may be a challenge when the parties share custody of minor children. 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. Commanders can tailor MPOs to the specific needs of victims, and they even have the authority to order the service member to not contact your children.

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. 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.

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

There are just three groups of professionals who’ve 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 that will not be kept confidential, which is known as an “unrestricted report.” Contacting military police or the Judge Advocate General (JAG), for example, may result in an unrestricted report. If you are concerned that your spouse/partner may learn of your seeking help for abuse, then you should first contact an FAP victim advocate, or your health care provider. They 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 of an incident of abuse. Upon this report, an official command or criminal investigation of the incident 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 stricter confidentiality rules may apply. Shelters and agencies in your area can help you think through your options. To find an agency 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, May 26, 2017, E. 3, Restricted Reporting for Incidents of Domestic Abuse

Can victims in same-sex relationships receive help?

The Department of Defense’s eligibility criteria is the same for all individuals experiencing abuse, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity. Help is available to all victims who are:

  • services members;
  • the current or former spouse of a service member; or
  • the current or former intimate partner of a service member and:
    • have a child in common; or
    • live(d) together.

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). A 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?