In the early evening of December 20, 2020, neighbours watched helplessly as Keith Lewis threatened his wife Sarah Lewis in a driveway near their home in Fayetteville, North Carolina.
WARNING: This story contains graphic content that some readers may find upsetting.
In one arm, Keith carried the couple’s three-year-old daughter, Callie.
In the other, he held an assault rifle.
Sarah called 911 for help.
“He was cursing and screaming … and holding the little girl,” one of the neighbours told a 911 operator in a separate call.
The neighbour then described seeing Keith shoot his wife as she tried to hide behind a car.
When police arrived, Keith, a 31-year-old combat medic stationed at the nearby Fort Bragg army base, disappeared inside the couple’s weatherboard duplex.
After a 15-minute stand-off, he relinquished the toddler and took his own life. Sarah later died in hospital from multiple gunshot wounds, along with the couple’s unborn daughter, Isabella.
“[Sarah] was vivacious,” said Tammy De Mirza, her aunt, who hadn’t seen the couple since they moved to Fayetteville a few years previously.
“She was only 34. She had a lot of living to do.”
Ms De Mirza had planned to visit over the holidays: the new baby was due on Christmas Day.
The Lewises told family they were excited about the pregnancy, but their five-year marriage had long ago stopped being safe for Sarah, who served in the US Air Force before having two children in a previous marriage.
In October 2016, Keith was arrested for threatening her with a handgun, according to police.
After returning to the United States from Afghanistan, he had continually struggled with his mental health and substance abuse but had kept working, rising through the ranks to the 1st Special Forces Command.
Nine days before her death, Sarah had contacted the unit for help, despite previously being met with scepticism and accused of “trying to ruin her husband’s career”, her aunt said.
The 1st Special Forces Command has no formal record of the call but a spokesperson for the unit said he hoped to clarify the course of events when Fayetteville Police release Sarah’s phone.
“Upon learning of the allegations, we immediately looked into the matter,” said Major Dan Lessard, the unit’s director of public affairs.
“Should any details come to light that demonstrate a leader was unresponsive … we will absolutely take appropriate action.”
“It doesn’t make any sense,” Ms De Mirza said.
“Why would you promote a guy that almost killed his wife?”
‘Command climate is critical’
There are factors endemic to life in the military that can increase the risk of domestic abuse, such as social isolation, mental health and substance-abuse issues, and the normalisation of violence within the ranks.
“The culture of the military is very hierarchical and it’s very masculine,” said Jessica Strong, the co-director of applied research at Blue Star Families, the country’s largest military support organisation.
There is currently no federal program to track the rate of intimate partner violence in military families compared to the civilian population, but any comparison would likely be muddied by a reluctance to report abuse among military spouses, according to Ms Strong.
In 2017, a large-scale, biennial survey of military families by Blue Star Families found that among active-duty spouses who experienced physical abuse that year, the overwhelming majority — some 87 per cent — chose not to report it.
The top two reasons given were that they felt “it was not a big deal” or they “did not want to hurt their spouse or partner’s career”.
“They’re vulnerable and they’re dependent on their service member financially,” Ms Strong said.
“So, if they impact their service member’s career, they’re really hurting themselves.”
According to the Pentagon, more than 40,000 incidents of domestic abuse involving service members were reported between 2015 and 2019, nearly three-quarters of which included physical violence — an offence under the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), the legal code that governs US military services.
Eleven intimate partner violence fatalities were recorded in 2020.
Yet the Department of Defence’s (DOD) reporting on the problem is inconsistent, according to a recent investigation by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), which found a patchwork of data, despite a 1999 statutory requirement for all services to keep comprehensive records of alleged abuse.
“It appeared at that time that DOD was putting a framework in place to have the data necessary for oversight, along with taking care of the victims and making sure their needs were being met,” said Brenda Farrell, who oversaw the GAO investigation.
“It seems DOD has derailed. And as a result, there’s not a complete picture of what’s going on.”
A Pentagon spokesperson said the DOD is continuing to address the findings of the report.
“The department is currently focused on strengthening data collection, enhancing policy, promoting greater communication and making access to resources easier,” the spokesperson said.
Over the past 20 years, the US Congress has repeatedly tried to tackle the problem of domestic abuse in military families by improving training for commanders, who, until recently, held ultimate responsibility for dealing with allegations that arise.
Many incidents are reported to commanders through Family Advocacy Programs, which are tasked with overseeing the wellbeing of families tied to military installations.
“We have a very widely publicised domestic violence and sexual assault hotline that is manned 24 hours a day and seven days a week,” said a spokesperson from the Fort Bragg Soldier Support Centre, where its Family Advocacy Program is based.
When families arrive at the base, he explained, they receive a welcome package with information about the hotline, which is also advertised through geographically targeted ads on social media.
“I know there are resources there,” said Ms Strong, of Blue Star Families.
“But they may not always be reaching the people who need them the most.”
Many spouses don’t learn about the support, Ms Strong said, because they’re busy working, looking for work or caring for children at home.
The problem of social isolation, a core element of many abusive relationships, is only exacerbated by the transitory military lifestyle, which regularly moves families away from their established support structures at short notice.
Ms Strong said military spouses often joke about being asked to provide local emergency contacts for friends and families to their kids’ new schools.
“You’re like, ‘I literally know no one!’,” she said.
As Charo Bates, a social policy researcher at Blue Star Families, put it: “It’s like being dropped in the middle of an island and having no idea how to find any critical resources.”
Despite the hotline and protocols set up by Family Advocacy Programs, many victims of domestic abuse fear retaliation at home if their allegations are leaked within the chain of command, according to Ms Bates.
“The military does a great job of trying to keep things private but things do get out,” Ms Bates said.
“Command climate is critical.”
Too often, evidence of recurrent abuse is ignored
In October 2016, Lynda Lewis received a late-night phone call from her son, Keith.
Keith had argued with his wife Sarah while out at a bar and she had driven home alone.
He chased her on foot and, as she tried to barricade herself in a room in their previous house in Fayetteville, he kicked open the door.
The police arrived at around 11pm to find Sarah with a head injury: Keith had threatened her with a handgun.
“I guess that they had told him, ‘Why don’t you call your mom?’ And, so, I talked to him for a long time,” Ms Lewis said.
The conversation only lasted around 20 minutes, but she remembered it feeling like hours.
Keith had joined the army in 2007 on his 18th birthday.
He was deployed to Afghanistan around a year later in the same unit as Bowe Bergdahl, a 23-year-old from Sun Valley, Idaho, who famously deserted his post and was captured by the Taliban-aligned Haqqani network.
“When he came home … he was really messed up,” Ms Lewis said.
“His first words to me were, ‘If you hear me screaming at night, do not come in my room – I can hurt you.’ And he started locking his room door at night.”
Keith told his mother he suffered from migraines, short-term memory loss and angry emotional outbursts.
She said she urged him to get counselling, but he refused, saying it would amount to “career suicide”.
“He was a totally different person,” she said.
“There was a sweet, loving teenage boy that went to Afghanistan and what came back was a very angry man.”
After the 2016 incident, because Sarah didn’t want to pursue charges against her husband, Cumberland County declined to prosecute the case and 1st Special Forces followed suit.
“As far as I know, nothing was done,” Ms Lewis said, adding that she was so concerned she begged her son to leave the army.
Officially, Keith received a “non-judicial punishment” and was enrolled in substance-abuse and marriage counselling, however, Major Lessard could not confirm the exact nature of the punishment, or whether Keith actually attended the programs.
“If you’re going to serve in the military, you deserve care,” said Ms De Mirza, Sarah’s aunt.
“It is not just the abused, it is the abuser as well. Both of them need help. Both of them are being ignored.”
Even service members can’t navigate a system of ‘smoke and mirrors’
Leah Olszewski was a major in the US Army National Guard when she met Erik Cardin in Florida in 2016. He was a senior major sergeant in the US Air Force at the time.
The pair, who were both in their 40s and long-time service members, had clicked instantly and dated for a few months before Mr Cardin was reassigned to Travis Air Force Base in California. In April 2017, Ms Olszewski moved to join him.
It was around this period, she later told a congressional committee, that Mr Cardin began to emotionally and verbally abuse her.
His abuse soon escalated to physical violence, Ms Olszewski alleged, culminating in a physical assault in October 2017, while she was pregnant.
Mr Cardin has denied the severity of the incident and sued Ms Olszewski for defaming him.
“I called the police and, in doing so, he said I crossed the line and he left the house,” she told the House Armed Services Committee Hearing on Domestic Violence in September 2019.
“Over the next three days, I miscarried. And what was the Air Force answer when they learned of this? ‘He’s doing you a favour.'”
Ms Olszewski explained she was initially reluctant to report the abuse, both to the police and to Mr Cardin’s superiors, because she didn’t want him to lose his job.
When she eventually disclosed the incident to Mr Cardin’s commander, he encouraged her to move on, without informing her about the Family Advocacy Program at Travis Air Force Base or committing to an investigation, she said.
Ms Olszewski then returned to the police to press charges but the Solano County District Attorney’s Office declined to prosecute Mr Cardin due to lack of evidence.
Even so, she continued to dig and discovered he had previously been reprimanded by the Air Force for violent behaviour towards several of his colleagues.
“They fired [him] and kicked him out of units,” Ms Olszewski said.
Ms Olszewski followed the chain of command from Travis Air Force Base all the way up to the Secretary of the Air Force, making phone calls and filing complaints.
Despite having more than two decades of military experience, she still struggled to navigate its bureaucracy.
Eventually, she left the army without achieving the accountability she sought over several years.
“It’s smoke and mirrors,” she said.
“If I can’t get someone to listen to me, and I’m treated the way I was treated, I feel so horrible for spouses who know even less.”
Ms Olszewski said the military doesn’t necessarily create abusers but it enables them by failing to act.
“I really believe that it’s … always in that person, and it just so happens to come out while they’re in the military, for whatever reason, initially, and then the command — that quiet, protective, secret environment — helps to keep that violence quiet,” she said.
“I have absolutely chosen to not put on a uniform again so that I can say what I want to say — and what needs to be said — knowing that I am the very, very, very tip of the iceberg.”
Reforming an ‘archaic’ system
Every year since 2013, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York has introduced legislation to reform the military justice system in the hopes of stamping out sexual abuse within the ranks.
Like accusations of sexual assault, incidents of intimate partner violence have historically been handled within the chain of command — something that will soon change due to a landmark agreement, reached in December, to shift the decision of whether or not to prosecute serious crimes from commanders to independent military prosecutors.
“This is really massive reform,” said Don Christensen, a former US Air Force chief prosecutor and the president of Protect Our Defenders, a nonprofit that advocates on behalf of survivors of military sexual assault.
“And it goes beyond just who makes prosecution decisions.”
According to Mr Christensen, the sweeping changes, included in the 2022 National Defence Authorization Act, will also address sentences given for sexual assault and intimate partner violence, which he described as often “shockingly” light.
“Our system is incredibly archaic, resulting in wildly disparate punishments that are all over the place,” he said.
He acknowledged that legal reform is only one piece of the puzzle, however, and that many advocates, including Senator Gillibrand, who he has worked closely with in the past, believe the new reforms leave too much power with commanders, including the ability to conduct trials, select jury members and veto witnesses.
“This bill represents a major setback on behalf of service members, women and survivors in particular,” the senator said in a scathing statement in which she vowed to fight for further reforms.
In April 2021 she introduced an alternative — the Military Justice Improvement and Increasing Prevention Act (MJIIPA) — which has the support of some 70 senators and the unqualified backing of President Joe Biden.
A major catalyst for the renewed Congressional effort was the horrific murder of a 20-year-old soldier, Vanessa Guillen, in April 2020. Ms Guillen disappeared from the Fort Hood Army Base in Texas shortly after telling her mother she had been sexually assaulted by a fellow soldier.
Sexual and domestic abuse are often treated as distinct issues within the military, with the latter seen as the domain of the Family Advocacy Programs. But the persistently high rates of both kinds of abuse are arguably symptomatic of ingrained sexist attitudes in military culture.
The abuse disproportionately affects women, though of course there are exceptions, and has been dealt with at the discretion of commanders since the UCMJ was established in the 1950s.
“Nobody really wants to talk about sexual abuse and domestic violence and child abuse,” said Amy Braley-Franck, a former victim’s advocate in the army turned whistleblower.
She is pushing for greater transparency in the military justice system.
“It’s not my dirty secret. It’s not your dirty secret. It’s a criminal act that we don’t discuss,” she said.
Ms Braley-Franck likened the current system to the military’s “own form of government.”
She described the non-judicial punishments it regularly hands down to perpetrators, such as the one received by Keith Lewis at Fort Bragg, as akin to getting a letter of reprimand from your boss or advice to see a therapist.
“It’s not like receiving a judicial punishment where it can be public knowledge,” she said.
One of the key problems with placing so much power in the hands of commanders is that members of the military, particularly those who have been deployed together, develop deep emotional bonds that are likely to colour their judgement, Ms Braley-Franck said.
“If we go to war together and we’ve been serving in this intense environment, then I have an allegiance to you,” she said.
“It is beyond unjust … that these commanders can look at investigations and decide what evidence to consider or not consider. And that doesn’t happen in the real world.”
For many families, it’s too little, too late
The last time Lynda Lewis spoke to her son and daughter-in-law was two days before they died. The family had been planning a visit for when the baby was born and agreed to set up a video call on Christmas Day.
“He wanted to paint a rosy picture for me,” she said.
“He wanted me to see the happy family.”
Around 7.30pm on December 20, 2020, Sarah called 911 from her neighbour’s driveway.
“He wouldn’t let me hold my daughter,” she told the operator. During the nine-minute call, she sounded increasingly frantic.
“He got really upset with me,” she said.
Sarah explained Keith had been drinking and tried to pick a fight with her.
“The next thing I know, he started tearing up my stuff, like my clothes,” she said.
She knew he was in the house with two guns: an assault rifle and a pistol, which they usually kept in the bedroom and the kitchen.
“I was just going to leave to go to my mum’s. To get out of the house,” Sarah said.
Ms Lewis said Sarah never told her “things were not right” but she wished she had known and acted. She later heard from Ms De Mirza that Sarah had tried to contact Keith’s unit at Fort Bragg about his increasingly erratic behaviour.
“If they had done anything at all, they could have saved two lives,” Ms Lewis said, referring to her daughter-in-law, and the granddaughter she never met.
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