Incidents of child abuse in the Army are on the rise, an alarming trend that coincides with the return of tens of thousands of troops from Iraq and Afghanistan.
According to an investigation conducted by the Army Times, 3,698 cases of Army child abuse and neglect were reported last year, a 40 percent increase from 2009.
While the military has not drawn any concrete conclusions as to why such crimes are on the rise, some experts say that abusers may be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, which could lead to their taking their frustrations out on their children. Others cited in the report were quick to note that this type of maltreatment doesn’t always come at the hands of the spouse wearing a uniform.
A 2007 Pentagon study concluded that mothers were three times more likely to mistreat their children while their soldier husbands were away, than when they were home.
Whatever the cause, the disturbing spike raises questions about how the Army investigates such cases of child abuse and the effectiveness of its advocacy programs.
Though a foster-child died in 2008 while under the care of an Army couple in New Jersey, for example, it took five years for the couple to be indicted, according to ABC News.
John E. Jackson, 37, a U.S. Army major and his wife, Carolyn, 35, were charged in May with “unimaginable cruelty to children,” NBC Philadelphia reported. The two allegedly abused their three adopted and three biological children, but the adopted kids bore the brunt of the torture.
According to the news source, the parents forced their kids to eat hot sauce, withheld water, broke the kids’ bones and told their biological children that such practices were a form of “training,” and that they should not tell anyone about the horrors they witnessed.
The Army told NBC in May that it was cooperating fully with investigators and could not offer any further comment.
But some of these tragic cases are unfolding right within the Army community.
When Pvt. Connell Williams moved to Fort Sill, Okla., he claimed his girlfriend was his wife and that her two kids –- Marcus, 10, and Karisma, 8 -- were his own. They were granted on-post housing, according to the Military Times.
It was there that Williams and his girlfriend starved Marcus, beat him with a bat and forced the little boy to march around wearing 50-60 pounds of gear, according to court documents obtained by the news outlet.
Marcus died on May 5, 2011, weighing just 44 pounds.
The court initially sought the death penalty for Williams, but after he pleaded guilty, he was sentenced to life behind bars. His girlfriend was sentenced to 30 years in prison.
To be sure, the Army does have programs in place that are designed to prevent such crimes and to serve as a refuge for victims.
Through seminars, workshops, counseling and intervention services, the U.S. Army Family Advocacy Program works to prevent, and put a stop to, spouse and child abuse, according to the program’s website.
And in 2005, the Army began building child and behavioral health centers at major Army installations. It currently has five such bases and plans to establish them at all large bases by 2017, according to the Army Times.
But the military faces a number of obstacles in devoting more resources to such cases.
The Army has recently gotten a lot of “political pressure” to pursue domestic violence issues, but nowhere near as much in the area of child abuse, Dr. Rene Robichaux, social work programs manager at Army Medical Command, told the Army Times.
And there’s also the added complication that far too many cases go unreported.
Some are concerned about the stigma that can come with reporting a child-abuse case and how it could potentially damage their careers, Jeanette Werby, Commander, Navy Region Southeast counseling and advocacy coordinator, said in a press release in advance of National Child Abuse Prevention Month.
She also noted that it’s the responsibility of the military to bring this “hidden” issue to the spotlight, in order to raise awareness and protect more kids from getting abused.
"Raising awareness about child abuse underscores that the problem is still here and so are the people who care about its resolution,” Werby said. “Those in leadership roles set the tone and course for awareness, response and intervention.”