Despite Army’s Assurances, Violence at Home

New York Times

November 22, 2008 – On Christmas Day two years ago, Sgt. Carlos Renteria, recently back from his first tour in Iraq, got drunk and, during an argument, began to choke his wife, Adriana. He body-slammed her. He threw her onto the couch, grabbed a cushion and smothered her, again and again – until, finally, he stopped, she told the police in San Angelo, Tex.

He was arrested and charged with assault, and she went to the hospital for her injuries, which included bruises and a severely swollen knee. It was his second domestic violence arrest. Assured by an Army officer that the military would pursue the case, the Texas prosecutor bowed out.

Yet Sergeant Renteria has faced no consequences. Instead, since his arrest, he has been redeployed to Iraq and promoted to staff sergeant.

“I was told it would be taken care of, in more than one instance, by the Army,” said Ms. Renteria, 30, referring to the assault charges. “That they would help me. And I believed them.”

For nearly two years, she has prodded Sergeant Renteria’s chain of command, the inspector general at Fort Riley in Kansas (where he was transferred), the base’s military lawyers and its domestic violence office, e-mail messages and letters show. But Sergeant Renteria has not received any counseling, and the military justice system has said it will not prosecute him. The couple divorced last month.

Ms. Renteria’s story illustrates the serious gaps in the way the Army handles domestic violence cases and the way it treats victims, despite promises to take such crimes more seriously.

More than five years ago, after a series of wife-killings by soldiers, a Pentagon task force investigation concluded that the military was doing a better job of shielding service members from punishment than protecting their wives from harm. The Department of Defense began to make noticeable improvements, including expanding protections and services for victims. But problems clearly remain.

The prosecutor in the Renteria case, Allen Wright, was so concerned by the Army’s inaction that in May, he moved to take back the case, issuing an arrest warrant for Sergeant Renteria.

The warrant remains outstanding. The Army acknowledged that Ms. Renteria’s case had been mishandled.

“I’m angry,” said Maj. Nathan Bond, public affairs officer at Fort Riley, after The New York Times brought the case to the Army’s attention. “This is not my Army. This is not how we handle domestic violence cases.”

The Army’s handling of such cases is especially important in a time of war, when the number of soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder escalates. Studies show a link between the disorder and increased violence in the home.

The Army says that the measures it has taken have been effective in curbing domestic violence. But advocates of victims of domestic violence say that among combat troops the violence has spiked in the past two years and that women are often disinclined to report violence for fear of angering their partners and hurting their careers.

These advocates point to the gruesome murders of three female soldiers based at Fort Bragg in North Carolina within the last four months. One woman’s body was dismembered and dumped in the woods. Another woman, seven months pregnant, was found dead in a motel bathtub. The third was stabbed to death.

In each case, the victim’s boyfriend or husband, a soldier or marine, has been charged in the killing. All three suspects were deployed in Iraq at some point.

The recent killings, which echo a series of wife-killings by soldiers at the fort in 2002, have captured the attention of the Pentagon again. During a visit last month to Fort Bragg, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said he was “very concerned” about the stress on combat troops. “We obviously want to stop all kinds of violence among our soldiers and families,” he said.

Yet an examination of Ms. Renteria’s case shows she had sought help from an array of people for behavior by her husband that the Army could trace to 2004.

“She has really tried to pursue this to make sure he gets the appropriate intervention,” said Jacquelyn Campbell, a professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Nursing and a member of the Pentagon’s task force on domestic violence, who was told about the case by The Times. “We had hoped with the military’s new awareness of the issues of domestic violence in the military, and with its new policies and procedures around addressing it, that this kind of thing wouldn’t be happening still.”

Carlos and Adriana Renteria fell in love listening to Cuban music in Miami Beach in May 2002. They were still newlyweds when the relationship began to sour, she said, marred by his sudden absences and verbal abuse.

On Dec. 12, 2004, drunk and angry, he grabbed a baseball bat and swung it at her as she held their infant son, according to the military police report. The bat stopped just short of her head, brushing her cheek.

Twenty minutes later, he threatened to kill her. She called the military police at Goodfellow Air Force Base in San Angelo, Tex., where the couple was stationed.

Sergeant Renteria was ordered to take anger management classes on base. He attended one class. ” ‘I can’t be touched, can’t you see?’ ” Ms. Renteria said her husband told her. ” ‘They aren’t going to do anything to me.’ “

The couple separated and then reunited on a promise that Sergeant Renteria would change. But his behavior grew more erratic after his return from Iraq in October 2006. He cut himself one day to test his pain threshold. He asked to choke her, as an experiment. She said no.

Two months later, she said, he did not bother to ask.

When the police showed up at her door, they asked whether her husband had just returned from an “overseas assignment.”

She said yes.

“Ever since he has returned there have been problems with Carlos’s behavior and mood swings,” she told them, according to the police report. She said, “Carlos was also having nightmares while sleeping and has also been drinking to the point of intoxication on a regular basis.”

Mr. Wright, the prosecutor in Tom Green County, Tex., received a phone call from an officer at Fort Riley in January 2007 asking if he would be willing to hand over the case. (The military can request jurisdiction when a service member is arrested.) Sergeant Renteria was due to be transferred to the base, so Mr. Wright agreed. “The Army assured me they would take care of it – counseling, monitoring,” Mr. Wright said. “We all want to help our military.”

At a meeting in July 2007, First Sgt. Robert L. Simmons, the highest-ranking noncommissioned officer in her husband’s unit, also promised Ms. Renteria that the Army would go beyond sending her husband to classes for anger and alcohol, which had not worked the first time. He said the Army would prosecute, Ms. Renteria said.

Sergeant Simmons said he, too, had seen her husband lose his cool at work and was sufficiently concerned to request a three-week “no contact” order for Sergeant Renteria to keep away from his wife. Sergeant Simmons added that he would move to get her husband prosecuted on the assault charge to prevent him from redeploying to Iraq. Under federal law, offenders convicted of domestic violence are banned from using weapons. That would have prevented Sergeant Renteria from going to Iraq.

A few weeks later, Sergeant Simmons was deployed to Iraq, and Ms. Renteria said she never heard from him again.

Fort Riley quickly closed ranks around Sergeant Renteria. That became clear to Ms. Renteria after a brief conversation in August 2007 with an assistant at the inspector general’s office. ” ‘Honey, we are not going to bring a soldier back who beat on his wife a couple of times or because you feel things weren’t done correctly,’ ” Ms. Renteria said, recalling the conversation. ” ‘He is over there fighting for his life.’ “

Seven months later, with no word from the Army, Ms. Renteria called Mr. Wright in Texas, in tears. He eventually reached a lawyer at Fort Riley, an Army captain, who, to Mr. Wright’s astonishment, said he was under the impression that Mr. Wright had closed the case because it was “deficient.” Mr. Wright corrected him. He gave Fort Riley 90 days to tell him exactly what the Army had done.

When the Army did not respond, “I issued a warrant before any more time lapsed,” Mr. Wright said.

Sergeant Renteria returned home from Iraq on leave in May, but went back before the warrant could be processed. After The Times provided the Army with details of the case last month, it looked into the matter.

“The accusation of domestic violence is taken very seriously,” Major Bond said, adding that such cases could be a “mess.” In this case, “there were some communication issues,” he said.

Major Bond said the case review committee at Fort Riley concluded in the summer of 2007 that Sergeant Renteria should attend an anger management and alcohol abuse program. Instead he was redeployed to Iraq.

He will attend classes upon his return, Major Bond said. Sergeant Renteria, who is in the process of transitioning home from Iraq, could not be reached for comment.

In the end, his command opted not to prosecute. Major Bond would not explain why, citing privacy reasons.

“Whether it has moved along at the speed we would have liked is questionable,” Major Bond said of the case. Nonetheless, he added, “The outcome is consistent with other cases.”

But not deploying Sergeant Renteria was never an option, Major Bond said. “We are in the business of fighting a war, and we let very little interfere with that,” he said.

Ms. Renteria’s divorce became official in October, but the couple has two young sons, and she worries that his behavior, left unchecked after his second tour, will worsen. She has secured a restraining order.

“I feel that nobody is in my corner,” Ms. Renteria said. “Because he wears a uniform, he is protected by everybody.”

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