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June 25, 2013

What are the differences between the military and the civilian justice system?

One of the main differences is that in the military, the commanding officer has the authority to decide what behavior to address and whether to use judicial, administrative, or other means to deal with domestic abuse or domestic violence.  There are some general guidelines, but the important point is that the commander can use his/her full discretion to decide what to do.

The civilian justice system deals with domestic violence/abuse in a different way than the military system does.  The civilian justice system makes decisions based on the state’s laws.  Courts will decide what punishment or other action to take, based on testimony and evidence from both sides.  Please see your state's page on this site (www.WomensLaw.org) to see how the civilian justice system handles domestic violence/abuse in your state.

In both the military and civilian justice systems, you can seek a protective order requiring the abuser to stay away from you and your children, your home, your workplace or school and not engage in any violent conduct.  Protective orders have different names in the various states, but the MPO or military protective order is consistently called that among all the Services.  You can have both an MPO and a civil protective order (CPO) at the same time.  However, the procedure for getting an MPO and a CPO and the duration of the orders are quite different in both systems.  See Military Protective Orders for more information on MPOs.

I have heard the terms “domestic abuse” and “domestic violence” used by military personnel. Is there a difference?

Yes.  In the military, “domestic abuse” and “domestic violence” mean two different things.  In both cases, the abuser can be of the same-sex or of the opposite sex, and s/he must be one of the following:

  • your current or former spouse;
  • a person who you have a child in common with; or
  • a current or former "intimate partner" who you live/lived with.

Domestic abuse is defined as a pattern of behavior resulting in emotional/psychological abuse, economic control, and/or interference with personal liberty.  There does not have to be any physical violence involved.

Domestic violence in the military is a crime (under the United States Code, the Uniform Code of Military Justice, or state law) that involves the use, attempted use, or threatened use of force or violence OR a violation of an order of protection.*

If your relationship with the abuser does not meet any of these requirements, you could still qualify for a civilian protective order (CPO) in the state you live in.  Go to the Know the Laws tab on the top left of the page, enter your state in the drop-down menu and click on Restraining Orders to see if you qualify for a CPO.

* Department of Defense Directive 6400.06, sections E2.13, E2.14

I am being abused. How do I go get help in the military system?

Anyone who is a victim of domestic abuse or domestic violence by someone who is serving in the military can seek assistance from a victim advocate at the Family Advocacy Program on the installation.  The victim advocate may be able to work with you to get a Military Protective Order and provide other services and also help you with any civilian resources that may be helpful too.* 

However, even if you are not married to the offender, have no child in common or never lived together, (and therefore, do not meet the military's definition of domestic abuse or violence), the victim advocate is still required to provide basic information about how the military system works and to help you access services offered in the civilian community.*  Every installation is required to have at least one victim advocate, and the larger ones will have several.  To read more about the FAP, go to The Family Advocacy Program and Confidentiality.  You can find read more about this program on the Army OneSource website.

* Department of Defense website, Family Advocacy Program

If I tell someone in the military that I am being abused, will it be kept confidential?

Whether or not what you say will be kept confidential depends on who you report it to.  If you want the information to be confidential, this is known as making a "restricted report" (a non-confidential report is an "unrestricted report"). 

There are just three groups of professionals who’ve been granted the ability to keep information about domestic abuse or violence confidential.  They are victim advocates, chaplains and medical professionals (health care providers).*  However, even those three groups of professionals would have to reveal the abuse if they believe that it is necessary to prevent or lessen a serious and immediate threat to the health or safety of the you or another person.  In that case, it will likely be reported to the FAP, the commander and/or law enforcement.**

If you report the abuse to other staff at the FAP (aside from a victim advocate or supervisor of a victim advocate) it will not be confidential.  FAP works with military command and law enforcement personnel.   The abuser will also be interviewed to have the chance to respond to the complaint.**

All others are required to make an immediate report of the abuse or violence to FAP.  Even if you, personally, do not report the abuse, all military personnel and civilians employed by the military (with the exception of the three groups of professionals mentioned above), are required to report suspected domestic violence to other parts of the system.  What this means is that, regardless of how information about suspected domestic violence comes into the system (i.e., emergency room report, routine medical screening, police response or victim disclosure), the command and others will be notified, whether or not you want this to occur.***

While there are others who can offer assistance, such as the military police or the Staff Judge Advocate or Judge Advocate General, contacting them may result in a formal report.  If you are concerned about the abuser being aware that you’ve asked for assistance, then begin with the victim advocate, the chaplain or a medical professional.  They can then assist you to consider when and how to make a more formal report of the abuse/ violence and to access other needed information and support from the professionals who do not have the ability to keep it confidential.

You may also decide to seek help outside of the military, where stricter confidentiality rules 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 the policies, practices and people and can also help you access a victim advocate.

Department of Defense Instruction, Number 6400.06, August 21, 2007, sections,, 6.7.1
Department of Defense Instruction, Number 6400.06, August 21, 2007, section E3.
*** Department of Defense Instruction, Number 6400.06, August 21, 2007, section E3.5.5

Can victims in same-sex relationships receive help?

Yes.  The Family Advocacy Program's ("FAP") policy has been changed from prior years to include people in same-sex relationships.*  

Victims in same-sex relationships (and heterosexual relationships) who are civilians and not married to the active duty service members are eligible for limited services from FAP (risk and danger assessment, safety planning, etc.) but would be referred to community-based resources for ongoing services.  They are not eligible for medical services because they are not beneficiaries of the military health system.

Victims in same-sex domestic violence situations can also apply for and receive an MPO.  See our Military Protective Orders page for more information on MPOs.

* See DoD Instruction 6400.06 (Incorporating Change 1, Septermber 20, 2011)