Leading by example: A Soldier speaks out about domestic violence

Story by Jacqueline M. Hames, Soldiers Live
Lt. Col. Mary Peters poses in a conference room at the Army's Ready & Resilient Campaign headquarters in Arlington, Va. Peters revealed she had been a victim of domestic violence during her recent promotion ceremony, and decided to share her story with a wider audience to help others. “If it helps one person, it will be worth it." (DOD photo by Jacqueline M. Hames)

Lt. Col. Mary Peters poses in a conference room at the Army’s Ready & Resilient Campaign headquarters in Arlington, Va. Peters revealed she had been a victim of domestic violence during her recent promotion ceremony, and decided to share her story with a wider audience to help others. “If it helps one person, it will be worth it.” (DOD photo by Jacqueline M. Hames)

Lt. Col. Mary Peters, an enthusiastic and friendly woman, is everything you would expect from an Army officer. She serves as the Information Management Control Officer for the Alcohol Control and Substance Abuse Program at the Army’s Ready & Resilient Campaign headquarters in Arlington, Va.

But a dark secret lurks behind that bright personality – a secret that she shared at her recent promotion ceremony. Peters had been a victim of domestic violence. She told her story with dignity, grace and compassion to help others, now retired Lt. Col. Gregory Canty, a former coworker present at the ceremony, said.

“I think she is strong, I think she is smart, I think she’s very gregarious and just filled with life, and when you meet someone like that, and you can see the other side of how someone is changing that person into someone she really isn’t, it hurts your heart,” Canty continued.

Peters shared her story with Soldiers in a personal interview from her offices in Arlington, Va. Seated at a conference table, Peters fiddled with a pen, smiling and debating where to begin.

“I have been separated from my husband since May 2012, when he attacked me,” Peters said. She was married for almost seven years when she realized she was in an abusive relationship. Of course, the relationship didn’t start out that way; her husband, Bill*, was a charming and loving spouse for a long time, but in October 2011 Peters noticed changes in him, and in the relationship.

“I just found myself being down all the time, not wanting to go home — there were just some things over the previous two years that were just not right and constantly getting worse,” Peters said. Concerned that she was in an abusive relationship, Peters looked up red flags on the Internet and confirmed her suspicions.

Initially, the abuse was more emotional and verbal. Peters would get into shouting matches with her husband, sometimes in front of their daughter, or Bill would get mad over little things, like being asked to empty the dishwasher. Peters stopped retaliating; instead she tried to remain calm in the face of her husband’s anger, but his attacks grew more vicious over time, escalating into sexual and physical abuse.

Peters started seeing a counselor without her husband’s knowledge in the early spring of 2012. She knew she had to leave the marriage, but needed someone to talk to about the situation. The counselor thought she would like to work on her marriage first and suggested getting Bill to agree to a date night. He didn’t receive the news well and started screaming and cursing. At that point, Peters knew she had to get out.

In March 2012, soon after her realization, Bill pushed Peters. She had been to an office party where someone had taken a picture of her on a coworker’s three-wheeled motorcycle, a trike, and then posted it to a social media site. Bill had seen the picture and accused Peters of sleeping with the owner of the trike, which she denied.

“All of my time (was) either spent at home or at work, and he (knew) that,” she said. He told her to delete the picture, badgering and yelling at her until she stopped getting ready for work, came downstairs to the tablet and removed the picture. Peters tried to go back upstairs, but Bill wouldn’t let her pass.

“I tried to squeeze between him and the wall and he pushed me twice, so I just went straight to the phone and called the police. When he saw I called the police, he de-escalated and left me alone. By the time the police came I was dressed and I just told the police that Bill was scaring me because he pushed me, but I just wanted to leave.” The police stayed until she left, and though Bill didn’t touch her over the next few weeks, he would threaten her that he would “mess up” her life and career if she ever called the police again.

“I simply said if you don’t touch me, I have no reason to call the police,” Peters recalled.  She didn’t think he would attack her again.

May 2012

Peters, firm in the knowledge she had to leave her marriage, started taking steps to get away. The first step, she believed, was to assess her own financial situation. She had lived on her own for several years before she married Bill and knew that she was capable of taking care of herself, but her husband controlled their finances, so she needed access to all the accounts.

On May 2, 2012, Peters decided to talk to her husband about their finances.

“I was trying to wait on a perfect time because I didn’t want him to be angry, and I went to him in a very calm manner and I pretty much said I wanted access to the accounts online so I could see where the money was going and see maybe what we could cut off, cut out, pay down bills and things like that, and he just exploded.”

Bill started cursing and yelling at Peters in front of their daughter, telling Peters he would take the girl and disappear. He accused Peters of not trusting him, since she wanted to see the accounts. Peters tried to leave the house to go to work, but Bill blocked her in the driveway with his truck. He grabbed her work computer out of the back of her car.

“I said I have to go to work, and he’s like ‘No, if you f—ing want to know, we’re going to look at everything right now,’ so he took my laptop out and directed me to turn it on and he would show me all the bills at that very moment.” Bill took the computer and went back inside the house when Peters repeated she had to go to work. She followed him, fearing he would toss the computer into the backyard since he had a history of throwing things out there when he was upset with her.

“I just stood in front of the back door and I didn’t think he was going to hit me because he had pushed me approximately six weeks prior to that incident and I called the policed. I really thought that would be enough to scare him not to touch me again,” Peters said.

Bill went upstairs with the laptop and Peters followed him. He went to put the laptop in the washing machine to destroy it and she started filming him with her cell phone camera.

“I said his name and I said he is destroying my military, my government-issued laptop and I kept asking him to give it to me, can you please give it to me.” He pulled the laptop out of the washer when she started videoing and walked upstairs to the master bedroom’s bathroom. Peters stuck her foot in the door before he could close it, still videoing and asking for the laptop. She tried to inch her way into the bathroom, putting her body between the door and the threshold, and Bill tried to force the door closed.

“He was taking the door and just slamming it against my body,” Peters said, looking down at the pen in her hands. “My chest was in between the door and the wall and he was just slamming the door, and I just said I’m still recording this … and before I knew it he had (thrown) me down and put his elbow on the back of my neck. He snatched the phone out of my hand, he got up, (and) walked downstairs.”

Peters followed, scared he would take her daughter somewhere because she had been waiting in the car, but Bill got in and locked the door before Peters could get her out.  She stepped in front of the car and asked him to let their daughter out. Bill bumped her with the car several times before she moved out of the way.

“He drives off and for some reason he stops to say something to me, I don’t remember what he said, but he let down the passenger window and I jumped through the window,” Peters said.  While in the car, Bill destroyed the phone she had been using, breaking it apart and tossing pieces, to include the SIM card, out of the window. “When we got home he acted like nothing happened.”

Peters took her daughter to school and then went to the police station.

“The first police station I went to told me to go get my daughter because they were like ‘He could get her and we can’t do nothing about it.’ So I went and got her and … I went to the courthouse and filed a protective order. And he’s been out of the house ever since.”

After Bill was removed from the household, he volunteered to see a counselor and got help from MilitaryOneSource through the Family Advocacy Program. Under the FAP, a DOD-wide program implemented to prevent and intervene in cases of spouse, intimate partner or child abuse, there are two varieties of abuse reports people can file, restricted and unrestricted. A restricted report is confidential and does not require law enforcement or command involvement; usually, such reports are for low-risk situations where there is no immediate danger. Unrestricted reports are not confidential and do require command and law enforcement involvement.

Because of the nature of Bill’s abuse and the risk someone might be seriously hurt if things continued, Peters’ case was an unrestricted report, and she also began seeing a FAP counselor.

Recovery

Peters is not being harassed any longer, but for the first sixth months, Bill was in constant violation of the protective order. He attempted to run Peters off the road with her daughter in the car when she refused to respond to texts or emails. He even broke into the house at one point when Peters wasn’t there. She upgraded her home security system frequently after that incident.

“I had never had my personal life interfere with my work life, but I can tell you it definitely did,” Peters said of her abuse. “When it first happened, I can tell you I spent the first week at a friend’s house because I was scared to go home, because I was afraid for my life.” She didn’t go into work for that first week because she was so afraid, but her office made it clear her safety and the safety of her child was a priority. She filed for divorce in July 2012.

“I’ve been in three different organizations and all the leaders have been phenomenal. My mentor, Col. Dave Paramore, he’s helped as far as making sure if I needed him he was there, or Gregory Canty, when I worked for the surgeon general of the Army,” Peters said.

Peters’ previous supervisor told Canty about the situation she was in, and asked that it be kept private. He made sure to monitor Peters and look for changes in behavior. She went to him for help many times when she became frustrated with the court system, or scared that Bill would do something harmful.

“I listened to her vent, and I would pray with her, and I would talk to her and walk her through this process and encourage her not to give up heart,” Canty said.

Peters is thankful to be in the military, because she can go to court for three or four hours of the workday and her paycheck won’t change, and her coworkers are understanding, but she can see why some women give up the fight in the court system. Sometimes the court system makes domestic violence victims feel guilty for wanting to get away from their abusers, Peters said, making it very frustrating for those trying to separate their lives from the person who endangered them.

About two months after Bill’s attack, Peters felt like she needed to speak with somebody who had been through the same situation.

“I wanted to be in a group setting to talk to other women that had experienced domestic violence, not just a counselor. I went out on my own and found a place where I can go to group counseling session,” Peters said. When she found a place that offered group counseling, she also learned that her daughter could receive individual counseling at the same place. “I stopped seeing the counselor on the military installation which allowed me and my daughter to receive individual counseling at the same place.”

Peters met lawyers, doctors and many other strong women in her group counseling sessions. She admits that she once thought that women who were victims of domestic violence were just weak women, but meeting all these other strong personalities made her realize that domestic violence can happen to anyone.

“Seeing other women go through it, knowing that I don’t want my daughter to go through it, it gives me the strength to keep fighting,” Peters said.

She advises those being abused not to be afraid to get help, and not to hide the situation. “When you hide it, it makes it hard for people to believe that it happened, and then it makes you stay in that abusive relationship because you want everybody to think your life is perfect. It’s OK. It’s OK to be in a failed marriage,” she said. Don’t be ashamed. It is important to receive support because emotional and mental abuse can damage a person forever, she explained. People can heal from the physical abuse they experience, but the mental and emotional abuse I experienced was ten times worse than the physical abuse I experienced.

“You’re not alone, you can’t do it alone,” Canty said, “You need to share it with someone. You should possibly look for different avenues of help — there are agencies in the military, people, chaplains, but you need to tell someone.”

Any Soldier or family member who thinks they might be in an abusive relationship should seek out the Family Advocacy Program on their local installation, or the local chaplains’ office. MilitaryOneSource has an installation locator that will help victims contact local offices. The FAP will assign a victim’s advocate to help guide individuals through getting medical, legal and counseling aid, as well as help create a safety plan to keep victims and their children out of danger.

“I never heard of a safety plan until after my husband attacked me. Anyone planning to leave an abusive relationship should always seek help to develop a safety plan,” Peters said.

Canty said that he is aware some Soldiers don’t want to seek help because of the stigma and embarrassment associated with being a victim, but he wants people to understand that getting help is the best thing to do.

“It’s OK to seek help, because if you are not fit emotionally, you are not fit at all,” he said.

Peters is still struggling with her situation. The court battles are ongoing. The divorce, originally scheduled to be finalized in the spring of 2013, was just signed off by the judge in March 2014. She keeps her home alarm on all the time and is reluctant to open windows to even let in fresh air because Bill might break in again, though she is still working with a counselor and maintains a positive outlook.

She hopes that sharing her story will help others experiencing the same thing.

“If it helps one person, it will be worth it,” Peters said.

If you or someone you know is a victim of domestic violence, please seek help via MilitaryOneSource, or by calling the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-7233 or the National Child Abuse Hotline at 800-422-4453.