by Bianca M. Strzalkowski
It started with words.
Subtle words that didn’t foreshadow what was to come. The words escalated to bruises, cuts, and his hands around her neck. Eventually, incidents progressed to the kind of physical abuse that she thought would end her life.
This abuse wasn’t from some foreign assailant, but rather from the man who vowed to honor, love, and protect her.
Her abuser was her husband.
Melissa Bogner met her now ex-husband in 2002. The single mom had divorced years before when she was introduced to him through a co-worker. On the surface, though, he seemed like the perfect catch. The man, whom she refers to as Drew out of respect for his family, was handsome, well-liked at work, and had served in the U.S. military for 14 years. More importantly, her young son also liked his company. The couple had a short courtship before they got married.
She admits she went against her better judgement in a lot of the decisions she made in the relationship. Actions she thinks were guided by his calculated manipulations. Before the ink could dry on the marriage license, things started to unravel and a different man emerged. About four months into the marriage, she caught him having an inappropriate conversation online with another woman. That night she confronted him, and the monster showed himself for the first time.
“…he spun his chair around, got up in an aggressive tone, and grabbed me by the throat. He then squeezed my arms and walked me backwards into the kitchen where he grabbed me by the throat again and slammed my head into the wall,” Bogner shared in a blog post called I Married a Complete Stranger.
The police were called to her house, but she put on a front that everything was normal so they would leave, an action she would urge others to reject if they find themselves in that situation.
“If you can get yourself out of the mode of feeling in shock that something happened to you by someone you love, you have to put that aside and kind of put that in a different compartment and then the other side of you needs to step forward and not feel embarrassed, ashamed, rejected – put those things aside. That is what held me back from filing the (police) report,” Bogner told Military OneClick.
It would be the first of many days where she thought she might die at the hands of her own husband.
She began to isolate herself from family and friends as the relationship became more abusive, and she found herself transforming into a person she no longer recognized. It is one of the many signs that loved ones should look for in a potential victim.
Fear and humiliation also paralyzed her from leaving.
She feared her son could be taken away from her if the abuse was revealed.
And as the years went on, Drew got worse. He became more comfortable acting out in the open – in front of his own daughters, in a restaurant full of people. It was no longer isolated to behind closed doors.
His final act before she left him for good was so heinous, so violating: he raped her.
“I just laid there lifelessly wanting to die afterward. I wasn’t even sure this was a crime you could report. I mean, we were actually married and still together. How do you explain this to someone?” Bogner shared in her blog.
After leaving, she got a protective order from the court and said while it seems like just a piece of paper, the consequences attached to violating it made her feel safer. She also changed her daily routine to avoid being tracked and called the police to patrol her neighborhood when she felt unsafe.
It wasn’t until this year when she finally felt safe enough to talk about her experiences out loud. Even though it had been years since she found out Drew died, she feared her son could be taken away from her if she was honest about what she endured.
Once her son was over the age of 18, she felt free to tell her story.
“I had a major fear of him (her son) being taken away from me. It was scary enough that I was afraid to write for fear that his dad would maybe want to use it against me,” she said.
Bogner hopes that by being so open she can help other people in her situation, especially mothers who may feel trapped.
“If you have a place to go, a hundred-percent your friends and family would much rather love you and be with you and take your family in than for you to be abused,” she said. “For other women, it is critical to put that stage of thinking, of fear, behind yourself. Abusers don’t change. There’s no therapy that’s going to fix (them). Anyone who is going to mistreat you from the beginning, you’re looking at a very long rocky road.”
After reflecting back on the incidents that occurred, she created a list of tangible tips victims should be doing now:
- Document everything: Keep a journal of events with dates and as many details as you can capture; take pictures of injuries sustained or if there are obvious signs of abuse in the home. (i.e. broken objects)
- Have an exit plan: Start saving money through means that cannot be tracked. (i.e. open a bank account and use paperless statements so nothing is sent to your home)
- Confide in at least one person: Find someone who you can trust to open up to that will not be judgmental of your circumstances.
- Know where help is: Do research of your local area and have an awareness of where shelters are located as well as contact information for law enforcement. Melissa Bogner shared that the local police were so supportive of her and helped her every step of the way.
- Use the buddy system: Never go anywhere alone, or at the very least, always make sure someone knows where you will be.
Lisa Colella, founder of Healing Household 6 (HH6), a nonprofit organization supporting caregivers of veterans, said spouses are often hesitant to report abuse.
“…no one wants to accuse a war hero, a wounded warrior, of abuse. Many times spouses in small towns are facing hardships of accusing their “Hometown Hero”. It’s a terrifying experience to finally have the courage to tell an authority figure you are being abused to have them deny your story because it involves the town hero,” Colella said. “We hear too many stories like this.”
It is one of several reasons why HH6 took on cases involving IPV – Intimate Partner Violence.
“We expected the bulk of our clients would come in the way of financial need from the loss of funds associated with transition from active duty to civilian life style. As we started to grow the online support groups, we realized these were the most common asked questions: Where do I go for domestic violence?” she said.
Because finances are usually a leading hurdle in victims leaving an abuser, HH6 assists spouses and caregivers with relocation and housing. Colella added there are also local shelters in communities around the country who can provide safe haven and support to get back a family back on their feet. She urges readers in an abuse-type situation to follow her organization’s Domestic Violence Safety Plan, which includes information on how to safely exit a home, documents to have prepared, and more.
And while there is a difference in programs offered to active duty spouses versus those who have left military service, resources exist for all victims of domestic abuse – psychologically, financially, and legally:
- Family Advocacy Program: exists at installations around the globe to assist with the prevention and/or stopping domestic abuse. Search by installation for local FAP office
- Military OneSource: offers free in-person or over the phone counseling services. Call 800-342-9647
Spouses of Veterans
- Give An Hour: connects Post 9/11 military personnel and their loved ones to free mental health care
- Courage and Beyond
- Local veterans’ center: 877-War-Vets (877-927-8387)
Bianca Strzalkowski is a freelance writer and editor. A proud Marine Corps wife of 14 years, she has experience in news reporting, social media management, and content marketing. In 2011, she was named as Armed Forces Insurance’s Military Spouse of the Year for her volunteer work and advocacy within the military community. Because of her volunteerism, the 35th Commandant of the Marine Corps, General James Amos, awarded her with a Certificate of Commendation.
Prior to her freelance writing career, Bianca was the Deputy Director of Membership for Blue Star Families and former Managing Editor of The Onslow Times. She is media trained and has appeared in interviews for television, radio, and print to include Fox News, CNN, and Oprah.
Currently, Bianca resides in Jacksonville, NC with her husband and three children. She is a member of the Military Reporters & Editors Association and serves as an advisor for The MilSpo Project. Connect with Bianca on Twitter.