Photos by Melissa Lyttle
It was a July evening in 2010, two years into their marriage, when Tamara Campbell confronted her husband about cheating on her. She knew he’d be angry at her for accusing him. Ever since he returned from Afghanistan the month before, he’d been even more volatile than usual.
Then, he got a pair of wire cutters.
Brad Darlington, an armorer in the Marine Corps, ordered his wife to take off her wedding band or he’d cut off her finger, Campbell told HuffPost, who described her memory of that night in detail. She tried to remove it, but the ring was too tight. He had purposefully bought it two sizes smaller so she could never take it off. It sounded romantic at the time.
Now, his face was contorted in anger, Darlington began counting down from five. Campbell convinced him to hand over the tool and with shaking hands, she shoved one blade between the tight 24-carat gold band and her skin, squeezing the handle as hard as she could before the metal broke. Her husband was not placated. He told her to take off everything he’d ever bought her, including her clothes, before dragging her by the hair out of their house and forcing her into their car. She was wearing only her underwear.
“He said if I got out, he’d slit me from ear to ear,” she recalled. Afraid to move, she stayed in the vehicle overnight. When her husband woke up, he claimed he had no memory of what happened.
As soon as he left for work, a terrified Campbell called his command — essentially, those in charge of him — at Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville, North Carolina to report the incident.
For better or worse, the military is governed under its own justice system, separate from civilian police and the civilian criminal justice system. Within the armed forces, it’s commanders who are the first to hear about possible infractions. Though there are protocols they are instructed to follow, commanders alone can determine if a crime has been committed, if an investigation should be opened and if their subordinate should be punished.
In Darlington’s case, his command apprehended him that night and put him on barracks arrest, but the Marine assigned to watch Darlington simply let him leave. Darlington called his wife later from an off-base bar. “If you don’t take back everything you said, I’ll end you,” he threatened her.
She called back command, and a gunnery sergeant told her he was tired of wives meddling in the Marines’ business, she recalled him saying.
Darlington didn’t come home that night.
The next day, per protocol, Darlington’s first lieutenant and his wife talked to Campbell. They told her she needed to be more understanding, that Darlington had PTSD. They told her she needed to learn how to be the best Marine wife she could be. Then she was given a book called “Roses and Thorns: A Handbook for Marine Corps Enlisted Wives,” published in 1990, a practical guide for how to navigate military life and social situations, like how to write thank-you notes and throw a tea party for other Marine wives.
The book couldn’t be further from the realm of helpful, Campbell said.
The next time Campbell saw her husband was the following day — he’d been released from the barracks, gone to work and then promptly to a bar with another Marine, who was with Darlington when he walked in the house. Darlington’s mood wasn’t good, remembers Campbell. He was furious with her for calling his command.
“I told him he just needed to go to bed; he was drunk. He pushed me up against the counter, started choking me and then threw me down on the ground and kicked me in my back while the other Marine was drunk and passed out on the couch.”
HuffPost reached out to Camp Lejeune for comment. In an emailed statement, spokesperson Nat Fahy said that the Marine Corps does not condone nor tolerate acts of domestic violence. “From the time they are recruits and all throughout their careers, Marines are instilled with our core values of honor, courage, and commitment,” Fahy said. He referred any specific questions about Darlington’s case to the Marine Corps’ public affairs office, who did not immediately respond to a request for comment. HuffPost also contacted the first lieutenant to ask about the handling of the incident, but he declined to speak on the record.
Just two years into military life, Campbell was equal parts ashamed and panicked that night. As she understood it, the military played by a different set of rules — she was to be the supportive wife to her war hero husband, even if he threatened to kill her. Even if it meant risking her life. She was the one who needed to do better.
What she didn’t realize then was that she wasn’t the only one getting this message.
HuffPost talked to many survivors of domestic violence whose partners were or are active duty for our investigation, “A Forgotten Crisis,” a series on domestic violence in the military. Time and time again, the services downplayed or ignored the wives’ pleas for help. Some survivors were abused by their partner for years, trapped in a cycle of violence that also involved their children. Some were newlyweds, just entering military life only to find themselves on an unfamiliar base in a remote part of the country, or overseas, away from family support, when their husbands turned violent.
At some point — either early on or when things got “really bad,” the survivors we talked to reported the spousal abuse to their husbands’ commands or the military’s Family Advocacy Program (FAP), an installation that, according to them, is “designed to strengthen military families” by, among other things, reporting and preventing abuse. Most of the survivors reported abuse more than once. Some, dozens of times. The response from military officials was eerily similar across the board — in one way or another, wives were told, “The mission comes first.” All were made to feel blame for not just reporting the abuse, but for finding a problem with it in the first place.
Many of the military spouses we spoke to fear for their lives today, as well as for the safety of anyone around them. Nearly half of the survivors also expressed fears that their now ex-husbands could be the next mass shooter who takes out their anger in a public place.
Yet time and time again, it appears spouses’ warnings are being ignored.
How Quickly It Escalated
Campbell met Darlington in 2003 in Indianapolis when she was a junior in high school and he was a sophomore. They lived in the same neighborhood. Campbell’s home life was rough — she hated her mother’s boyfriend, who she says was abusing her, something Campbell’s mother didn’t believe.
“I thought [Brad] was a white knight, there to save me from that situation.” He was attractive, charismatic, Campbell told HuffPost. They started dating, but he was controlling and verbally abusive right away. They broke up and got back together a few times with Darlington constantly pursuing Campbell, never letting her “get away” — something Campbell now sees as disconcerting.
At 18, after graduating high school, they moved in together. Darlington’s abuse escalated from shouting to striking, she said. He once poured a drink over her head when she refused to get up from the couch. He’d hold his hand over her mouth and nose to prevent her from talking. When Campbell became pregnant at 20, he got mad that she went to see fireworks with friends — he accused her of cheating on him. He punched her in the stomach. He always apologized. And when that didn’t work, he held a knife to his wrist and told Campbell if she ever left him, he’d slit them.
“I was terrified he would kill himself and I’d be responsible for his suicide,” she said.
She was 21 when they married; Darlington was 20.
A few months before their wedding, Darlington had enlisted in the Marines. His first assignment was Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, and only a few months after they arrived, Darlington was shipped off to Afghanistan. Before he came home, Campbell and other wives were given a briefing about what to expect from a Marine who had recently come home himself. Campbell said he warned them that the soldiers coming home could be aggravated and agitated.
“I remember at one point ... he said, don’t push sex on them but if they want sex, don’t deny it because then they’ll feel rejected and that could lead to their PTSD,” she said.
After the incident with the wire cutters, Darlington’s only consequence was anger management classes, which Campbell says his command never made him show proof of attending anyway, not that those classes could fix anything. Domestic violence advocates have long voiced that anger management classes are not effective.
“Unfortunately, anger management classes are still used for domestic violence perpetrators both in the military and in the civilian system,” Glenna Tinney, MSW, a retired Navy social worker, told HuffPost. Tinney is the former military advocacy program coordinator for the Battered Women’s Justice Project, which assists the Department of Justice Office on Violence Against Women.
“I am sure that people in the military system would not define [anger management] as ‘punishment.’ It would most likely be defined as ‘intervention.’ DoD [Department of Defense] has defined standards for offender intervention in domestic violence situations, but they have not mandated a specific program model,” Tinney said.
Campbell told HuffPost, “He would come home from lunch and say, ‘I’m supposed to be going to an anger management meeting, but I’m not going.’ I said, ‘Isn’t your command going to find out?’ and he said, ‘No, they don’t check that.’”
The abuse never stopped, but Campbell was afraid to call his command again.
“I had no faith in the Marine Corps and that included family advocacy. I honestly felt like they were out to protect him,” she said. As for outside resources, the National Domestic Violence Hotline, for instance, Campbell says she didn’t even know one existed.
Adultery Is A Criminal Act
In 2011, Campbell had the couple’s second daughter, and in 2012, Darlington was stationed at Marine Corps Base Quantico in Virginia. Campbell desperately tried to find moments of hope in her marriage — the wildflowers Darlington would pick for her on the side of the road on his way home from work, “because he knew I loved wildflowers.”
It’s only here in our interview that Campbell’s voice cracked as she remembered the times her brutally violent husband stopped being brutally violent. One night she came home from a trip to see her grandmother and found Darlington had made her dinner, started a fire in the backyard and sprinkled rose petals across their patio table. “He’d written this letter about how much he’d missed me and loved me and how he was thankful I’d stuck with him through all the years. It was in those moments that I thought, there he is, there’s the person I met,” she said.
At the same time, Darlington had begun cheating on his wife again — this time with a staff sergeant. He’d started openly splitting his time between her house and his. Campbell didn’t know what to do. But then her husband got mad at her again, for something, strangled her and threw her against a dresser. By the next morning, she realized, “he was never going to stop.”
She filed for divorce in October 2013, but Darlington begged her to change her mind. “He put himself in counseling and said he got medicine to help him control his anger,” Campbell said. She remembers seeing the medicine bottle but doesn’t remember what drug it was.
When she faltered, he took a different route, reminding her that she had no money to file for divorce. He controlled all the family finances and didn’t allow her to work. “A divorce has to be uncontested for a legal JAG [Judge Advocate General, AKA officers who serve as part of the military justice system] to do it for free, so it was pointless. I gave up,” Campbell said. Darlington ripped up the papers.
In 2014, Campbell gave birth to her fourth child, their third together, a son. (She has another child from before she got married to Darlington.) A few months later, Campbell found text messages implicating her husband in an affair with another sergeant within his command. This time she thought command might pay attention. And if they acted on the affair, maybe they’d act on the abuse too. “I’d had enough,” she said.
Under Article 134 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, adultery is a criminal act that can result in court martial, even for those soldiers who have since retired and are receiving a pension. It falls under the general article of offenses which “bring discredit upon the armed forces.” It’s been enacted since 1951 and can bring a prison sentence of up to two years.
She reported the adultery to his supervisor, and command moved fast — far faster than the first time at Camp Lejeune when she reported the abuse.
“They were quicker to move on separating them and look into the adultery than they were to look into the domestic violence,” Campbell remembered. “They went above and beyond to try and separate them.”
Darlington was ordered to take more classes and was put on desk duty. Still, Campbell knew he continued to see the other sergeant, even splitting time living between her house and the one he shared with Campbell.
She kept reporting these updates to command until, she told HuffPost, command threatened to drop Darlington in rank (and, subsequently, pay) unless she — Campbell — stopped “running my mouth about the affair.” They had done enough to punish him, and weren’t interested in doing more.
Christine Hansen served as executive director at The Miles Foundation, a private international nonprofit that helped victims of domestic abuse in the military, from 1994 to 2010. It’s her opinion that the armed services rank military readiness as the top priority, even when it comes at the cost of personal safety, and that deployments only intensify abusive behaviors that existed before the soldier left.
“During the deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, we saw a significant increase in domestic violence,” Hansen said. “That individual [servicemember] is losing power and control because they aren’t at home anymore. Upon returning they feel they need to reinstitute those methods, or they may have learned new techniques.”
Ignoring Abuse Doesn’t Make It Go Away
Campbell began feeling like she was riding a roller coaster of abuse. Over the course of several weeks, her husband would disappear to the other woman’s house, leaving behind his wife and newborn son. Then, she said, he’d return and apologize, and things would be good for a while. Too soon, the abuse would start back up before Darlington would go back to the other woman’s home. Campbell cared for their children while wondering if, and how, she’d ever escape.
On Nov. 7, 2014, the couple attended a military ball. When they got home, Campbell saw Darlington text the other woman, and called out her husband for not ending the affair. Darlington briefly left the house and came back in with a loaded semi-automatic .45 and forced the barrel into Campbell’s mouth.
“I remember thinking to myself, this is it, he’s going to kill me,” she said.
He pulled the trigger. It didn’t go off. Campbell’s not sure why. Maybe something jammed, maybe he wasn’t serious about it being loaded. He calmly left soon after to go to the other woman’s house and Campbell, shaking and petrified, says she reapplied her makeup that had come off in the scuffle and went to go pick up her children from a friend’s house, desperately pretending nothing had gone awry that night.
She was able to put up with Darlington for another month and then decided she’d had enough. It was Dec. 10 when Darlington talked up a family night he wanted to have that evening — one of his rare gestures of kindness that Campbell so desperately hoped were real. But then she found text messages that showed he was going to be with the other woman instead. She printed off screenshots of the texts and left them on her husband’s car while he was at work with a message scrawled on them, letting him know she was done.
His reaction was swift, as expected. At first, his texts and emails to her were kind — Don’t leave me. I love you. I want our family to be back together, Campbell remembers. Then they became much more threatening — I’m going to shove these papers down your throat.
He came back to the house and Campbell readied herself for a fight. She was holding their 6-month-old son when he lunged at Campbell, wrapping his fingers around her neck.
“I couldn’t breathe,” she said. “He did it until everything turned white.”
What saved her was the thought of her son’s head hitting the hardwood floor beneath her.
“I felt myself losing my grip on my son. It took every ounce of energy I had not to let go of him,” she said. Finally, Darlington released his grip. As Campbell coughed violently, struggling to breathe, he kissed her on the forehead and left.
“I wish I could say I called [to report it],” Campbell said. But she was still afraid. Afraid of him and afraid no one would listen. She did, however, open up to strangers, other Marine spouses she didn’t know on bases far away through a Facebook support group. She shared with them the threatening texts he’d sent her, then came back to the group after Darlington had left to let them know he had strangled her and she didn’t know what to do.
She logged off before putting on a big coat — an attempt to hide the bruising on her neck — and left. She had to get to the USO — a military organization that supports families of soldiers — where they were handing out free Christmas gifts to those who needed extra help. Having been left with no money by Darlington to provide presents to their kids, this was a top priority at the time.
But when she returned home, she saw her house was surrounded by military police with their guns drawn and the military version of a SWAT team. One of the women in her Facebook group had reported Campbell’s strangulation to her military police son stationed at Quantico.
Campbell says it was that action, plus the words of a paramedic who assessed her injuries, that made all the difference that day.
“He told me I needed to press charges. He said, ‘I know it’s scary, but I know without a shadow of a doubt the next phone call I get to come here will be to collect your dead body. This isn’t your fault,’” she recalled.
Darlington was apprehended and pleaded guilty to seven charges, including strangulation, inserting a loaded handgun into her mouth and adultery. A military judge sentenced him to 11 years at Naval Consolidated Brig Chesapeake in 2015.
He was released in March of this year, serving less than four years and, according to Campbell, racking up dozens of infractions behind bars, including continuing to contact her via threatening letters.
Despite being dishonorably discharged from the military, and the felony charges, and the fact that he has now moved on with another woman, Campbell is still afraid he is armed, dangerous and out for revenge against her and her children.
“I’m scared he’s going to come find me,” she said.
At the end of November, Darlington was apprehended by Indiana police after he assaulted his new fiancée’s ex-husband. After being released from jail later that morning, Darlington returned to his fiancée’s house, where she reported he strangled and hit her in the face before leaving. The victim called the police and completed an affidavit of the assault after police took photos of her injuries, yet Darlington is not in custody. Delaware County Prosecutor Eric Hoffman told HuffPost that as of Friday afternoon, a warrant was issued for Darlington’s arrest, more than two weeks after the assault.
In the last four years, Campbell has put some distance between herself and her now-ex-husband. She met someone new and recently became engaged, a fact that’s weighed down with threats from her past. Darlington told her if she ever moved on, “he’ll kill the man I’m with.” Yet it doesn’t keep her in hiding.
“I’ve openly talked about my stuff because I felt that I needed to get my voice out there, and I needed to be heard because I’d been silenced for so long,” Campbell said.
Tara Haelle and Melissa Jeltsen contributed reporting.
This story is part of “A Forgotten Crisis,” a series on domestic violence in the military.
Are you a military spouse experiencing abuse? There are places you can turn for help. Find your local Family Advocacy Program by visiting militaryonesource.mil, reach out to HealingHousehold6.org for military-specific support in times of family crisis, or speak to a trained domestic violence advocate in your area or locate the nearest domestic violence shelter by visiting DomesticShelters.org. You can also speak to a supportive advocate at the National Domestic Violence Hotline, 24/7, at 800-799-7233.
Clarification: Language has been amended to describe judge advocates general more accurately.
This article originally appeared on HuffPost.