An Army colonel’s alleged abuse saddled his wife with ongoing medical needs. Escaping him could bring that care to a screeching halt.
"The look in his eyes … I did not know that man."
Katherine Burton was sitting on her couch when she heard a scream.
Though she had not yet met her upstairs neighbors, Army. Col. Jerel Grimes and his wife Ellizabeth, Burton went to investigate almost immediately. “I knew it was a cry for help,” she recalled of the August 1 incident.
Above her downstairs apartment in Huntsville, Alabama, Jerel and Ellizabeth had been arguing. They had been doing a lot of that lately. According to Ellizabeth, Jerel, a soldier with 26 years of service and two Afghanistan deployments under his belt, had become increasingly controlling in the months since the couple had married in April, forcing her to share computer passwords, receipts for purchases, and asking where she was at all times.
“I was starting to realize how controlling he was, and how manipulative he was,” Ellizabeth said. “And he'd never been this way towards me in the 15 years that I've known him.”
Earlier that day, Jerel had texted Ellizabeth to say he was leaving a meeting at Redstone Arsenal, where he worked as an acquisitions officer. The base, a testing ground for Army missile programs, was only about a mile from their home. But Jerel didn't come home until more than an hour later, Ellizabeth said.
Ellizabeth knew she shouldn't question the delay. Asking questions like that would usually lead to an argument. But that day, she didn't care.
“I wanted to know the truth,” Ellizabeth told Task & Purpose. “I didn't want him to deflect and change the subject and get mad at me for questioning him, when in my opinion it was just a conversation.”
“It shouldn't be an argument.” But it was. It snowballed into a larger, tense discussion about other things she felt he hadn't been truthful about in the past.
In a moment of frustration, Ellizabeth recalled, she walked into their kitchen and broke a glass in the sink. The next thing she knew, Grimes had rounded the corner into the kitchen and pushed her back out the other side, into a wall.
“I bounced off the wall and he strangled me, with no words, no notice,” Ellizabeth said. “The look in his eyes … I did not know that man.”
Days later, Ellizabeth filed for divorce.
Ellizabeth and Jerel Grimes' wedding photo.Courtesy of Ellizabeth Grimes
In addition to multiple interviews with Ellizabeth, this account is based on interviews with the couple's neighbor, hospital and police records, court documents, and official Army statements and internal emails.
Col. Grimes did not respond to several attempts to contact him, including several phone calls and three voicemail messages. Army Contracting Command (ACC) declined to make him available for an interview. Officials with Army Materiel Command (AMC), which oversees ACC, also did not specifically address the allegations, which were included in a detailed request for comment.
Task & Purpose does not typically identify victims of domestic abuse, but is doing so at Ellizabeth's request. “I've emailed so many elected officials and several others asking for help,” she said. “It's not a secret.”
Ellizabeth doesn't remember screaming, but she has little doubt that's what neighbors heard. Hospital records say that she suffered a closed head injury, and Ellizabeth believes she briefly lost consciousness.
When Burton and another neighbor arrived that night, the door was cracked open. Inside, Burton recalled seeing Ellizabeth for the first time, wearing shorts and a tank top, crying and shaking as Grimes silently stood nearby with a “stern” look on his face.
“We didn't want to violate their space or anything so I said, 'Are you okay?' Me and the other neighbor, we just kept repeating, 'Honey, are you okay? Are you okay?'” Burton recalled to Task & Purpose. She described Grimes as staring at his wife, silently urging her to stay quiet.
“The way he looked at her,” said Burton, a domestic violence survivor herself. “I know that stare, that 'it's best you keep your mouth shut' type of stare.”
“Tell them that you're okay,” Burton recalled Grimes telling Ellizabeth. Distraught, she simply said, “but I'm not okay.”
Burton then warned Grimes that he needed to leave, or she would call the police. He left a short time later. Ellizabeth, meanwhile, was taken to a neighbor's apartment, where they discussed whether she should call the police.
“I didn't want to. I wasn't ready to accept what he had just done to me, because I knew it would ruin everything,” Ellizabeth told Task & Purpose, overcome with emotion. “It would ruin our future, it would ruin our marriage, it would ruin his career … I didn't want to admit that that had just happened.”
Burton, a certified clinical medical assistant, assessed Ellizabeth's injuries and noticed that she seemed to be going in and out of consciousness. She was grabbing her head, and her hand was swollen. Ellizabeth said that it hurt to swallow, and her neck was hurting because of where Grimes' hands had been. Eventually, Burton convinced her that she needed to get help.
A little after 8 p.m. that night, Ellizabeth was admitted to Madison Hospital in Madison, Alabama, where doctors outlined the extent of her injuries, including “closed head injury, hematoma, concussion, cervical strain, extremity contusion or fracture,” according to medical records. In the remarks section, the doctor wrote that Ellizabeth's husband had “hit her … multiple times and pushed her against the wall.”
Additionally, a Huntsville police officer wrote in an incident report that evening that the “hospital advised she had a broken bone in her right hand … and visible red marks on her neck.”
Despite Ellizabeth's immediate filing for divorce, Grimes was not taken into custody for a felony domestic violence by strangulation charge until Sept. 5, according to a Madison County Sheriff's Office spokesperson (The charges were delayed, according to Elizabeth, because there was some confusion over the proper venue, and she was waiting for a police investigator to finish an unrelated case. She filed charges against Grimes on Sept. 3).
Hours after being booked on Sept. 5, Grimes was released on $5,000 bond.
Jerel Grimes' mugshot.Photo: Madison County Sheriff's Office.
Ellizabeth was discharged from the hospital at 3 a.m. on August 2. When she and Burton arrived back at her apartment, Ellizabeth was still afraid and asked her neighbor to check each room in her apartment to make sure Grimes wasn't there.
He wasn't. The prior evening would be the last day Ellizabeth would see or directly speak with her husband.
In the days and weeks that followed, Burton and Ellizabeth, once strangers, grew close. Burton or her daughters would bring food to Ellizabeth's apartment several days a week, and try to comfort her with conversation.
“She would have kept herself locked up in her house and not had contact with anybody,” Burton said. “But I understand the importance of when you're in a situation like that. … When you go through something like that, a lot of times you think that it's your fault, that you may have done something to bring this on yourself.”
“But nobody asks to be abused,” she said.
Ellizabeth's health problems were only beginning. She lost weight rapidly after the attack; since August, she estimates she's down more than 20 pounds. Still distraught, she takes anti-nausea medication to help her eat and pain medication for her injuries. At night, she takes pills to help her sleep; at sunrise, she takes more to ease her anxiety and guard against depression.
None of these were things she'd needed previously.
According to medical records from October, Ellizabeth requires a “neurology consult due to brain injury and ongoing neck pains from strangulation,” although, the documents noted, the earliest appointment available wasn't until January 2020. She has also been referred to physical therapy twice weekly for a fractured hand, and now, regularly sees a therapist.
Almost immediately after the attack, on August 5, Ellizabeth filed for divorce. Two days later, Grimes' commanding officer signed a military protective order against him, which required him to cut off all contact with Ellizabeth (He has followed the order, Ellizabeth said).
Still, while Ellizabeth may be safe from further physical abuse, she'll continue to require medical treatment — treatment that will likely cease sometime next year. Once the divorce is finalized, according to Tricare policy, she'll no longer be a military dependent entitled to military health benefits.
“I want to divorce him solely because of the abuse,” said Ellizabeth, an Air Force veteran who left the service in 2010. “But once the divorce is done, I don't have the continued medical coverage and I have to start all over with new doctors. That's unacceptable.”
Domestic violence in the military has been a longstanding issue. In September, Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.), the Chairwoman of the House Armed Services military preparedness subcommittee, called domestic violence “a forgotten crisis in our military.”
In fact, up until mid-August of this year — after Grimes' alleged attack — the military justice system did not track or prosecute domestic abuse as a separate category. Instead, military leaders would prosecute cases under the general category of assault.
A 2018 Pentagon report noted there 7,015 incidents of spousal abuse that year. Another 1,024 incidents involved unmarried couples. The report found that, despite efforts to address the issue, spouse abuse had “not increased or decreased in recent years.”
Still, the Pentagon has made an effort to help victims like Ellizabeth. In September, the military released instructions regarding transitional compensation (TC) for abused dependents, which offers a monthly payout of benefits to dependents of service members who are separated because of abuse.
According to the guidance, the service member has to be married at the time they committed the abuse, and be separated for it, in order for a spouse to receive compensation. In other words, the policy hinges on the service member being convicted of abusing their dependent, or kicked out of the service for doing so.
Neither apply to Grimes.
As Brian Clubb, former program coordinator for the Military & Veteran's Advocacy Project's Battered Women's Justice Project explained, Ellizabeth will be stuck in a sort of purgatory, unable to get the benefits she desperately needs.
“[Grimes] hasn't been convicted of anything,” Clubb told Task & Purpose. “To my knowledge he hasn't been disciplined by the military on any level. They're waiting to see what happens with the charges. So she's fallen into a crack there. And it may be a crack that's actually pretty wide.”
In an email sent to Ellizabeth on Oct. 17, an employee from the Army's Family Advocacy Program (FAP), which counsels victims and helps them report abuse, said they “found that the case with [Grimes] as the offender met criteria for abuse,” and that FAP has “recommended treatment for him.”
It's unclear what treatment was recommended, or if Grimes' unit has taken any action on the recommendation. It's also unclear what the typical process is for recommendations from FAP. The employee added that she was “not aware of other punitive action taken by his unit.”
In a letter sent to Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.) — who reached out to the Army on Ellizabeth's behalf — Maj. Gen. Paul Perdew, the head of Army Contracting Command, explained that he would let civilian authorities take the lead.
“Allegations of abuse are always taken seriously and various services are in place to assist the victims,” Pardew wrote. “However, once a court issues an order on support, the Army defers to the civilian court.”
“While sympathetic to Mrs. Grimes' concerns the Army also has an interest in ensuring Colonel Grimes is afforded the appropriate due process. As the local civilian prosecutor has taken jurisdiction over the case it would be premature for the command to initiate an administrative elimination action prior to the completion of the pending criminal matter.”
Pardew closed the letter by saying that he would determine “what, if any, additional action is appropriate” after civilian authorities were finished. But in this case, a conclusion of any kind may not come for months. Grimes' case, according to an email from an official in the district attorney's office, could be pending for a year or more before going to a grand jury.
But Grimes appears to want “the divorce action over as quickly as possible,” one of Ellizabeth's attorneys wrote in an email viewed by Task & Purpose. At that point, Ellizabeth will likely lose her medical coverage and be disqualified from transitional coverage provided for domestic violence victims.
“With respect to transitional compensation, a conviction or administrative separation must be rendered first,” Lt. Col. Vinston Porter, a spokesman for Army Contracting Command, told Task & Purpose. “Even in exceptional cases, the Army has no authority to approve transitional compensation prior to the conviction or initiation of an administrative separation of a soldier.”
The Army could investigate Grimes on its own, if it wanted to, according to Clubb; technically, the military can take jurisdiction on just about “any case,” it just may not typically be the policy. They have the ability to investigate alongside civilian authorities, though that doesn't typically happen except in extreme cases.
“It is standard practice not to have two simultaneous investigations into the same matter,” Col. Robert Bockholt, Army Materiel Command spokesman, told Task & Purpose.
The military also has limited resources, Clubb said, and may allow a case to play out in civilian court if it seems more likely it will receive a conviction.
Army leaders overseeing Grimes are keenly aware of how Ellizabeth could soon slip through the cracks.
Just last week, Ellizabeth met with Gen. Pardew and a lawyer for ACC to discuss her situation and how to move forward. They explained that there is indeed a gap in coverage, and encouraged her to apply for an exception to policy so she could continue receiving the care she needs.
In an interview afterward, Ellizabeth said Pardew was “very compassionate,” and at one point, even got emotional as he spoke with her about what she'd endured. Grimes was meant to be in a leadership position, Ellizabeth recalled Pardew saying, but was pulled from the role after the general learned of the allegations.
Pardew and the command's legal counsel said that they have been monitoring this since day one, and said Grimes had been flagged in every Army system, which essentially keeps him “frozen” and unable to move commands or retire until the case is resolved.
As for administratively separating Grimes from the Army, it's typically not the path forward for soldiers with more than 20 years of service. But Porter, the spokesman, told Task & Purpose that the command is looking to retrieve additional information from local authorities to see what additional actions could be available to them.
Pardew ultimately stressed to Ellizabeth that, given he is still the commander at the time of the case's conclusion, he plans to take appropriate action.
“I don't want Ellizabeth to think that we're not committed to doing what's right,” she recalled the general telling others in the room, which included her victim advocate and the FAP program manager.
Aside from the alleged attack and its aftermath, one of the hardest parts for Ellizabeth has been accepting that her dreams were crushed so quickly that day in August.
Ellizabeth loved Jerel. When the two finally married in April, after years of long-distance dating (their military service rarely kept them in the same place), their families were overjoyed. Ellizabeth said the couple was planning to start a family and change duty stations to Italy before she and her husband retired to Florida, even dreaming about opening a dive shop along the beach.
“My world just came to a complete standing halt,” she said. “What the hell do I do now?”
Ellizabeth has been “getting into a better spot” in the last few weeks, according to Burton, though she still worries that she isn't eating enough.
Most of that is thanks to the life she's been building for herself, her close friendship with Burton, as well as finding a new church home, and friends at her new job — a crisis center for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault that offers services in over 45 languages.
“God was looking out,” Ellizabeth said of her job. “It's wonderful, it's amazing, it's fulfilling, it's heartwarming … This is where I'm supposed to be.”
She also said that after her meeting with Pardew, he made a call that helped move forward two of her pending medical referrals, getting them scheduled almost immediately.
Still, bad days persist.
“The holidays … this weekend was just awful,” Ellizabeth said shortly after the Thanksgiving holiday, trying futilely to hold back tears. “All of these 'supposed to's' — I was supposed to spend it with him and his mom, when she was supposed to come to our place. And I can't even talk to her.”
Now, Ellizabeth is starting to believe that, despite everything, she may not ever see the continued care that she needs. But that isn't stopping her from continuing to push forward, dedicated to making sure no other military spouse goes through what she's experiencing now.
“There might not be any kind of outcome for me,” she said. “But I'm at least getting it in place for future survivors.”
Correction: This article has been updated to reflect that Elizabeth Grimes left the Air Force after her service obligation had ended. She did not retire as was originally stated. We regret the error.