"No one wants to listen when it's time to listen."
That's what Mildred Muhammad says quietly to herself every time another mass shooting makes news. And she waits, waits and it often comes, the connection. Domestic violence.
If the right people had listened — really listened — to her 15 years ago, the D.C. sniper might never have existed. Her ex-husband, John Muhammad, terrorized her long before he terrorized the region, telling her "as a matter of fact you have become my enemy and, as my enemy, I will kill you."
"I knew John was going to shoot me in the head, and I knew he was going to bury me where no one could find me," she said.
And that is the pattern that Mildred Muhammad sees in today's relentless parade of mass shootings. The slaughter of 26 people in a Texas church last week was especially eerie in its familiarity.
"I'm getting dressed, and I'm listening to the news. And when they said the Air Force did not inform law enforcement that he had a domestic abuse connection?" she said. "My neck turned around like that woman in 'The Exorcist.' That was like me."
Her ex-husband was an Army veteran. Devin Kelley, the Texas shooter, was a veteran, too. He also told his wife he would kill her.
"He had a gun in his holster right here and he took that gun out and he put it to my temple and he said, 'Do you want to die; do you want to die?' " Tessa Brennaman told a television interviewer.
As Mildred Muhammad and I spoke on Tuesday, another shooting unfolded, this time in California, where authorities said a man identified as Kevin J. Neal shot people along the way to the local elementary school, killing five and injuring 10.
"Just wait for it," Mildred said. "The connection."
And sure enough, police said Neal had killed his wife and hidden her body in the hours leading up to the rampage.
With every mass shooting, we grope for the gunman's motive. Mental illness? Religion? Politics?
But domestic violence has been a persistent thread for decades. James Huberty, who killed 21 people in a San Ysidro, Calif., McDonald's in 1984, had attacked his wife and shot his family's German shepherd in the head. Boston Marathon bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev had been arrested for domestic assault four years before the 2013 attack. Omar Mateen, who killed 49 people at Pulse nightclub in Orlando last year, physically abused his wife for years, beating her for things like not finishing the laundry.
Mildred Muhammad had been threatened so many times that she was not flabbergasted when law enforcement officers knocked on her door 15 years ago to tell her she was the eventual target of her ex-husband.
Muhammad and his partner, Lee Boyd Malvo, then 17, were methodically shooting at people — killing 10 — closer and closer to where she and their three children lived.
It was a terrible time in Washington. Schools were keeping kids inside at recess; gas stations, where one of the shootings occurred, put up huge tarps to give people cover while they filled their tanks.
I raced to the scene when FBI analyst Linda Franklin was shot outside the Falls Church Home Depot. That was my Home Depot. It felt so personal.
Today, Mildred doesn't hide that she was once married to Muhammad, who was convicted of murder and executed by lethal injection in 2009. Malvo, also convicted, is serving a life sentence.
Mildred still lives in Maryland and has dedicated her life to helping others survive domestic violence. She has written two books, and her most powerful work happens on military bases. She just got back from South Korea, where she gave her talk on the signs of domestic violence, speaking to both warriors and families.
How often does it make a difference?
"It happens every time I speak," she said. Someone comes up to her and asks for help.
"I was in Newport News at the naval base. After I gave my presentation, a man came up to shake my hand. He told me, 'I'm at ground zero, like your husband was, and when I walk out of here, I'm going to kill myself,' " she said.
"I told him, 'No you're not,' " and she found his commander, who intervened in his domestic situation and got him into treatment for the violence. He's still alive, and they talk.
"At another post I spoke at, in Maryland, there was a commander, and he asked the advocates to bring me to his office after my presentation."
"My daughter is in a domestic abuse situation," he told her, and went on to describe how his son-in-law is a police officer who is hurting his daughter, and he doesn't know how to help.
She walked him through it, explaining how his daughter can't just run — she has to plan.
"If his daughter wanted to leave, she'd be with her father already," she explained.
She tells the military spouses to learn from the military, see how carefully they plan everything and put their own safety first and foremost.
To the rest of America, she wants people to listen and to see the connection.
"Every time we talk about in gun violence, it's steeped in emotion by people who don't want anyone to take their guns away," she said. "It seems that mass shootings are a way of life in America today. So why don't we put the gun emotions aside and address it from a domestic violence position?"
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