After Petraeus, a little more conversation

By TERRI BARNES | | Published: November 21, 2012

In the wake of disquieting discoveries about retired Army Gen. David Petraeus and his extramarital affair, it’s been reported that military spouses consider the topic of infidelity taboo and politely decline to discuss it, even among themselves.

An understood code of silence?

Not in my house.

In my kitchen last weekend, young active-duty troops — married and single — talked openly about their deployment experiences and what was going on between their peers. At church, a friend commented that she lost her objectivity on the matter when her ex-husband had an affair during a deployment.

A fellow military wife posted on Facebook that she and her husband just had a conversation about cheating, spurred by the endless news coverage.

At the home of another military couple, our discussion around the dinner table was animated. We mostly agreed that the circumstances of military life should not be used as an excuse for behavior that is inexcusable — for anyone, anywhere, for any rank.

When Petraeus resigned Nov. 9 as CIA director, Military Spouse Magazine issued an online statement that it would not report on the story, out of respect for the families. That is admirable. But we can’t ignore the larger conversation spurred by the scandal.

Revelations about one military marriage have opened up every military marriage for speculation. The uncomfortable questions raised are ones that touch every military family, including my own.

Is there an accepted culture of cheating in the military? Is it epidemic? Are spouses in denial? Should men and women under stress of repeated deployments — at home and downrange — get a pass?

Our way of life — the challenges, the rewards — has been scrutinized from every angle throughout the 24-hour news cycle. The national media hasn’t been able to get enough of military spouses. “CBS This Morning” had two spouses as guests this week. NPR weighed in; and The Washington Post published an opinion piece — which later appeared in Stars and Stripes — by Army wife Rebecca Sinclair describing infidelity as a collateral wound of war. Her husband, Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Sinclair, is facing adultery and sexual misconduct charges. The New York Times had a piece by a Navy wife who described her own conversation with her husband about whether their marriage was at risk.

When CNN called me for comment, I had mixed feelings. I am one spouse. I’m living one military life with one active-duty husband. Military spouses, in spite of common bonds and experience, do not think in lockstep. There is no monolithic mind.

Talking to my college-age daughter, I told her I wanted to stand up and reiterate that there is more to military life than the news generated by one scandal. But I worried my words would just add to the noise.

“Mom, you have to do it,” she said. “You have to be a voice to say those things for military families.”

So I did. I wanted to reassure. I wanted to say we are up to the challenge, that military spouses and military marriages are stronger than anything war, deployment and injury can dish out. But my beliefs have been tempered by what I hear from other spouses, from friends, from what I know after six years of letters from readers.

Military life is often rewarding. Military communities and friends are often supportive. But repeated deployments and separations exact a price from even the healthiest marriages. Not every story has a happy ending.

Infidelity might be too raw or too frightening for some to discuss, but it’s not off the table for all of us.

I don’t know how one general’s indiscretion will play out in his marriage. I do, however, need to know how the circumstances of military life can affect my own.

It’s more important for my husband and me to ask and answer our own questions than to respond to the curiosity of the civilian world. That’s something worth talking about.

Terri Barnes is a military wife and mother of three. She writes Spouse Calls weekly for Stars and Stripes. Write to her at spousecalls@stripes.com.