Downrange together, learning to put marriage before duty
Editor's Note: This series examines the mental health of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan and how they cope with war’s internal burden while deployed. Stories explore the work of psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers and chaplains to reduce the combat-related stress of troops; the efforts of senior officers to balance the needs of soldiers with the demands of the U.S. mission; and the fear of asking for help that still exists within the Army. This series is produced with the support of a Rosalynn Carter Fellowship for Mental Health Journalism.
PADKHVAB-E-SHANEH, Afghanistan — Amanda and Jonathan Dwyer split most of their time between two plywood buildings, working in one and sleeping in the other. They eat meals inside a large canvas tent. Their daily routine almost always includes a short run to the nearest concrete bunker, a hazard of living in a place with the moniker Rocket City.
Such are the trappings of married life in wartime Afghanistan.
Since their wedding last October, the Dwyers have spent more than half their 12 months together at Forward Operating Base Shank in the eastern province of Logar. The two intelligence analysts with the Special Troops Battalion, 4th Brigade Combat Team belong to an extremely small minority of married Army couples who deploy to a war zone with the same platoon.
The typical narrative of how combat strains a military marriage involves a soldier in the battlefield, a spouse in America and the fraying of their emotional bond across the months and continents. Yet even living under the same roof, the Dwyers found the war dividing them after their unit arrived at FOB Shank in March.
“Both of us were putting our jobs before our relationship,” said Spc. Amanda Dwyer, 25, of Long Island, N.Y. “Granted, the mission has to come first in all things out here. But we weren’t taking that 15, 20 minutes every day to reconnect and make sure everything’s OK.”
By a wide margin, the Army’s behavioral health providers and chaplains in Afghanistan rank relationship woes as the primary reason soldiers seek counseling while deployed. The problem can be distilled to a single word, whether a couple is separated by thousands of miles or none.
“Communication,” said Capt. Travis Hairston, the chaplain for the Special Troops Battalion, who has aided the Dwyers. “You see it break down so often, and that’s when soldiers start having trouble.”
Amanda fell in love with Sgt. Jonathan Dwyer, 24, two years ago at Fort Stewart, Ga., the 4th Brigade’s home. Both have dark blond hair and light-blue eyes, and her quick-witted energy complements his genial calmness.
In some respects, they are untangling marital knots familiar to any young newlywed couple busy with career pursuits. In other ways, there is no comparison.
As analysts, they work 12 to 14 hours a day in the tactical operations center, a nesting ground of computers, phones, energy drinks and desk-bound stress.
They assemble and dissect information on the Afghan population in Logar and adjacent Wardak province, where the brigade operates in a region still choked by the Taliban-led insurgency after 12 years of war. Nearly every day, and sometimes more than once, the base’s mortar alarm sends them racing outside to seek safety in a bunker.
Away from the “office,” the Dwyers inhabit something like a life-size sand globe, moving mostly within a one-block radius of the operations center. The bubble contains the base’s main chow hall and gym, along with their living quarters. They share a room about the size of a parking space, its bland walls brightened with greeting cards made by students of Amanda’s godmother, a second-grade teacher in Florida.
Early in the couple’s nine-month tour, attempting to adjust to their shrunken world and its lack of down-time diversions, they spoke of little besides their jobs. As the weeks passed, each tired of the other’s voice.
When she aired frustrations about work, he tended to offer one-sentence replies. If he gave a longer answer that happened to contradict her view, she lapsed into glowering silence. Though she doesn’t report to him, she began to resent his higher rank, accusing him of treating her as a subordinate in their relationship.
“We weren’t devoting enough time to us,” said Jonathan Dwyer, who was born in Panama and grew up in Reynoldsburg, Ohio. “We were pretty set in our ways. We’d have surface conversations, but we weren’t really talking.”
Hairston worked to refocus their perspective. Amanda first met with him in June after the death of her grandfather, who had helped raise her. Beset by crying jags and erratic sleep, receding into herself, she felt unable to convey to Jonathan the depth of her grief.
“It was almost like I was speaking another language because I was having such trouble communicating,” Amanda said. “Chaplain Hairston brought me back to English. We didn’t talk about religion. He listened; he never judged.”
During their second meeting, as she discussed the tension in her marriage, he suggested that Amanda invite her husband to join the next session. Sitting in his office decorated with drawings made by his 8-year-old daughter, Hairston urged the couple to emphasize their marriage over their employer.
“You do not work for the Army. You work for Dwyer Incorporated,” he told them. “The Army helps you fund Dwyer Incorporated. Your relationship is your priority.”
Defeating spousal fatigue
Hairston, 35, of Lufkin, Texas, delivers similar advice to soldiers quarreling with a spouse or partner back in America.
“A lot of them have tunnel vision,” he said. “They’ll say, ‘My wife’s griping because the dog keeps pooping on the floor; I got shot at today!’ All they see is their job, which is understandable when you’re here. What they’ve got to remember is that, as important as their job is, they’ll be going back to their wife or husband when the deployment’s over.”
Cell phones, computers and tablets enable instant long-distance contact between troops in Afghanistan and their loved ones, creating a connection to home unknown to previous generations of soldiers.
Nonetheless, many behavioral health providers and chaplains in theater regard the digital bridge as less than wholly beneficial. Hairston blames texting and “Facebook fighting” for much of the relationship discord that brings soldiers to his office.
“It’s too easy to misinterpret something when it’s just words on a screen,” he said. “I tell people all the time, ‘Pick up the phone and talk.’ Believe it or not, that fixes so many problems.”
The friction between Amanda and Jonathan had different origins. Before the 4th Brigade flew to Afghanistan, First Sgt. Odessa Davis, who leads the Dwyers’ platoon and attended the couple’s wedding, warned them of the prospect of spousal fatigue.
“You see your husband or wife every day and — ehhh, sometimes you can get on each other’s nerves,” said Davis, 39, of Opelousas, La. “So I told them, ‘If there are issues, I need you to speak up so I can help.’”
During her 19 years in the Army, including three tours to Iraq, she has watched countless military marriages collapse. Her own has endured. Davis and her husband, who has also deployed four times, have stayed together despite spending years apart because of their staggered tours. “I have a pretty good understanding of what couples go through,” she said, “and the key is, you have got to keep up the communication.”
As recently as five years ago, counseling services for soldiers in a war zone were as scarce as sympathy from their military superiors. When Amanda struggled after her grandfather’s death, Davis steered her toward Hairston.
“Combat stress and operational stress didn’t exist when I was coming up through the ranks,” Davis said. “You were either mental or normal. If you were having problems for any reason, you were considered a detriment to the mission. But if you don’t take care of soldiers, you’re not going to get the mission done. You have to care about your soldiers and the mission.”
Amanda’s meetings with Hairston restored her emotional equilibrium, and with his guidance, she and Jonathan have learned to take the time to nurture their marriage amid the burdens of deployment.
They set aside one night a week for a “date” at a cafe on the base. They share meals at the chow hall and walk home together when both of them work the day shift. If he has night duty, he shows up early at the operations center to escort her to their room. He’s more open; she’s less defensive. They talk about the small matters that fill in the big picture of a relationship.
“Work is still important, obviously,” Jonathan said, sitting with his wife in Hairston’s office. “But we make sure it doesn’t become more important than us.”
“My priorities are my husband and then my profession,” Amanda said. “I’ve come to realize that 20 years from now, I may not have the Army. I’m still going to have him.”