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Cpl. Jose Gonzales with the 1st Battalion, 12th Marines chats on the phone at Camp Fallujah. The 21-year old is from Grand Prairie, Texas.

Cpl. Jose Gonzales with the 1st Battalion, 12th Marines chats on the phone at Camp Fallujah. The 21-year old is from Grand Prairie, Texas. (Allison Batdorff / S&S)

FALLUJAH, Iraq — Staff Sgt. Shannon Garstka blames the Internet for helping to disconnect his marriage while he was in Iraq.

It started when an old female friend turned up on his MySpace page — Garstka’s online social networking system of choice during his current deployment — and his wife didn’t like that she was there.

Misunderstanding turned into jealousy, and it went downhill from there, Garstka said.

“She didn’t understand why I wanted my own MySpace page,” said the 27-year-old with the 5th Battalion, 7rd Cavalry, from Southwick, Mass. “But I wasn’t going to give it up for her — I had given up too much already.”

It’s not all MySpace’s fault, Garstka said. The incident, compounded by the fact they weren’t communicating face-to-face, only brought to light deeper problems of trust and insecurity within the relationship, he said.

He has no problems with the other 80 people on his network.

“It’s my primary way of communicating with my friends and family while I’m here,” said Garstka. “I check it whenever I can.”

Pvt. Alma Cotto, a supply clerk from Charlotte, N.C., is in Iraq working for the 3rd Brigade Support Battalion. The 27-year-old is married with a 3-year-old and says she calls or e-mails home every day.

Much of the time is spent reassuring her husband that she is not in danger, she said.

“He’s always worried about what he thinks is happening,” Cotto said. “I told him to stop watching the news.”

With satellite phones and Internet cafes in some of the dustiest command outposts, communicating with the home front can be easy. Servicemembers can get in touch with their loved ones once a week, if not once a day. But it’s a blessing and a curse.

It’s a blessing to Spc. April Carmichael. Her husband keeps her in the loop by e-mailing her their children’s school projects and grades while she spends 15 months as a physical therapist at 3rd Brigade Support Battalion in Ramadi.

“It helps me feel involved in my children’s lives,” said Carmichael. “It’s hard when you’re gone to remember that your life is still going to be there. You just feel like ‘I just missed 15 months of their lives.’”

But while the Internet allows more access to friends and family back home, hearing about the day-to-day problems can also put stress on soldiers, said Maj. Christopher Warner, the division psychiatrist and deputy division surgeon for Task Force Marne in Baghdad.

“Many of our soldiers either want to stay engaged and try and fix (the problems) themselves or may have spouses that expect them to fix them,” Warner said in an e-mail. “Either way, it can be very difficult and can increase the stress for both.”

Warner helped author a 2005 study published in last month’s issue of Military Medicine that said issues like family, financial and legal problems outrank actual combat exposure when it comes to what’s worrying most soldiers in Iraq.

Task Force Baghdad also had five suicides during the deployment, most of them junior-enlisted Caucasian men under the age of 30 suffering from home-front and marital stresses during their first deployment.

Home-front issues accounted for 35 percent of the 22,000 contacts that combat-stress specialists had with Baghdad soldiers in 2005. This was compared with 22 percent for combat exposure and 15 percent for peer/unit issues.

“In comparison with most past wars, soldiers had greater availability of communication with their families through telephone, electronic mail, and even video sessions on the Internet. Increased connectivity helped decrease some of the stress from separation but at times increased the stress for both the soldier and the family when problems/situations arose on either end,” the study says.

Capt. Glen Wurglitz sees this as a psychologist with the 785th Medical Group in Balad.

“Back in the olden days, a ‘Dear John’ letter used to take three months to arrive,” said Wurglitz. “With instant messaging, it’s ‘I’m selling the house.’ Send.”

In Warner’s experience, deployed soldiers and families do well at first but hit a bump around 90 to 120 days. Major stress is felt at the sixth month and increases each month afterwards, Warner said.

That fell in line with the experience of Cpl. Tarron Skipper, with the 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marines, on his last deployment.

“Months one to four were OK, but right around month five, I turned into ‘Psycho-Man,’” said Skipper, 21, of Homerville, Ga. And suddenly, things like unanswered phone calls really bothered him, he said.

“I asked my wife when I got home, ‘Where were you all those times I called?’” he said.

Being deployed overseas is a “mind boggler” even if you’re in a good relationship, said Pfc. Josh Patterson, 22, of Portsmouth, Va., with the 5th Battalion, 7th Cavalry.

“Even though my wife and I know we trust each other, it still makes you start thinking, ‘What if …,’” Patterson said.

Related story:

Captain: Deployment isn’t the ‘smoking gun’

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