In Japan, cases of abandoned families can be ‘extreme’
July 13, 2008
YOKOSUKA NAVAL BASE, Japan — One sailor abandoned his family at Tokyo’s Narita airport. He collected the boarding passes for his wife and children before the gate and assured them he’d "be right back." Two hours later, they realized he was gone, opting to change duty stations without them.
Another sailor told his wife he was going to sea, and she didn’t hear from him for three years. When her military identification expired and she started asking questions, she learned her husband had already served a complete stateside tour, and was re-stationed in Japan where he lived without her.
Then there’s the naval officer whose wife returned to Japan to visit her family. He wrote her a letter, telling her to send him her military identification card and stay in Japan. He’d ship her stuff to her — sayonara, sweetheart.
While abandonment occurs everywhere, overseas abandonment cases in Japan "tend to be more extreme," Navy attorneys said.
Nonsupport issues and divorce make up a hefty chunk of the caseload at Yokosuka’s Navy Legal Service Office, attorney Lt. Ian Midgley said. For example, 16 of the 20 walk-ins Tuesday came armed with support or divorce questions.
"Now, it’s not like that all of the time," Midgley said. "But we see a steady stream of people in dissolving family situations needing help and advice."
They see enough cases that the office wants to make how-to DVDs for spouses and sailors to watch and learn about military divorce. Other Navy legal offices have created divorce DVDs, but Yokosuka’s NLSO wants to tackle the unique issues here in Japan.
Marriage breakups are complicated to begin with, as laws differ from state to state. Overseas is more challenging, for there are no nearby American courthouses. Nor is there the Yellow Pages with long lists of lawyers, Midgley said.
So most people end up at the base legal office — if they know to go there for help. Many spouses — especially those unfamiliar with the military — don’t, Lt. j.g. Nancy Pham said.
"If all of their military knowledge comes from the husband, and the husband is telling them that he doesn’t owe them anything, that’s what they might believe," Pham said. "There’s an imbalance of power. If the spouse doesn’t know they have entitlements and how to get them, they are disadvantaged."
And cultural differences and language barriers can make an abandoned spouse keep mum, she said. Yet it’s not always foreign spouses in such a situation, Pham said. Being overseas can strain relationships for any military couple, she said.
To unravel a relationship overseas takes time and paperwork, which isn’t easy to cope with when a marriage is breaking down, Pham said. Spouses and sailors can request an ERD, or early return of dependents, in order to leave the country and settle their affairs stateside, she said.
Help is near
The base legal office cannot handle divorces, separation agreements, court orders and other actions typically associated with family issues, but it can advise clients on how the legal system works and help them find an attorney to represent them back in the States. They can also write letters to commanding officers, especially for foreign spouses without ties to a particular state, or to the Office of Child Support Enforcement.
While the Navy cannot order a sailor to support his or her family, like a court order can, the service will locate deadbeats and contact their commanding officers. Then it’s payback time. "If they’re still in the Navy, we will track them down. We can ferret them out," said Midgley. "And once we do, I’ve never worked with a commanding officer who didn’t urge their sailor to set up allotments and make things right."
A letter of nonsupport is usually considered a last resort, he said, but it’s normally the point in the case when things get turned around.
Between the four offices in the region, attorneys write about 11 nonsupport letters a month to commanding officers. They dealt with 167 nonsupport cases last year.
If a sailor still refuses to pay, the nonsupport notice can be added to the sailor’s evaluation, possibly making the issue a career stopper, Midgley said.
But abandoned spouses often don’t want to get the sailor into trouble, Pham said. Beyond hurting a servicemember’s career, it could also hurt a spouse’s allotments if the sailor is demoted.
Also, abandonment cases aren’t always malicious. Sometimes, it’s just a question of paperwork — like forgetting to fill out the right immigration forms for the spouse and children before a PCS move.
"Most of the time, it’s not deliberate or mean spirited," Midgley said. "The husband might not have done his homework, didn’t fill out the right immigration paperwork before he had to leave."
Spouses can take off, too
The spouse isn’t always the victim. "Dear John" letters abound, with tales of infidelity and empty bank accounts, the attorneys said, but recouping damage from a deadbeat spouse will always occur in civil court, while military spouses can pressure the system to make a servicemember pay up.
Military regulations say that military duty will not be a "safe haven" to avoid family support obligations, but setting the level of support is handled in civilian courts.
Army, Navy, Marine, and Coast Guard directives do specify varying amounts of support. The Navy, for example, directs that spouses should receive a third of a sailor’s gross pay, half if a child is involved, but military directives are to be used only in the absence of other agreements or court orders. Once a spouse is divorced, he or she is no longer a dependent and cannot apply to Navy legal services for help.
Midgley heard of a case of a sailor who left his Japanese spouse in Japan and divorced her by mail, telling the courts that she abandoned him. By the time she got to the legal office, there was little attorneys could do.
In a place where the actions of one sailor can affect the opinions of many nationals, such things canmake the Navy look bad, Midgley said.
"This isn’t just about the abandoned spouse; it’s about international diplomacy," he said. "Every time an American leaves a family in Japan, it impacts the community."