Military life puts young marriages to a constant test
October 14, 2007
When Capt. Angela Batts shipped off to an air base in Qatar this summer, it marked the first time in nine years she was apart from her husband, Clif, due to a deployment.
The four-month separation probably was harder on Clif, who looked after the couple’s three boys, both agreed.
Although Angela, the sexual assault response coordinator at Misawa Air Base in northern Japan, wasn’t in Iraq, Clif still worried.
Once, Angela traveled to another country in theater and she couldn’t tell Clif where she was going.
Without her, he missed the small things, he said.
“Acting silly. The laughing. Just holding hands. Being together,” he said. “I’d be driving and I’d look over and she wasn’t there. It was weird.”
Whether one’s job is on a ship, behind a desk or in a cockpit, no one in today’s U.S. military is immune from deploying to war as airmen and sailors are being tasked to provide troops to ease the strain on Army and Marine Corps ground units.
No one gets a free pass — including the spouses left behind to hold the home together. Marriages are being tested, often strained. Sometimes they break.
The military, recognizing that extended deployments can stress marriages, is stepping up efforts to help couples avoid going to war with each other.
Experts say they’re making great strides — but more still needs to be done.
“None of us are doing as much as needed,” said Joyce Wessel Raezer, chief operating officer of the National Military Family Association. “We’re all doing more than we used to ... but we’re all playing catch-up. What worked as folks came back from a first deployment may not work when they come back from a third.”
Divorce rates soaring – or not
In 2005, it appeared that longer, more frequent and dangerous deployments were creating a casualty far from the battlefield: military marriages.
Alarms were sounded when the Army reported the divorce rate among personnel nearly doubled between 2001 and 2004. Most troubling was the rate among married officers: In 2002, it was 1.9 percent; it soared to 6 percent by 2004.
The Pentagon asked the Rand Corp. to research whether stress caused by deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan was leading to a surge in divorce.
The results of Rand’s yearlong study, released last spring, showed that the divorce rate in the military — about 3 percent — was no higher than it was during peacetime a decade ago.
Divorce rates in the Army, Air Force and Marines rose steadily from fiscal 2001 to fiscal 2005. But it was a rise that returned the rates to those observed in 1996, when demands on the military were measurably lower, according to the study’s authors.
In the Navy, divorce increased sharply the first years after fiscal 2001, but have declined in the past two.
The study linked longer deployments and divorce only to Air Force members. It found that among married airmen, the more days they were deployed, the greater the risk their marriage would end after they returned.
But Raezer said it’s hard to get a “statistical handle” on the effect deployments have on marriages.
Anecdotal evidence suggests “a lot more marriages are in trouble, especially among the high deployers,” she said. NMFA staffers hear from spouses that their husbands or wives are “ ‘never home or they’re not home long enough [or] this repeated deployment to a war zone was not what we signed up for,’ ” Raezer said.
“I’m over-simplifying a little bit here,” she added, “but what you hear often is if the servicemember won’t leave the service, then the spouse feels the need to leave.”
Relationship expert John Van Epp, author of “How To Avoid Marrying a Jerk,” said the outcome of the Rand study surprised him “in light of what I was hearing other people and other couples say ... and my own common sense. It didn’t seem to tap into the reality of how deployments, especially multiple deployments, affect couples.”
The Rand study authors offered several explanations for why the data didn’t jibe with popular belief.
For one, they examined the direct effects of deployment only for couples who married after fiscal 2002.
“All of these couples knew that the deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq were under way, and they may have expected and prepared for them,” they noted in the study.
Stepping up efforts
Deployments don’t tend to break up happy marriages, relationship experts agree, but they can be the tipping point for one with problems.
“Deployment has a way of just accelerating the hairline cracks in marriages,” said Army Chaplain Maj. Leo Mora Jr., clinical director of the Chaplain Family Life Center at Yongsan Garrison, South Korea.
The military has a vested interested in patching those fissures.
“If your family is in turmoil before and while you’re gone, it’s hard to focus on anything and you’re miserable over there (downrange), so it has a huge mission impact,” said Air Force Chaplain (Maj.) Darrell Clark of Misawa Air Base.
Military officials say the service components are creating more programs to help ease the stress of deployments. Some are reaching Pacific bases.
At Yokosuka Naval Base, Japan, the Fleet and Family Support Center recently launched an Individual Augmentation Retreat Program to help servicemembers returning from combat zones and their families adjust to life at home. Presenters at a recent retreat touched on topics from post-traumatic stress disorder to couples communication, according to Paul Finch, a counseling and advocacy adviser at the base.
On Okinawa, resources for Marines include the Counseling and Advocacy Program, the Marine Corps Family Team Building program and the Personal Services Center to help reintegrate families.
At Misawa Air Base, 300 airmen who recently returned from a four-month deployment downrange were required to attend a redeployment briefing sponsored by the Airman and Family Readiness Center. They were told to limit alcohol use, communicate with their spouses and take them out on a date.
The Army points to its Strong Bonds marriage education program. For soldiers being deployed or redeployed, the program teaches them special coping tactics, said Maj. Anne Edgecomb, an Army spokeswoman at the Pentagon.
But is it enough?
Mora, the Yongsan chaplain, said the safety net the Army provides, from family advocacy to mental health, isn’t enough right now.
“Our system, across the board, is being overrun by the return of veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan,” he said.
Part of the problem is money, Raezer said, with many bases only funded at a level to do treatment.
“You need folks out there working with prevention issues ... [but] you don’t get the support until it’s urgent.”
Van Epp, who’s headed to Europe soon to train 55 instructors from 11 military installations, is impressed by the effort the military has shown so far.
But he, too, believes more needs to be done.
“If we look at it in perspective of where they’ve been and where they are now, they are to be congratulated,” he said. “If we look at in terms of the needs, then they’re not doing enough.”
Stars and Stripes reporters Cindy Fisher, Chris Fowler and Ashley Rowland contributed to this story.