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BAUMHOLDER, Germany — Since early June, a West Point professor has been making the rounds at posts throughout Germany asking Army spouses to open up about the military life.

Instead of surveys, Morten Ender is sitting down for lengthy chats at coffee shops, family readiness group gatherings and family homes.

Ender, a sociologist who specializes in family studies, said his goal is to detail how families deal with repeated deployments and whether families regard the military lifestyle as a good one for raising a family.

"We need to see what the new hot-button issues are," said Ender, who received funding from MWR for the study. "It’s a new Army, and we have a lot of people getting out."

"The American Military in Germany" will be published next year as a report, and will include recommendations on how to improve life in the Army. Ender said the work could be developed into a book.

So far, he has completed nearly 100 interviews with spouses. Each interview is about an hour long, and though it’s too early to draw definitive conclusions, Ender said some tentative trends are emerging.

An obvious issue is the frustration with repeated deployments of a year or longer. Fifteen-month deployments — which have since been scaled back to 12-month-tours — were viewed as "ridiculous."

Meanwhile, spouses in the midst of deployments are having a difficult time imagining how to cope with another one in the future, he said.

Most of Ender’s research has centered on spouses married to soldiers between the ranks of private and specialist and officers in the ranks of lieutenant and captain. While the emphasis is on people in the military less than 10 years, some longer-serving families also are part of the project.

Ender said he was surprised to hear from some who are considering getting out even though they’ve got 10 years in and are closing in on retirement benefits. In some cases, families are pondering career changes that involve less money and prestige, he said.

The ultimate question is: Is the Army a good place to raise a child?

The answer seems to be, "Yes and no," Ender said during a visit to Baumholder. "Right now, people are weighing their options (about whether to re-enlist or not)."

It’s not just the soldier who enlists, it’s the spouse, Ender said.

But aside from the long and repeated deployments, spouses see a lot of positives in Army life. They enjoy the diversity that makes up the ranks of families, Ender said. At Army communities around Germany, people from all racial, education, and economic backgrounds are crammed together on posts. Though bases these days are more like fortresses than typical family subdivisions, spouses don’t seem to feel prison-pent.

"I see these posts as compounds now. But on the flip side, it’s forced this sense of community," he said. "They like the security. With your spouse deployed, they’re feeling a little less secure. It’s safe to let the kids out and they like that."

Regarding comparisons from base to base, there are no great differences. It’s no surprise that spouses at smaller posts would like more of the amenities available at the larger bases. At the same time, smaller posts help foster the sense of community that Army families appear to enjoy.

"The question then is do we lose that sense of community (as bases close and consolidate)?" he asked.

Another tentative finding is that male spouses appear to have an easier time dealing with having a spouse deployed than their female counterparts. Part of the reason is male spouses tend to be older. They often also have a military background, Ender said.

"The males are doing fine," he said. "You don’t see them at the FRG meetings because they don’t need to be there."

Specific bases and units won’t be named in the study, and spouses who participate will remain anonymous, Ender said.

Now at the end of his trip, Ender will sort through the hours of recorded interviews. The report on the "Army Families in Germany" should be ready in spring 2009, he said.

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John covers U.S. military activities across Europe and Africa. Based in Stuttgart, Germany, he previously worked for newspapers in New Jersey, North Carolina and Maryland. He is a graduate of the University of Delaware.
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