The Latest Casualty of War: Army Divorces on the Rise
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The Latest Casualty of War: Army Divorces on the Rise

The unique stresses of the Iraq conflict threaten many married couples involved in the war. Can the Army save its soldiers from heartbreak?

The "Ideal Couple" -- Divided

Ryan Hofmann was counting the days until his wife of three years returned home for a two-week leave to Douglassville, Pennsylvania. A mechanic in the U.S. Army Reserve, she had been stationed for 10 months at the Anaconda supply base north of Baghdad, a place so dangerous soldiers had nicknamed it "Mortaritaville" because of the frequent bombardments. Ryan, a 30-year-old business analyst, had worried so much for his 28-year-old wife's safety that he sometimes wept during their twice-monthly phone calls. The warm, fun-loving wife he remembered now seemed cool and unemotional -- something he attributed to her being in a war environment and mind-set.

According to Ryan, Patti [EDITOR'S NOTE: Her real name has not been used at her request] was scheduled to visit in early December 2004. On November 28, she called and told Ryan, who was on a hunting trip with her two brothers, that she would be home the next day. She urged him not to cut his vacation short and instead meet her the following day at her mother's home in Bensalem, an hour from Douglassville, where she would spend the night. On the evening of November 30 Ryan bought a dozen red roses and placed them on his mother-in-law's front porch. Then he called Patti on his cell phone to tell her he was outside. When she came to the door, her embrace, Ryan felt, was lukewarm. And over the next week, she was not affectionate to him, stayed up and watched TV after Ryan went to bed, and bolted off eagerly, alone, to socialize with friends.

Hurt and mystified, Ryan told himself Patti's behavior was merely awkwardness after a long separation. Up to this point, he felt, their marriage had been ideal -- they had enjoyed going to the mountains, hanging out with their families, and taking an occasional cruise. "It's not like there were any tensions," he says. When Patti and Ryan were dating in 1998, she had joined the Army Reserve as a way to pay for college. Ryan recalls that whenever he worried that she might be called to dangerous duty, she would say, "It's just the reserves. What's going to happen?"

Now, 10 days after her homecoming, in the parking lot of a home supply store, Patti tearfully confessed that she'd fallen in love with another man. "I didn't want to hurt you," Ryan recalls her saying, explaining why she hadn't spoken up sooner. Her new love, Gary [EDITOR'S NOTE: His real name has not been used at his request], was another mechanic in Patti's unit; Ryan believes the relationship began in early December 2003, halfway through her four-month training at Fort Eustis, Virginia. It was a double betrayal for Ryan, whom Patti had introduced to Gary when Ryan drove her back after Christmas break that year. Gary, a 39-year-old divorced father of two, had promised Ryan he'd protect Patti, and a grateful Ryan had sent care packages to Gary -- including photos and videos of Gary's sons, whom Ryan visited at their home in Wilmington, Delaware -- whenever he sent parcels of shampoo, snacks, and books to Patti. According to Ryan, Gary had even treated Ryan to dinner when he was home on leave in August. "'She loves you, man. That's all she talks about,'" Ryan recalls Gary saying.

Too Many Doors to Temptation

Ryan was shocked and deeply wounded by Patti's confession, but he immediately responded that he forgave her. He pleaded with her to stay and work on their marriage. But, he says, she told Ryan that she no longer wanted to be with him and chose Gary instead. Three days later Patti reached across the table at a restaurant and squeezed his hand, Ryan recalls. She told Ryan she'd decided not to leave; that night, she told him, she e-mailed the news to Gary.

The next two days were a whirlwind of errands as Patti prepared for her return to Iraq. Shaken but relieved, Ryan bade her goodbye on December 15. A week later, he says, Patti phoned from the front, saying she wanted a divorce after all. Stunned, Ryan angrily ripped down the "Support Our Troops" banners he had hung outside their four-bedroom gabled house. The next time Ryan saw Patti was in February, at a lawyer's office in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, after her deployment ended; Gary, also just demobilized, was by her side.

Last May Ryan quit his job, moved in with his parents in Lancaster, and began taking college classes geared toward a career in radiology. Meanwhile the empty house he once shared with Patti sat on the market for some months while his parents and grandmother footed the bills. "Because of what Patti did, I wanted to protect him in any way I could," says his mother, Lydia.

But Ryan cannot contain his bitterness, and he blames Patti's tour in Iraq for sundering his marriage. "You're putting these guys and girls in the same camp only a few steps apart. They're scared. They're insecure. It opens up too many doors to temptation," he says. "If your spouse goes to war, you'd better hope your marriage is committed enough to last. I thought we were solid as a couple in a Norman Rockwell painting -- but I was wrong."

The Unique Strains on Couples

Between 2001 and 2005, the divorce rate among active enlisted U.S. Army soldiers increased from 2.3 percent to 3.6 percent. (These figures do not take into account those in the Reserve, such as Patti and Gary.) While this rate is still far lower than for the civilian population, it has not escaped the military's notice. "The jump in divorce numbers is deeply concerning," acknowledges Lieutenant Colonel Peter Frederich, a Pentagon-based chaplain who oversees the Army's family ministry and pastoral care.

Experts have been speculating on the reasons for the increase. For starters, there has been a cultural shift. While the Army has no comparable data for past conflicts, Americans during World War II, for instance, tended to be united by a sense of common cause that may have helped keep marriages intact. That national unity has been absent in more recent conflicts. While the Iraq War has not spawned massive take-it-to-the-streets protests, as the Vietnam War did, public support has fallen to 48 percent from a one-time high of 69 percent, and 58 percent of Americans want a timetable for military withdrawal. And despite the Vietnam War's unpopularity, there was less of a marital crisis in the military during that era, say experts, because U.S. troops were younger (owing to the draft) and more likely to be single than those in Iraq (currently, 48 percent of active-duty enlisted members and 66 percent of officers are married).

Today's military personnel -- men and women alike -- are facing grave danger and making significant personal sacrifices. Add to this stress the fact that the prolonged conflict in Iraq has led to longer and unprecedented repeat deployments. While soldiers generally served a maximum of six months during the 1990s Balkan war, tours in Iraq have lasted for as long as 15 months, with some soldiers deployed for as many as three tours. "As soon as they get home, they have to start getting ready to go again, so there's a cumulative effect that can become very wearing," says Shelley MacDermid, PhD, codirector of the Military Family Research Institute at Purdue University, in West Lafayette, Indiana. "I've heard some people say, 'Well, you know, it's almost too hard to come home and try to get fully integrated into the family because I could be leaving again tomorrow.' To have people intentionally withholding themselves from each other is not a recipe for high-quality parenting, marriage, or family life."

What's more, many of those serving in Iraq volunteered in peacetime, so they -- and their spouses -- may be unprepared for the massive strain of a long-distance marriage. "Many people have enlisted because they're attracted by future college benefits, the signing bonus, the health insurance, and the salary," says Walter Schumm, PhD, professor of family studies at Kansas State University, in Manhattan, and a retired Army Reserve colonel.

The Groundwork for Infidelity

Even when soldiers are reunited with their families, they may bring the effects of war home with them. A post-deployment study completed in July 2005 showed incidents of anger and aggression rose from 11 percent to 22 percent. Military couples need to be proactive in keeping their marriages strong, notes Chaplain Colonel Glen Bloomstrom, director of U.S. Army ministry initiatives, "before the military police are called because of shouting, pushing or shoving, or because of an actual incident of domestic violence."

Another unique characteristic of the Iraq conflict is the unprecedented number of women soldiers. While largely restricted to such noncombat roles as nurse and mechanic (with the exception of being allowed to fly attack helicopters), women now account for one out of 10 of the 140,000 troops in Iraq. This means that men and women now work together in close quarters. The bonds forged in a guerilla-war setting can be intense: With no clearly defined front lines, soldiers are besieged by random attacks. These include servicewomen in support positions, who often find themselves fighting enemy ambushes side by side with male infantry.

Whether troops are coping with boredom in the barracks or dealing with life-and-death situations, seeking companionship and comfort from comrades can inadvertently lay the groundwork for infidelity, says Janet Fritts, 30, a Raleigh, North Carolina, divorce attorney married to an Air Force National Guard member. Fritts has seen her military caseload increase by some 20 percent since 2001. "The physical relationship rises out of friendship with someone who understands what you're going through under fire, as well as the emotional and physical distance from your spouse," she says. "Most affairs leading to divorce happen at work. War is just another, more dramatic, work scenario."

And the marriages of many soldiers may be more fragile to begin with. Roughly one of every two couples in this country divorce; among the most common reasons are low income, unpredictable and chaotic work lives, and long absences by a spouse. These conditions are even more prevalent in the military than in civilian life, points out historian and sociologist Stephanie Coontz, director of research and public education at the Chicago-based Council on Contemporary Families and author of Marriage, a History: From Obedience to Intimacy or How Love Conquered Marriage. Coontz also notes that some 40 percent of military recruits come from the South, where divorce rates in general are higher (6.6 in 1,000 in Arkansas, for example, compared with, say, 2.4 in 1,000 in Massachusetts). Young age at marriage is another predictor of divorce, and 50 percent of all married GIs are between 18 and 24, compared with only 25 percent of married civilians. "When you add all that to the stress of dangerous jobs," says Coontz, "where one is expected to be ready for an instantaneous violent response, it multiplies the difficulty of working through what might otherwise be manageable marital problems."

How the Military Is Mending Marriages

The Army is going to new lengths to provide marital support for its troops. In 2004, at a cost of $2 million, it launched Strong Bonds, a program that combines counseling services, workshops, and retreats led by the Army's team of 2,700 chaplains. (An additional $1.5 million was recently allocated to the program). Helping military couples reconnect is the goal of Strong Bonds, which uses techniques pioneered by University of Denver psychology professors Howard J. Markman and Scott M. Stanley during 20 years of marital research.

Through another program, the Military OneSource outreach, soldiers and their families can call a 24-hour hotline for confidential counseling on issues ranging from grief management to infidelity; in the United States and Puerto Rico they can obtain referrals from OneSource for six free sessions with a licensed counselor. A Web site (www.militaryonesource.com) also offers advice on a variety of combat-related issues, including depression and suicide. According to accumulated anecdotal experience through the Army Suicide Prevention Policy Program, "the number one cause for suicide among soldiers is the loss of a significant relationship," says Army spokeswoman Martha Rudd.

The Army also announced last November that it is expanding its Deployment Cycle Support Program by extending physical and mental health screenings to soldiers for months after their return instead of solely during the immediate pre- and post-deployment period. "I've never seen an era in which the Army has focused so much on trying to help people," Rudd says.

Strong Bonds includes one- and two-night retreats at hotels, where chaplains lead anywhere from 20 to 40 participants (attendance is voluntary) through exercises aimed at promoting intimacy and preventing emotional distance during deployment. Some 23,000 couples from the Army, Army Reserve, and the National Guard attended in 2005, up from 3,000 couples in 2003.

Some of the exercises are similar to those used in regular couples therapy: Typically, one spouse speaks while the other listens. "You're not there to rebut the other person's opinions," says Lieutenant Colonel Grant Speece, an Army chaplain based in Camp Ripley, Minnesota. "Once you understand where the other person is coming from, only then can you begin to solve problems."

Coming Home: A New Challenge

Much of the focus is on the inevitable tensions that arise during long-awaited leaves and after deployment. "For many soldiers overseas, there's nothing they dream about more than being back together with their spouse and family," says Frederich. "But coming back is often harder than it seems it should be. Spouses gain not only independence, but a sense of entitlement. They may want to do things their way and their negotiating can lead to a struggle."

That's precisely what John Loureiro, 29, a National Guard staff sergeant, faced when he returned to Roselle Park, New Jersey, in January 2005, after spending a year in Iraq as a nuclear biological and chemical operations specialist. When he spent a few days' leave with his wife, Sarah, 26, midway through his deployment, everything was fine. But by the time he came home for good, Loureiro had witnessed two soldiers injured in a mortar attack. He grew wary of leaving the house and suffered from gruesome nightmares. Once, when some neighboring kids set off firecrackers, he panicked and took cover against the side of a building. Loureiro snapped repeatedly at Sarah over housekeeping chores, something he had never done before. "I felt like I didn't fit in," he says. "And I felt Sarah just couldn't relate to the experiences I'd gone through. Plus, she had grown to the point where I wasn't head of the house anymore."

Leery of counseling, Loureiro balked when Sarah tried to get him to attend a National Guard Marriage Enrichment Weekend in nearby Edison. But after several months of tension, he finally relented. The retreat helped the couple get their communications skills -- and mutual respect -- back on track. "I found it hard, after being just 'me, me, me,' to get used to being 'us' all over again," acknowledges Sarah.

"I've known many fellow soldiers who struggled with their marriages and ultimately divorced," Loureiro says. "I was lucky."

In an effort to prevent estrangement before it occurs, the Army has also instituted a new system of Web cams, computers, and cell phones to help couples stay in touch. But high-tech communication has its downside: Spouses and families can become distressed when a soldier recounts the details of the latest ambush, and an infantryman who has watched comrades die doesn't want to hear about broken plumbing back home. "We're trying to train couples in communication etiquette," says Frederich. "When you have only 10 minutes, you've got to use them for the right things."

Baptist minister Al Lowe, a retired Army chaplain who spent 2004 at the 13th Corps Support Command Headquarters at Logistic Support Area, in Anaconda, a base in Balad, Iraq, dispensed not only spiritual but instant-messaging advice to the troops, urging them to think twice when e-mailing home, since an angry or ill-chosen word is tough to retract. "Be thoughtful," he tells soldiers in Iraq as well as their spouses back home following redeployment. "But at the same time, be honest and forthright. Focus on being supportive, affectionate, and loving."

But even all these efforts can't save every marriage. Gary and Patti went on to get married, and she was due to give birth earlier this year. Ryan still feels that Patti never sufficiently explained what went wrong in their relationship.

For her part, Patti says she does not want to engage in a "he said, she said" debate in print about her breakup from Ryan. But she does say, "I have a very different view from his." Her ex-husband, she says, "thinks it's Iraq that took his wife away, and that was not the case. Our marriage was over six months after it began because of the way he acted. We talked about issues in our marriage and he didn't want to know." Her relationship with Gary, she says, is "beautiful." Gary concurs, saying Patti "is the best thing that ever happened to me."

The Army Reserve can call Patti and Gary to serve again at any time.

Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal magazine, April 2006.

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