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