Are my fellow military wives and I shocked and outraged by Gen. David Petraeus’ adultery? Frankly, after 11 years of war, military families around bases and posts throughout the world are too tired for shock, too experienced for outrage over this unhappy episode. I’ve heard a range of reactions, from sad recognition, to compassion, to the knowing response that no one can look inside another person’s marriage. This story does, almost universally, make us reflect on the strains our families have been through over the past 11 years, and the fact that in many ways, the strains are about to get worse. Yes, worse.
It is wonderful that the war in Iraq is over, that the war in Afghanistan will wind down in 2014. Sing hallelujah, strew the eucalyptus. It has been a difficult time for many men, women, children and marriages. That’s not the whole story – many marriages stand strong for the joint experience of having been called to do something difficult, and meeting the call. Many marriages took a heavy challenge, but fought back. I think of my friend who, in the airport after the welcome home “honeymoon” with her Special Forces husband, opened an email with pictures of him and another woman. She left her husband, but eventually they came back together, and with counseling confronted together the strain of repeated combat and his destructive choice to cope through affairs. In fact, despite extraordinary challenges, military couples are still no more likely to divorce than similar civilians. But statistics shouldn’t mislead anyone to think that things are therefore fine.
It is very difficult for civilians to appreciate what the past decade-plus has been like for so many of our military families. Half of those responding to the Blue Star Families annual Military Family Lifestyle Survey have been separated from their spouse for more than two years. Half of those families have been separated for more than four years – not only for combat and non-combat deployments, but for schools, trainings and temporary assignments.
What happens during those years apart? Births, deaths, personal growth, trauma. As one friend explained to me, “When my husband left for his first deployment, we were basically newlyweds. Three years later after back-to-back deployments and ‘temporary duty’ assignments, he came home to find me, this single mother of a special-needs child who didn’t recognize him.”
It’s not just the separation; it’s also the reintegration after the stress of combat. More than a quarter of the military spouses reported seeing symptoms of post-traumatic stress in their service member (with less than half seeking and receiving a diagnosis). That squares with the Veterans Affairs estimate that 11 percent to 20 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans experience PTSD. Almost a fifth in the survey said that reintegration with spouse and children after deployment was difficult or very difficult. Add the difficulty of reunion to the fact that the average military child moves six to nine times.
Another friend tells of her Marine husband’s anger and how her son, dealing with moves and his father’s rage, spiraled down in school. Her husband retired from the military, and the marriage fell apart. She loves her ex-husband, and still wonders about reconciling; on the other hand, her son is doing much better. It’s hard to know what the right thing is to do in these situations.
But, one might say, Iraq is over and Afghanistan is winding down. Problem solved, right?
Wrong, because for the active duty military and their families, war – or war-like readiness – is going to continue as a way of life. There’s no peace dividend for military families. It’s something the civilian society should be aware of, because as government resources dwindle, we’ll need support to help us continue to cope.
Cope with what? Set aside the very pertinent fact that we still have 68,000 troops in Afghanistan. The U.S. military is forward-deployed, away from family, throughout Africa, in the Balkans and Black Sea, around the Middle East, in South America, on ships in the Pacific, around the straights of Malaca, in Korea. We send and will continue to send thousands of service members to Japan on two-year orders away from their families. We will add new deployments to places like Australia.
To many military planners, the world is no less dangerous now than it has been; it is perhaps even more dangerous. The Army is planning to move to a faster, cheaper rotational force, increasing “responsiveness and mobility,” according to Army plans and policy. This means some Army families used to being together in garrison for two to three years in the United States will now live more like the Marine Corps, with their service member leaving them for six months or more at a time for “peacetime deployments” as part of the new way of doing business.
Here’s how Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta describes the post-Iraq-and-Afghanistan missions of this “smaller, leaner” force: they will counter terrorism and irregular warfare, deter and defeat aggression, project power despite external challenges, counter weapons of mass destruction, defend the homeland, provide a stabilizing presence throughout key areas of the globe, conduct stability and counterinsurgency operations, and conduct humanitarian, disaster relief and other operations.
Suffice it to say, our military will be busy. The families will continue to feel that they are at war, but they will not have the same level of public backing that they have been able to rely on. As much of a strain as the hot wars were, they had in their way become predictable. Most families had long notice before their loved ones left, and they left in large units with significant support, including family readiness officers. The new force will be smaller, the separations will be less predictable and there will be less support. Paychecks will be smaller since combat-zone tax-free pay and extra combat pay will go away; and the declining budget means fewer military-sponsored family programs.
Why should Americans care? Because families remain a key partner in the health and stability of our military. Our military understands that family strength is a component of readiness, because if military life is too hard on families, we can no longer retain our force. Moreover, when the troops are in distress, families are a key line of defense. Finally, the country should care because in the end the military and the families serve the nation, not the Pentagon. We’ve had unprecedented support in recent years during the wars. And we still need it. If the media and Washington gave a fraction of the attention to this issue as they have to Petraeus, we could perhaps mobilize a response to this coming challenge. And that could make a difference to our families, to our military, even to our national security.
Kathy Roth-Douquet is CEO of Blue Star Families, a national military family organization.