Military Marriages Off the Rocks

Military marriages are weathering five years of stressful war deployments, as judged by the Pentagon’s statistics on divorce.

When two simultaneous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan required a flood of repeated overseas duty for the Army, Air Force, Marine Corps and Navy, the active duty divorce rate stood at about 3.5 percent. Today, five years later, the figure is 3.4 percent.

While divorces in the Army and Marines, who provide the bulk of troops for Iraq and Afghanistan, ticked up slightly, the steady overall rate shows that military husbands and wives are coping with the war on terror. In fact, the divorce percentage for National Guard and Reserves, who have deployed at a rapid pace, is even lower, at 2.7 percent. It was 2.6 percent in 2004.

The consistent divorce trend is attributed to the dedication and quality of today’s all-volunteer force. Men and women are joining knowing they will likely spend months away from home.

“The military gets volunteers from Tennessee, not Cambridge, Mass.,” said Robert Knight, director of the Culture and Media Institute at the Media Research Center. “It’s probably largely due to the makeup of the armed forces of more tradition-minded Americans. The blue states send their share, too, but it’s their traditionalists who go.”

The military branches help, too, with counseling events. “There has been an increasing emphasis on these kinds of programs as the stress of repeat deployments has become evident,” said Lt. Col. Les Melnyk, a Pentagon spokesman.

The Army, for example, operates “Strong Bonds” a series of chaplain-led retreats where soldiers learn the best ways to communicate with a spouse and handle a crisis. It began in 2001 in a single combat brigade.

It just happened to be packaged well enough at the brigade level that it got a lot of publicity all the way up to the Pentagon level and received money in 2001 for a pilot program,” Lt. Col. Carleton Birch, of the office of Army chief of chaplains, told Human Events. “Since then it’s expanded every year to the point now we believe there are going to be about 2,600 Strong Bonds events this year for about 160,000 service members and their families.”

Events are ordered up by commanders and are often scheduled right before, or after, an overseas deployment.

“Couples learn listening skills, efficacy skills, taking ownership of their feelings, how to talk in a non-destructive way,” said Birch, a protestant chaplain. “I don’t know why Strong Bonds has been so successful. I think it’s meeting a need that’s out there.”

Birch said the National Institute of Health has begun of five-year study of Strong Bonds and will issue an initial report soon. “I think it will be pretty positive,” he said. “Commanders are saying by doing these Strong Bonds programs that relationship training is just as important a part of training our force and keeping our force together to prepare for the missions we need to do as the other training we are doing.”

Finances, as well as time away from home, can put pressure on a marriage. The Pentagon told Human Events that in the past seven years basic military pay has increased 37 percent, compared with 27 percent in private sector.

Today, a junior enlisted person with a high school diploma earns about $43,000 a figure that does not include free medical care, retirement, bonuses and special pay.

“Targeted pay raises have now fully closed the pay gap between military and those of the private sector holding equal education and work experience,” the Pentagon said.

The Pentagon is now drawing down troops from Iraq. Some brigades are shifting assignments to Afghanistan, where the Obama administration is adding about 24,000 forces. But overall, the Army should be able to extend what is called “dwell time” back home before soldiers gear up for another war deployment. Marines typically serve seven months in the war theater and an equal about of time at home. Soldiers now get only 12 months at home after 12 to 14 months in Iraq or Afghanistan. The Army’s goal is 24 months dwell time by 2011.

The Pentagon calculates its divorce rate by tracking the number of divorces among married personnel each year. Of the 754,255 married active duty personnel in 2008, 25,750 had divorced by fiscal year’s end on Sept. 30.

Civilian rates are derived by various agencies and research firms in different ways. For example, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention reports a 3.6 percent divorce rate per 1,000 population.

“If trying to compare these rates to the civilian world, remember that the military population skews young, and that most marriages that end in divorce do so early on in the marriage,” Melnyk said.

He said the average age of the active force in 2008 was 28, compared with 32 years in the Guard and reserves.

“That age difference in and of itself must account for at least part of difference between active component and reserve component divorce rates,” he told Human Events.