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Marriage and family -- a hidden casualty of war

As we celebrated Memorial Day last weekend and remembered those who made the ultimate sacrifice to protect our freedom, many Americans spent the day with their families and friends, perhaps at a backyard barbecue or by a lake or the seashore. For others, the day was one of sadness as people across the country visited cemeteries and honored loved ones laid to rest. But there are those in our military who were, and are, grieving from a different kind of loss, a hidden casualty of war: military marriages. 

I saw a lot of family heartache during my 34 years of service in the United States Marine Corps, but the last 10 years have proven to be the most difficult on military marriages and families.

Statistics from the Department of Defense report that since the start of operations in Afghanistan in 2001, the military divorce rate has continued to rise. Last year alone, the marriages of some 30,000 military personnel ended in divorce (USA Today, December 2011).

This has been the longest war in America’s history. We have been hugely successful at preparing our forces for a dynamic battlefield, protecting the individual warrior from an array of complex threats, and providing for the spouse and family left behind. 

However, the more subtle challenge that cries for attention is the ever-mounting pressure on the marriages of our military personnel. Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injury (TBI) are not new to the battlefield, but multiple lengthy deployments are increasing their impact. 

According to a Rand Corp study, an estimated 300,000 post-9/11 veterans suffer from PTSD or major depression, and some 320,000 may have experienced traumatic brain injuries (Chicago Tribune, May 2012). These are the same troops who are attempting to re-acclimate to everyday life as husband or wife, mom or dad and these “hidden” wounds are tougher to identify and harder to admit. For many, the pressure has simply proven too great.

The outpouring of love and support during this war, from the American people and her communities, has been nothing less than phenomenal. I've been encouraged and touched to see service men and women cheered in airports as they have returned and celebrated at “welcome home” parties. 

Among the celebrations, there are hundreds of wonderful programs to help meet the needs of returning wounded warriors, but most are designed for those with visible wounds. 

Some communities sponsor weekend military appreciation galas for couples and families or host annual outreaches that take military couples on a retreat or vacation to help them “getaway” and decompress. 

Almost every college and professional sports team now sponsors a military appreciation game, while amusement parks are offering free or discounted tickets for military families. While each of these outreaches requires significant time and resources designed to make the service member and family feel appreciated and honored, they are only part of the answer. 

To help these returning heroes come home and re-enter family life successfully, it will take more than just cheers and appreciation. Wounded warriors need counseling to help identify and face their inner wounds and marriage enrichment programs to help them begin the reconnection and healing process with their spouses and children.  

One such organization focusing on marriage enrichment and reconnection of wounded warriors with his or her spouse is Samaritan's Purse through its Operation Heal Our Patriots project. The project is run by Brigadier General Jim Walker (USMC, Retired) and Franklin Graham. 

They have developed a unique week long, all-expense paid marriage program for military personnel and their spouses to attend on a lake setting in Alaska. I know there are many other programs also reaching out to this vulnerable community, but we need greater awareness and more support from the entire civilian population.

For years, the Department of Defense has been investing in the care and welfare of our warriors and their families. What we need, now, is a nation-wide community and corporate effort that sharply focuses on healing military spousal and family relationships. 

Having survived the perils of war, we must not let these heroes fall victim to the stresses of war, hidden wounds and our current economic challenges. They have protected us…now is the time for a call to arms to stand with them, and take care of them, their families, and their marriages.

Major General Mastin M. Robeson is retired from the U.S. Marine Corps.