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Military Couples Fight to Preserve Home Front

Bridget Murphy, 24, takes her cell phone with her everywhere — while out jogging, even sleeping with it on her pillow — just in case her fiancé, Sgt. Neil Riley, calls from Iraq.

"I can't contact him," she said. "I have to wait for him to contact me and that is horribly frustrating. It's heart-wrenching when I'm out of range on my phone. You never know what's going to happen."

But Murphy knows she's one of the lucky ones.

In the three years after Sept. 11, the Army's divorce rate soared, nearly doubling from about 5,600 divorces in 2001 to 10,477 in fiscal 2004. Among officers, the divorce rate has climbed 78 percent, according to the Department of Defense.

These statistics reflect a general trend in American society, where 45-50 percent of all marriages end in divorce. But the upward trend in the Army in particular speaks to soldiers' unique set of problems, especially those presented by the current stepped-up deployment cycle.

Moreover, social issues like these affect recruitment, according to Chaplain Lt. Col. Thomas C. Waynick, director of the U.S. Army Family Life Chaplain Training Program (search) at Ft. Benning in Georgia.

"Recruitment is related to how the family deals with family life. If we lose families, we lose recruits," he said.

Indeed, in 2004, the Army saw its biggest recruitment slump in over 25 years, ending the year about 7,000 recruits short of its goal of 80,000, Army Secretary Francis Harvey told The Associated Press.

For that reason, at a time when many in Congress say we need more soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, finding ways to reconnect couples has become a top priority for the military as a matter of self-preservation.

Making It Work

Marriage can be challenging even in the best of times, so how can an Army couple keep it together through long separations and psychological minefields?

Modern communication systems can go a long way, said Murphy, who has gradually gotten used to the separation from her fiancé with the help of regular contact.

"We're very lucky in that he has the ability to call me frequently. I go a maximum of two or three days [without hearing from him]. Even then, I'll e-mail him," said Murphy.

The Internet especially can be a huge help, according to one resourceful couple who have been married five years and run a daily blog, philandbecky.blogspot.com.

The blog offers a he-said-she-said account of marriage during deployment, with Becky's account from the home front and Phil's account from Iraq.

"We have access to an unprecedented number of means to stay in touch," wrote Phil (who declined to give his last name), a 27-year-old Army officer in Iraq. "We can e-mail and chat via instant messenger almost daily ... Keeping our blog has been a fun way to keep connected."

Phil's base also has a satellite phone that soldiers can sign up to use for 30-minute time slots.

"I call Becky at least once a week for 30 minutes," said Phil. "If anything, this deployment has strengthened our marriage because I can't wait to see her again and the best part of my day is reading her e-mails."

Both Phil and Becky say the biggest challenge to their marriage is not being physically present for each other, whether to share news or to comfort one another.

"There have been a number of times when I have something exciting I want to share with Phil, or advice I'd like to ask him for, and it's not possible because I can't just pick up a phone and call him," said Becky.

But unlike many couples, Phil and Becky can check their blog for updates on what's happening.

"Hearing from Phil about the positive things that are happening in Iraq is a great encouragement to me," Becky said.

'Separation Is the Easy Part'

But if Phil and Becky make military marriage sound like a cakewalk, Stefanie Schappert, 35, whose husband, Sfc. Terry Schappert, 39, is a seasoned Green Beret (search) currently on a mission in Iraq, warns the separation is the easy part.

"It's not really being away that's the hard part," she said. "It's very romantic in a way, when you think you might be losing the person you love. That supercedes everything else in the relationship. When they come home, it's back to the old relationship and that's where the challenges begin."

Riley, writing from Iraq, added that the usual marital arguments about money and infidelity are magnified during deployment.

“In the phone center on the base, you can hear people arguing and nine times out of 10, it has to do with money,” he said.

“As far as cheating goes, it’s a problem on both ends," he continued. "Sometimes it is the service members and sometimes it’s the one left behind. Sometimes even just the suspicion of infidelity can break these marriages up. The stress of deployment will turn any problems that a couple had before and make them much worse.”

Among Army reservists, for whom there has been a dramatic rise in deployment since Sept. 11, marriage poses an even more unique set of challenges.

"It's different because they're not as connected," said Chaplain Mack Griffith, Chief of Project Management of the Chaplain Directorate at the Armed Reserve Command Headquarters. "Because reservists are pulled from where they live, the spouse doesn't have the support of the military installation that they're connected to."

In Stefanie Schappert's case, her husband voluntarily chose to re-enlist as a reservist because he saw more value in his work for the military than in his civilian job as an actor.

In the seven years Schappert has been with her husband, he's been deployed three times: Kuwait, Kosovo and now Iraq. Each time, she has been pretty much on her own. And each time their reunion poses new challenges.

"The biggest challenges to marriage, when someone is gone for a long period of time, is that as human beings by nature we grow," said Schappert. "A part of that is feeling alone and then getting used to it and then when the person gets back, you don't know how to open up."

And opening up is just what the doctor ordered, especially for soldiers processing the traumas of war. For soldiers whose deployment involves combat, as Terry Schappert's always does, the challenges can be magnified.

According to a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine (search), as many 17 percent of soldiers coming out of the theater of war battle some form of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (search).

"Divorce among those with PTSD is pretty high," said Chaplain Waynick, who added that a major symptom of PTSD is dissociation, whereby the sufferer tends to "cut off emotionally from those who are the very ones who can help them process what they've been through."

Often, Chaplain Waynick says a spouse will have been back for a year or so, and the couple will find that the marriage isn't what it used to be. As a case in point, Chaplain Waynick describes one soldier he counseled whose wife was on the verge of divorcing him because she said he just wasn't there for her anymore.

As it turned out, the soldier had been keeping a significant experience from his wife: while in combat, his best friend had died in his arms.

"He was exhibiting all the symptoms of PTSD," said Chaplain Waynick. "When you numb yourself to emotions, you shut out other people — your attachment figures, significant others ... and the greatest antidote to trauma is attachment figures."

Getting Support

Living on a base can be a huge help for the spouses of those on active duty.

"We've gotten great support from our family and friends from church and in the area," said Becky, who lives on a military base. "Just last week, I came home from work and a friend was mowing the lawn for me. There is a large military presence in this area, so I think people are very aware that there are many families who might need a helping hand while their spouse is away."

As in civilian marriages, good relations with extended family can also be a big help in keeping the relationship together.

"I talk to [Neil's] mom a lot, that really helps," said Murphy, who lives with her parents, which she says helps her deal with "that scared feeling."

The Army also offers an array of marital aid programs to enlisted members.

After four soldiers at Fort Bragg in North Carolina were accused of killing their wives in violent outbursts within a six-week period during the summer of 2002, the Army rolled out the Deployment Cycle Support Program (search), an effort to educate soldiers on how their absence and return may affect their family relationships and what resources are available to help them readjust. The program also aims to encourage counseling.

The Army also offers a two-day weekend retreat called Building Strong and Ready Families (search), which helps couples develop better communication skills.

According to Chaplain Griffith, the Army also uses a tool known as PREP (search) (Prevention and Relationship Enhancement Program) as a guide in crafting marital counseling programs. PREP is used worldwide to teach couples how to communicate and resolve differences.

As for the special issues faced by Reserve couples like the Schapperts, the Reserve and the National Guard (search) have teamed up to develop a family program called Strong Bonds (search).

"Some say it's the best thing the Army has ever done," said Chaplain Griffith. "There are other areas where it hasn't taken off to the same extent."

Whether it's offering e-mail, phone time, a marriage seminar or a personal counseling session, Griffith says the Army is doing what it can to help out on the home front.

"The Army recognizes the whole person of the soldier. We know we're putting a lot on her or him, and for them to be effective soldiers, they need to be effective husbands, or wives. If the Army impacts marriage, maybe negatively, then we'd like to do something to help."

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