VFW Magazine — February 2017
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Military Divorce
Heidi Lynn Russell

Looking back, Army National Guard Sgt. Bryan Spreitzer knew even before he left U.S. soil in 2013, that he and his wife were in trouble. A nine-month deployment to Afghanistan compounded those problems. And about a year after he returned home, they divorced.

“I had a misconception things would get better with time and separation,” he said. “I thought it would strengthen the relationship, and it made it weaker. It magnified and amplified our issues in the period leading up to [the deployment] and after.”

But Spreitzer and other veterans — as well as those who counsel military couples — are quick to say deployments are not the actual cause of marriage breakdowns. Instead, a current study of Air Force couples by Clark University in Worcester, Mass., has revealed a surprise finding.

When it comes to the causes of divorce, military couples aren’t so different from their civilian counterparts. Clark University researchers also discovered that by taking some proactive steps, the military might be able to help couples head off divorce altogether.

“We thought we’d hear about deployments being the problem and that adapting to physical or mental health injuries (that resulted from deployments) were also the causes,” said team lead James V. Cordova, Clark University psychology professor. “But that hasn’t been the top concern that they come up with.”

“What we found so far is that the main concerns couples bring are the same that civilians bring in: Their concerns are about communication, affection and time together. And in some ways, that suggests to me what people really focus on in relationships is the quality of the connection between the two of them.”

Anecdotally, the same trend seems to be present among those seeking counsel from the chaplain corps, said Lt. Col. Steve A. Foster, Deputy Command Chaplain of the Illinois Army National Guard. And these days, the military recognizes that people in healthier relationships are more mission-ready. So it’s in the nation’s best interest for warriors to treat marriage like it does any other weapon, he said.

“It is a fact that if we have an M16 and it’s broken, we don’t throw it away,” Foster said. “We switch out barrels. We get it back and use it. In marriage, if we have
difficulties, we need to reach out to a professional in the area to assist and refine our skill sets.”

THE ‘QUALITY OF CONNECTION’

Clark University researchers are in the second year of a three-year study of couples at four Air Force bases: Luke, Lackland, Andrews and Randolph. They’re testing out a pilot “Marriage Checkup” referral program, in which primary care physicians ask a battery of questions at a physical exam. When necessary, doctors make a referral for couples’ counseling in the same clinic. This takes away any concerns about stigmas on an airman’s career, a longtime problem that has prevented military members from seeking help on their own, Cordova said.

It goes without saying that the stresses that come with a military career feed into a marital relationship. But although they’re a factor, what will ultimately determine a couple’s success is their “quality of connection,” Cordova said.

“That’s the statement that has pain in it,” he said. “The couples bring it up: ‘I really feel this distress in the quality of our connection.’ And that’s as true for military couples as for civilian. We were surprised to find that.”

Therapists who volunteer their time in the Give an Hour counseling network (www.giveanhour.org) find the same dynamic, said Dr. Barbara Van Dahlen. She is a psychologist and president of the non-profit, which offers free mental health services to military families.

As Spreitzer experienced personally, deployments and other military stressors compound issues that impede communication and intimacy, Van Dahlen said.

“Finances is one — how money is spent or saved and who has control over it,” she said. “Raising the kids is another, because once someone is deployed and the other picks up, problems occur after the return.”

“A third area that is often a strain is trust, or lack thereof — outright infidelity or also the suspicion of infidelity, the paranoia of, ‘While I’m away, who is she messing with? What is she doing?’ Each member has to go the extra mile to do things that convey they are committed and will build a life with you.”

For Spreitzer, lack of communication built up once he was overseas because of the way his wife handled Skype calls.

“A lot of times, she would pass along the tablet for other people to talk to me, and that’s not what I wanted,” he said. “When I finally would get ahold of her, people were at the house, or they were busy. It was never ‘the right time’ to talk. There was a lot of strain.”

Lt. Col. Jeremy Irvin said his connection with his wife eroded due to a two-year assignment during Operation Noble Eagle with the Illinois Army National Guard. They divorced about one month before he deployed to Afghanistan in 2008.

“It takes a unique skill set to be separated constantly and survive it,” Irvin said. “Your family loses their reliance on you. You’re not needed as much. I didn’t have an identity. I came home to zero responsibility. It was hard to deal with.”

The stress of “fitting in” with the new family routine, habits and expectations after a deployment can wreak havoc on even the best of marriages. Take Valerie and Chris Jackson, who have been married for 18 years. Chris is a retired infantry Army lieutenant colonel, and she is a colonel in the Reserves, with communications and civil affairs specialties. Valerie took command of 4th Civil Affairs Group in Hialeah, Fla., in December.

“The stress of ‘always being in charge’ can be exhausting,” Valerie said.

The effects of deployments on their marriage played out “in many ways, especially after having children,” she said. “The lead up to the deployment is always terrible. While deployed, you don’t have time to think about too many things, but when you get back, you have to adjust to the household running without you. So there are many instances of give-and-take for both parties.”

WE'VE COME A LONG WAY, BABY

Veterans of bygone eras wouldn’t recognize today’s military culture, which offers more support for couples than ever before, said Foster and Van Dahlen.

“Back in the day, there was the old adage in the military of, ‘If we’d wanted to issue you a spouse, we would’ve given you one.’ But back then, it meant that people were committed in a way they aren’t today. And, the military wasn’t doing all it is doing today,” Van Dahlen said.

Since 1997, the Army has offered soldiers Strong Bonds, (www.strongbonds. org), a unit-based, chaplain-led program that helps families build stronger relationships. More than 30,000 couples have participated in it. In 2005, it was expanded to include single soldiers.

“We have some of our units mandating they go through it,” Foster said. “It’s a skill set training. We’ve found that if we assist them with handling relationships, they’re better in the workforce, and they keep their minds on the mission at hand. They’re also better at developing resiliency if things go awry.”

The Jacksons said that not many officers seek help through military channels, because they think programs are mostly geared to enlisted couples. And other couples are concerned about leaders knowing about their marital woes, which could lead to problems with career advancement. But Van Dahlen said they can seek an outside program, such as Give an Hour. The network includes nearly 7,000 psychologists, psychiatrists and other licensed mental health professionals and is completely confidential. The organization validates the providers and posts their expertise at www.giveanhour.org, where veterans can connect confidentially for free services.

And of course, Cordova hopes the Air Force — and other military branches — will fully implement the “Marriage Checkup” referral program, an idea that resonates with Irvin. He and his wife sought marital counseling privately. If the branches had a referral program during a routine physical checkup, it would help lessen the sting of asking for help, Irvin said.

“We did not want to open ourselves up to criticism,” Irvin said. “We kept it low profile. The Army is predicated on preventative maintenance. You do these things to stay physically fit like resiliency training and global assessments. But there is not one thing in place in that pantheon to give you counseling on divorce. They make sure you have a will, but we have enough data to see that more than half of marriages end in failure. Why not talk to kids about divorce counseling?”

Service members also should fall back on the one resource they always have — their battle buddies. Both of the Jacksons have relied on confidants in their offices, as well as fellow spouses.

“We would go out for girls’ night and try to have lunch while the kids were in school and help each other as much as possible when someone’s husband was gone,” Valerie Jackson said. “The guys seemed uncomfortable with this when they returned, but we kept doing it.”

Spreitzer said veterans have a wide network of support that most people in the civilian world will never understand. They should avail themselves of it.

“The bonds you make in the military are bonds that don’t go away,” he said. “These are friends for the rest of your life. You’ve shared something that only three percent of the population has done. You have to rely on those resources. They’re your brothers and sisters in arms and are there to help you when you need help. So use your friends you’ve made in the military. Use your family.”
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