Sex & Relationships

Broken Military Marriages: Another Casualty of War

If politicians want to protect marriage, they should work to support veterans and military families.

More than 13,000 military marriages ended last year, and mine came dangerously close to becoming one of them, but it wasn’t because of some gays getting hitched. Military marriages are at increasingly high risk of failure, and combat is the cause.

Most of the boots on the ground in Iraq are worn by Marines, active duty Army, or Army National Guard. They have served the most and longest deployments, seen the most combat, and suffered the most injuries, both physical and psychological. In 2008, the active-duty Army and Marines also had a higher percentage of failed marriages than the Navy or Air Force, whose rates held steady or decreased slightly.

Divorce rates for women in the Army or Marines were nearly three times that of their male counterparts, which speaks volumes about the effect of war on women, as well as the gender roles, societal expectations, and resiliency of their husbands. The fact that the Veterans Administration has just a handful of gender-specific treatment programs for women, and there’s been scant attention, research, and support for women veterans speaks for itself.

A study published in Armed Forces & Society revealed that male combat veterans were 62 percent more likely than civilian males to have at least one failed marriage. In 2006, Kansas State University professor Walter Schumm surveyed 337 soldiers at Fort Riley who had recently returned from Iraq. 6.1 percent said they would probably divorce, and 12.2 percent indicated that they would be divorcing. By comparison, two to four percent of civilian marriages end in divorce each year.

Due to the unprecedented deployments of citizen soldiers and the unique challenges faced by the families they leave behind, divorce rates among Guard and Reservists may be even higher than active duty. The military doesn’t monitor the divorce rates of citizen soldiers, who are more likely than active duty troops to be married, and nearly twice as likely to have combat-related stress. According to SOFAR (Strategic Outreach to Families of All Reservists), "20 percent of returned married troops are planning a divorce, [and] problems in relationships in families are four times higher after … deployment."

When "weekend warriors" are mobilized and deployed for a year or more (a Minnesota Guard unit served 22 months, the longest of the war) their families face the same strains as active duty families, without even the minimal formal support, informal peer networks, and child care services available on base.

Scattered across states, Guard spouses struggle with social isolation, and 40 percent of military spouses said that their mental health worsened during deployment. Some Guard families grapple with a reduced household income as the result of a military wage that is lower than the soldier’s civilian pay, or because the remaining spouse has to quit work to take care of the children. Financial stressors are challenging for any family; they are especially so for military families, whose emotional reserves are depleted from paying the compound interest on multiple deployments.

The August wedding of Ellen DeGeneres and Portia di Rossi won’t strain heterosexual marriages or raise the risk of divorce. The August departure of thousands of National Guard soldiers to train for a second tour in Iraq, nearly two years before they were eligible for redeployment, according to a Pentagon policy, most certainly will.

The Department of Defense doesn’t track the marriages that end after separation from service, but I know, or know of, at least 100 Iraq War veterans who have gotten divorced. More than half of them filed after they were discharged or retired. These broken bonds might not "count" statistically, but they counted to the men and women and children whose hopes and dreams -- of love, stability, and a two-parent home -- began to die in Iraq.

Military marriages are casualties of war, not gay matrimony, and they won’t be preserved by barring the doors of the Church or the State to same-sex couples. If Americans want to protect marriage, they should be working to support veterans and military families, and end the war in Iraq.

Stacy Bannerman is the author of "When the War Came Home: The Inside Story of Reservists and the Families They Leave Behind", and the creator and director of Sanctuary Weekends for Women Veterans and Wives of Combat Veterans. Her husband is serving his second deployment in Iraq with the Army National Guard 81st Brigade.