Deployments destroying more families
Military officials admit a lack of resources while critics complain of persistent faults
FORT CAMPBELL, Ky. » Far from the combat zones, the strains and separations of no-end-in-sight wars are taking an ever-growing toll on military families despite the armed services' earnest efforts to help.
Divorce lawyers see it in the breakup of youthful marriages as long, multiple deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan fuel alienation and mistrust. Domestic-violence experts see it in the scuffles that often precede a soldier's departure or sour a briefly joyous homecoming.
Teresa Moss, a counselor at Fort Campbell's Lincoln Elementary School, hears it in the voices of deployed soldiers' children as they meet in groups to share accounts of nightmares, bed-wetting and heartache.
"They listen to each other. They hear that they aren't the only ones not able to sleep, having their teachers yell at them," Moss said.
Even for Army spouses with solid marriages, the repeated separations are an ordeal.
"Three deployments in, I still have days when I want to hide under the bed and cry," said Jessica Leonard, who is raising two small children and teaching a "family team building" class to other wives at Fort Campbell. Her husband, Capt. Lance Leonard, is in Iraq.
Those classes are among numerous initiatives to support war-strained families. Yet military officials acknowledge that the vast needs outweigh available resources, and critics complain of persistent shortcomings -- a dearth of updated data on domestic violence, short shrift for families of National Guard and Reserve members, inadequate support for spouses and children of wounded and traumatized soldiers.
If the burden sounds heavier than what families bore in the longest wars of the 20th century -- World War II and Vietnam -- that's because it is, at least in some ways. What makes today's wars distinctive is the deployment pattern -- two, three, sometimes four overseas stints of 12 or 15 months. In the past, that kind of schedule was virtually unheard of.
"It's hard to go away, it's hard to come back, and go away and come back again," said Dr. David Benedek, a leading Army psychiatrist. "That is happening on a larger scale than in our previous military endeavors. They're just getting their feet wet with some sort of sense of normalcy, and then they have to go again."
Almost in one breath, military officials praise the resiliency that enables most families to endure and acknowledge candidly that the wars expose them to unprecedented stresses and the risk of long-lasting scars.
"There's nothing that has prepared many of our families for the length of these deployments," said Rene Robichaux, social work programs manager for the U.S. Army Medical Command.
An array of studies by the Army and outside researchers say that marital strains, risk of child maltreatment and other problems harmful to families worsen as soldiers serve multiple combat tours.
For example, a Pentagon-funded study last year concluded that children in some Army families were markedly more vulnerable to abuse and neglect by their mothers when their fathers were deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In Iraq, the latest survey by Army mental health experts showed that more than 15 percent of married soldiers deployed there were planning a divorce, with the rates for soldiers at the late stages of deployment triple those of recent arrivals.
For the Army, especially, the challenges are staggering as it furnishes the bulk of combat forces. As of last year, more than 55 percent of its soldiers were married, a far higher rate than during the Vietnam war. The nearly 513,000 soldiers on active duty collectively had more than 493,000 children.
Jessica Leonard at Fort Campbell says family support programs there have improved since her husband's first combat tour, helping her feel more self-reliant. Yet she's convinced that domestic violence and divorce are rising at the base, which is home to the 101st Airborne Division.
"Infidelity is huge on both sides -- a wife is lonely, she looks for attention and finds it easier to cheat," she said. "It does make even the most sound marriages second-guess."
There have been several horrific incidents shattering families of soldiers returning home from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Among them: A sergeant from the Hawaii Army National Guard who served in Iraq, Tyrone Vesperas, has been jailed on a charge of killing his 14-year-old son. The boy was trying to save his pregnant mother from an attack by Vesperas with a military-issue combat knife. The couple was going through a divorce.
Overall, the Army says its domestic violence rates are no worse than for civilian families. However, critics say there is a lack of comprehensive, updated data that reflects the impact of war-zone deployments and tracks cases involving veterans, reservists and National Guard members.
The Miles Foundation, which provides domestic-violence assistance to military wives, says its caseload has more than quadrupled during the Iraq and Afghan conflicts.
"The tactics learned as part of military training are often used by those who commit domestic violence," said the foundation's executive director, Christine Hansen, citing increased proficiency with weapons and psychological tactics such as sleep deprivation.