As a nation we just finished our annual celebration of Independence Day. The grills worked their magic, we observed and lit some fireworks, and we attended our local parades. As you likely noticed at these parades it is becoming more obvious that we are a nation well into its second decade of war. Since September 11, 2001 we have relentlessly pursued those who seek to harm our country and keep the fight off our soil. As a result, over 2.5 million Americans have served in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The price to our nation through our service men and women has been significant. Over 6,800 have been killed, with over 52,000 wounded. Those wounded statistics reflect the obvious physical wounds, the ones you may see on veterans at the parade. It does not account for the estimated 320,000 veterans suffering from traumatic brain injury or 400,000 likely living through post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). These scars run deep and are ingrained in today’s generation as the well-known price our soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines have paid on our behalf.
The impact of lengthy wars for these veterans however goes beyond just them as individuals. The families of these veterans have often been victims of collateral damage. The Department of Defense has recently reported that the divorce rate for the services is at their highest levels since 1999 and steadily rising. For those married prior to 9/11, statistics show they were 28% more likely to get a divorce after a deployment within the first three years of their marriage. For couples married after 9/11, their risk was lower, but still higher than their civilian counterparts in society. As war continues, our veterans are often performing multiple deployments in war zones. The risk of divorce for their families increases with each lengthy deployment.
There are many reasons why wartime service and deployment place an increased strain on a family and a marriage. Time away from family is a normal part of military life. During war, though, the deployments extend much longer, between six months to often over one year! During this time, the spouse left behind must assume all the roles of running a household. When the service member returns, a difficult transition occurs where roles are transferred and assumed. During the role transition, the spouses must also relearn each other. People grow and change over a year, especially the veteran that returns from the hell of war. Not only are both spouses faced with the task of trying to sort out their roles, but they must also understand who the other person has become while aligning it to the love they felt when they left. The transition is particularly difficult for the children who are used to all decisions and roles routing through the one parent that stayed home. As the roles juggle, tensions rise, and both parents sort through their relationship adjustment issues, the kids can be caught in the middle.
Compounding the normal problem of relearning your relationships after long periods apart is the significant change that comes from the invisible scars of war. The war our veterans have been fighting has been brutal, with attacks imminent at any time during normal day-to-day operations. The horrors they saw, the friends they lost, and the guilt they feel for being home weigh heavily on all returning veterans. While all will suffer their own demons when returning to normal life, the statistics are clear regarding how many have been even more severely affected by war through post-traumatic stress disorder. The simple task of driving to the mall can become a high stress event once in traffic, where veterans can’t help but search for threats along the road or within the crowd. The protective barriers they put up to help their internal healing actually harm their ability to transition back into their normal relationships within their family and especially with their spouse. Take all these factors and cycle the families through multiple deployments and transitions and you end up with completely different individuals at the other end, working to find each other and their love.
The unspoken victims of extended war are the homes and families of our veterans. Many military families – well beyond normal rates in society – do not find each other after the deployments and instead fall apart and divorce. The children and spouses of our heroes are now the unintended victims of lengthy wars. The impacts of divorce on military families have common aspects. Financially, most military divorces place a serious strain on an already tight budget. The average mid-grade non-commissioned officer in the military – the majority of our war veterans – makes around $30,000 per year. It’s no wonder that many of our junior military families use Government subsistence to make ends meet: such as Women, Infant, and Children’s program (WIC). Divorce forces this limited budget to spread across two homes, through alimony and child support. Legal advice is nearly non-existent for these families, as typical fees are well beyond their budgets. After the divorce, the families must survive in two homes on even tighter budgets.
Another unique aspect of divorce for our veterans comes from the high likelihood they will head towards long-distance custody situations and parenting. As war ravages on, the service members’ duties in the fight do not go away. The orders keep coming, as well as the deployments. While laws are in effect that forbid legal actions – like custody decisions – being taken while one is deployed, the military orders that take them out of the same geographic area as their children do not stop. Once divorced, the ex-spouse cannot be forced to move. The stability they are able to provide, through their job and steady home when compared to a deployable military parent, most often grants them primary custody of the children. Now our veterans and their children are split and must continue their relationship from a distance. Their tight budgets make the basic distance visitations – like winter holiday and summer breaks – difficult to afford.
The trend for our nation to step back from the heavy war and deployment demand on our military is not easing. In the Middle East, ISIS presents a serious threat and our leadership will likely continue with heavy engagement in their region to keep the fight off US soil. Shifting to the Pacific, the Chinese territorial expansion and island creation threaten our influence in this critical trade region. Two powerful nations are clashing to either gain or maintain their influence, and history clearly shows how situations such as these generally move towards military deployments and possible engagements. The decision makers, and society as a whole, are the ones that will determine the fate of our military members. Both groups are now comprised of the lowest percentage of veterans in fifty years. In the early 1970’s, 73% of the members of Congress were veterans. Today less than 18% have served in the military. In World War II, 9% of the population was in the military, while today less than 2% are serving during our current war. As a result, our society is less sensitive to all aspects of the strain of war, including our leadership, who decides whether to send our military into these areas.
While many of the scars of war are visible to us, far more are not, including the rarely discussed scars on the military family. As we celebrated our Independence Day, we took the time to express our gratitude for the service of these great men and women. It is important that we also recognize the sacrifice made by their families. Many have had their families permanently affected by the lengthy strain of service; many marriages have ended in divorce and children have watched their families torn in half. As you consider how you can help the veterans, take the time to determine what ways you might be able to help these families. They too have paid a price for our freedom and safety.