Are my fellow military wives and I shocked and outraged by General Petraeus' adultery? Frankly, after 11 years of war, military families around bases and posts throughout the world are too tired for shock, too experienced for outrage over this unhappy episode. I've heard a range of reactions, from sad recognition, to compassion, to the knowing response that no one can look inside another person's marriage. This story does, almost universally, make us reflect on the strains our families have been through over the past 11 years, and the fact that in many ways, the strains are about to get worse.
It is wonderful that the war in Iraq is over, that the war in Afghanistan will wind down in 2014. Sing hallelujah, strew the eucalyptus. It has been a difficult time for many men, women, children, and marriages. That's not the whole story -- many marriages stand strong for the joint experience of having been called to do something difficult, and meeting the call. Many marriages took a heavy challenge, but fought back. I think of my friend who, in the airport after the welcome home "honeymoon" with her Special Forces husband, opened an email with pictures of him and another woman. She left her husband, but eventually they came back together, and with counseling confronted together the strain of repeated combat and his destructive choice to cope through affairs. In fact, despite extraordinary challenges, military couples are still no more likely to divorce than similar civilians. But statistics shouldn't mislead anyone to think that things are therefore fine.
It is very difficult for civilians to appreciate what the past decade-plus has been like for so many of our military families. Half of those responding to the Blue Star Families annual Military Family Lifestyle Survey have been separated from their spouse for more than two years. Half of those families have been separated for more than four years -- not only for combat and non-combat deployments, but for schools, trainings, and temporary assignments.
What happens during those years apart? Births, deaths, personal growth, trauma. As one friend of mine explained to me, "When my husband left for his first deployment, we were basically newlyweds. Three years later after back-to-back deployments and ‘temporary duty' assignments he came home to find me, this single mother of a special needs child who didn't recognize him."
It's not just the separation; it's also the reintegration after the stress of combat. Over a quarter of the military spouses in the BSF survey reported seeing symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress in their service member (with less than half seeking and receiving a diagnosis). That squares with the Veterans Affairs estimate that 11-20 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans experience PTSD. Almost a fifth in the survey said that reintegration with spouse and children after deployment was difficult or very difficult. Add the difficulty of reunion to the fact that the average military child moves 6-9 times.
Another friend of mine tells of her Marine husband's anger and how her son, dealing with moves and his father's rage, spiraled down in school. Her husband retired from the military, and the marriage fell apart. She loves her ex-husband, and still wonders about reconciling -- on the other hand, her son is doing much better. It's hard to know what the right thing is to do in these situations.