YORK — While U.S. casualties
steadily mount in Iraq, another toll
is rising rapidly on the home front:
The Army's divorce rate has soared
in the past three years, most notably
for officers, as longer and more frequent
war zone deployments place extra strain
"We've seen nothing like this
before," said Col. Glen Bloomstrom
(search), a chaplain who oversees
family-support programs. "It
indicates the amount of stress on
couples, on families, as the Army
conducts the global war on terrorism."
Between 2001 and 2004, divorces among
active-duty Army officers and enlisted
personnel nearly doubled, from 5,658
to 10,477, even though total troop
strength remained stable. In 2002,
the divorce rate among married officers
was 1.9 percent — 1,060 divorces out
of 54,542 marriages; by 2004, the
rate had tripled to 6 percent, with
3,325 divorces out of 55,550 marriages.
There's no comparable system for tracking
the national divorce rate, though
according to the Centers for Disease
Control (search), 43 percent of all
first marriages end in divorce within
With divorce rates that have risen
more sharply than other service branches,
the Army has broadened its efforts
to help — offering confidential counseling
hot lines, support groups for spouses,
weekend couples' retreats, even advice
to single soldiers on how to pick
partners wisely. Bloomstrom says he
wants all 2,400 of the Army's chaplains
to be available for marriage-support
Staff Sgt. Allen Owens, a 15-year
Army veteran, and his wife, Linda,
praised a recent marriage retreat
that they and 20 other couples from
Fort Campbell (search), Ky., participated
in with their chaplain at a hotel
in Nashville, Tenn.
Owens was part of a 101st Airborne
Division unit that advanced into Baghdad
in the early phases of the Iraq war,
and he expects at least one more stint
in Iraq. That would again leave his
wife alone with their four children.
The weekend retreat, he said, offered
a chance to "decompress and do
an in-depth study of your relationship
and your personalities."
"Even if there's nothing going
wrong," Linda Owens said, "it's
a great way to learn about your spouse."
While some of the Army's programs
aim to prepare couples for their first
deployment-related separation, others
try to help couples with the often-difficult
adjustments when a spouse returns
from combat-zone duty to a mate who
has been shouldering extra responsibilities
"Our hope is to change the culture,"
Bloomstrom said. "Initially there's
a stigma about any program to do with
relationships. We need to teach that
there's nothing wrong with preventive
maintenance for marriage."
Martha Rudd, an Army spokeswoman,
attributed the recent surge in divorces
to the stress and uncertainty caused
by a stepped-up deployment cycle.
"An awful lot of people are going
back to Iraq for a second tour — that
must be hard to take," she said.
"You can get through one tour,
but then you think, 'Please, no more.'"
Bloomstrom said the high divorce rate
among officers was no surprise because
they bear the brunt of implementing
major changes in Army operations,
often working 18 or more hours a day.
"Every aspect of the Army is
changing," he said. "We've
got some very loyal, dedicated military
professionals stepping up to the plate,
sometimes to the detriment of their
Sylvia Kidd, director of family programs
for the private Association of the
U.S. Army, urges military couples
to seek help when needed but fears
many spouses are too isolated.
"So many of these couples are
very young — they tend to get married
just before deployment, and then the
wife is here alone and doesn't know
what to do with herself," Kidd
said. "The people who need support
the most are the least likely to go
For those troops who do divorced,
military breakups can pose unique
legal and logistical challenges, especially
when one spouse is deployed overseas.
Mark Sullivan, a former Army lawyer
who now practices privately in Raleigh,
N.C., says soldiers in often-deployed
units may have trouble winning child
custody and — when posted abroad —
arranging visits from their children.
In one recent case, Sullivan has represented
a Tennessee father whose ex-wife is
now seeking custody of their daughter
because the man's National Guard unit
was sent overseas.
Kidd said the divorce problem could
get even worse, as long the campaigns
in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere
require frequent deployments.
"All kinds of couples have problems,
but they don't necessarily break up,"
Kidd said. "When you add the
additional stress of these separations,
it's the straw that breaks the camel's