WASHINGTON -- Recognizing the stresses military life and multiple deployments put on families, the services are stepping up their efforts to help their members strengthen their family relationships and avoid the divorce courts.
A full range of outreach programs - from support groups for spouses of deployed troops to weekend retreats for military couples - aims to help military families endure the hardships that military life often imposes.
Specific service-by-service statistics about divorce rates within the military weren't available, but the rates for the Army give a snapshot of what are believed to be a militarywide trend.
Army officials reported 10,477 divorces among the active-duty force in fiscal 2004, a number that's climbed steadily over the past five years. In fiscal 2003, the Army reported fewer than 7,500 divorces; in 2002, just over 7,000, and in 2001, about 5,600.
During the past two years, the divorce rate has been higher among Army officers than their enlisted counterparts, reversing the previous trend, officials said. In fiscal 2003, the Army reported almost 1,900 divorces among its 56,000 married officers. The following year, that number jumped to more than 3,300 - an increase of almost 1,500.
These statistics reflect a general trend in American society, Army Chaplain, Col. Glen Bloomstrom, director of ministry initiatives for the Army's Office of the Chief of Chaplains. pointed out. Forty-five to 50 percent of all first marriages end in divorce nationwide, he said, and the failure rate is even higher for second marriages: a whopping 60 to 70 percent.
Divorce rates run even higher in specific occupations, particularly those that expose people to traumatic events and danger, as well as heavy responsibilities and public scrutiny, Army officials noted. Police officers, for example, face a divorce rates averaging between 66 and 75 percent, they said.
Despite the nationwide trends, Bloomstrom was quick to point out that the numbers represent far more than just statistics. "These are people we're talking about," he said. "When a marriage ends, it's the end of a dream."
The toll goes beyond the human side, and affects military operations as well, he said. Service members in happy marriages tend to be more focused on their jobs and less likely to become disciplinary problems, Bloomstrom said. They're also more likely to remain in the military.
To help reverse the statistics, the services have introduced new programs and pumped up existing ones, offered through their family support, chaplain and mental-health counseling networks.
For example, the Army's offerings include:
- The new Deployment Cycle Support Program, which includes briefings for soldiers on how their absence and return may affect their family relationships and how they can cope with the inevitable changes;
- A family support group system that provides both practical and emotional support for spouses of deployed soldiers;
- The Building Strong and Ready Families Program, a two-day program that helps couples develop better communication skills, reinforced by a weekend retreat;
- The Strong Bonds marriage education program that focuses specifically on issues that affect Reserve and National Guard couples; and
- The Pick a Partner program that helps single soldiers make wise decisions when they choose mates.
The Army is not alone in offering programs to help its families survive the rigors of deployments and strengthen their relationships in the process.
The Marine Corps' Prevention and Relationship Enhancement Program is a two-day workshop that teaches couples how to manage conflict, solve problems, communicate effectively and preserve and enhance their commitment and friendship, Marine officials said.
Participants begin the program by taking a marriage survey, developed by a retired Navy chaplain, to help them evaluate their relationship and identify problems before they become serious. The four top problems generally involve communication, children and parenting, money and sexual intimacy, according to a Navy chaplain involved in the program.
The Marine Corps program focused on what the chaplain calls "the mother lode of all issues" that can affect marriages: communication. "If you don't have good communication skills, you can't talk about the rest of the issues," he said.
The Navy has a similar program in its Marriage Enrichment Retreat. This weekend getaway is designed to give Navy couples the tools they need to help strengthen their marriages, according to Rachelle Logan, public affairs director for Navy Installations Command.
Participants begin the weekend session by getting a profile of their personalities, then attending sessions on marital communication, personality and family dynamics and problems associated with military separation, Logan said.
While the Air Force does not have servicewide marital support programs, Air Force officials said individual bases offer a wide variety of programs to support military families and help them through separations, deployments and the stresses relating to them.
Bloomstrom said he's optimistic about the emphasis the military services are putting on programs for married service members.
The goal, he said, is to help couples recognize and address danger signs before they escalate.
Another objective is to help military couples get more satisfaction out of their marriages by injecting a healthy dose of "fun and friendship" that he said builds up their "emotional bank account."
"We're talking about investing in the relationship in the good times," he said. "That way, when you have to make a withdrawal - as you do during a deployment - you still have enough left in the bank to cover it."