When naval officer Amanda Smith was deployed to Kuwait in August of 2009, her job was to find holes in existing military medical programs and fix them. Smith (her name has been changed) was a mender. She held together the morale of her peripatetic unit. When she found out that a child of one of her soldiers had been molested during their deployment, Smith stayed up nights comforting the inconsolable single mother.
She also tried to maintain the fabric of her own dislocated family. Her husband, Jeff, had returned from Iraq only three months before her own deployment, and their children were living with extended family in Oklahoma while their father went back to school in California.
Then, without any reason for suspicion, Jeff began to berate her for having an affair while abroad. “When the accusations kept flying at me, I wondered if he had a guilty conscience,” said Smith, who never questioned Jeff during his deployment. “Is that what he did when he was gone?”
On a cold Friday in December 2009, Jeff called Smith in Kuwait to say he wanted a divorce. Emotionally overwhelmed, she did not contact him again until she returned to an empty house in April. She found out that he was engaged to someone else Mother’s Day weekend; although their divorce was finalized only last week, Jeff filed for “single status” so that he could remarry last November.
Smith joined the rank and file of military divorcées.
Although the military divorce rate has begun to level off, according Pentagon statistics, 7.9 percent of women in the armed forces got a divorce last year -- versus 3 percent of their male counterparts.
Those numbers are part of an ongoing trend, according to Dr. Benjamin Karney, a psychology professor at UCLA and head researcher of a 2007 RAND study that looked at marriage and divorce rates in the military over 10 years between 1996 and 2005data.
“That study showed that in every one of those years, divorce rates for women in the military were two to three times higher than men in every branch of the military,” Karney said. “It was true last year; it is true this year; it will be true next year.”
Karney said there are two working theories that explain these consistent statistics, and they are not mutually exclusive. The first is that the support services available to military families are geared towards civilian wives as opposed to male service members or civilian husbands. Marriages between civilian husbands and military wives have the highest likelihood of ending in divorce.
According to Karney, among men in the military who are married, over 90 percent are married to civilians, whereas the majority of married women in the military have spouses who also serve.
Tania Pudder Risko has been the civilian wife of a soldier and has held leadership roles in Family Readiness Groups (FRG) at Fort Bragg and Fort Campbell.
“The goal is to help the wives or spouses if they have anything stressful going on,” Risko said. “We learn about our husband’s reintegration process, what to do if they have nightmares, things like that.” In 16 years of participation, she has only seen two male military spouses at the meetings.
Stay-at-home father and Military Spouse columnist Thomas Litchford is used to being the lone male entrenched in the cult of “army wife-dom.”
“They used to be called wife clubs and people still Freudian slip,” Litchford said. “I have found that once I show up they do try and make an effort to ask me what I would like to do besides have tea and little sandwiches with the captain’s wife. I’m game for glazing your own pottery though… I went along and made myself a mug.”
Litchford says he has considered starting a military husband group that would prepare husbands for what to expect during their wives deployment and later reintegration into civilian life. “I’ve had more than ten, less than 20, guys reach out to me who are all pretty much nervous about the same things,” Litchford said. “They ought to know what they are getting into, and that their wives aren’t gong to leave them for the first guy in a finely pressed uniform that they see.”
Karney cites traditional gender role reversals as a second theory for the divorce rate disparity. Karney believes it is possible that the marriages of female service members could be different from those of their male counterparts.
“The U.S. military is an attractive place to work for some of the most traditional men in the United States,” he said. “It is also an attractive place to work for the least traditional women in the U.S. because being a warrior in the armed services are not attractive to traditional gender roles… Those women might not be attracted to the institution of marriage as a traditional institution.” This could imply that women in the military are more willing to end an unsuccessful or incompatible marriage.
Morgan Van Epp Cutlip was first commissioned by the Army chief of chaplains in 2008 to collect data from approximately 450 female soldiers for a study titled, “An Investigation of the High Divorce Rate Among Female Soldiers.” The study was dropped by the chaplains soon after due to funding cuts and was then taken up by PSA (Professional and Scientific Associates). Husbands who sought Army-provided support (such as the Strong Bonds family enrichment program) had significantly lower divorce rates than men who did not explore the available groups.
Cutlip found that a majority of the women attributed the failure of their marriages to “improper partner selection,” perhaps indicating that they selected less supportive men.
Marine Becky Andrews (whose name has also been changed) met her soon-to-be-ex-husband at a Virginia military base. The two started dating; she got pregnant; and he was then deployed to Japan.
“Even though we had a child together, I was unable to be placed at a nearby base as long as a single mother,” Andrews said. “We figured it would be best if we got married and then we could figure it out.” After the wedding, Andrews was moved to San Diego. Her husband joined from abroad eight months later. It took them two months of living together to call it quits.
Andrews, says failed shotgun weddings were commonplace throughout the base.
“Girls come in from podunk towns fresh out of high school where people didn’t give them a second look, and then they are in land of testosterone,” said Andrews of a military that is approximately 15 percent female. “Honey, you are the cream of the crop because you are the crop.”
Andrews adds couples tend to marry young so that they can be sent to bases close to one another. She also notes that in the case of the Marines, some would marry out of convenience -- to get out of dorm style housing that was only available to married couples or officers.
“Since marriage would start so young, people would bring high school mentalities to relationships,” Andrews said. “But instead of breaking up and getting back together with a girlfriend, you’d get married, divorced, and sometimes remarried again. If there wasn’t so much premature marriage, there probably wouldn’t be as much premature divorce,” she added.
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This story is part of Military Families Week, an effort by HuffPost and AOL to put a spotlight on issues affecting America's families who serve. Find more at jobs.aol.com/militaryfamilies and aol.com.
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