FORT DRUM, New York (Reuters) - U.S. military chaplain Nathan McLean says he deliberately makes it difficult for young soldiers to get married because if they have to “jump through some hoops” the marriage is more likely to survive.
The U.S. Army has reported divorce rates rise with longer deployments in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. With one in five veterans of the two wars suffering mental health problems, the strain is taking its toll on military families.
“The more difficult it is for (young soldiers) to marry, typically the better it is for the family,” Capt. McLean said in an interview at Fort Drum, home of the 10th Mountain Division 2nd Brigade Combat Team, which has deployed four times since 2001.
McLean will only perform a marriage after a couple has gone through at least four relationship counseling sessions.
A Baptist minister who returned from Iraq with the 2nd Brigade Combat Team in late 2007, McLean said family issues are the bulk of his workload in Iraq and at home and have a direct impact on a soldier’s ability to perform his or her duties.
“Where the family goes, there goes the army,” McLean said.
A report by the Army’s Mental Health Advisory Team (MHAT) in February surveyed mental health specialists working with soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. It quoted one as saying: “Fifteen month deployments are designed to destroy marriages.”
U.S. President George W. Bush has said he will reduce deployments back to a maximum of 12 months after raising them last year to 15 months, but for some the damage has been done.
The MHAT report said in the first few months of deployment, around six percent of married NCOs indicated they were planning on getting a divorce. By the 14th and 15th month, that rises to more than 20 percent. The figures are even worse for younger soldiers: nearly a third of married enlisted men who were not NCOs were planning a divorce by the end of a 15-month tour.
According to Army figures, around 56 percent of active duty soldiers are married and the divorce rate of enlisted soldiers has risen from 2.3 percent in 2001 to 3.5 percent now. Among officers, the rate fell from 2.1 percent to 1.9 percent.
Chris Smith, a former tank mechanic who served in the restive Iraqi city of Ramadi in 2005, married his wife Cara when he returned home in early 2006 and left the army.
She said the symptoms of stress and depression emerged around six months after he got home.
“He wasn’t keeping jobs, he had a serious issue with authority which is not like him,” she said. “He was having difficulty just doing normal everyday things, and then he jumped the gun and re-enlisted out of nowhere.”
Doctors at Fort Drum diagnosed him with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and declared him undeployable.
“Once we found out he had PTSD I threw myself into what it was and what we could do,” Cara Smith, 24, said. “I see a lot of marriages fall apart because the soldiers don’t know they have it and the wives go ‘I don’t like him, he’s mean.'”
Chris Smith, 23, was withdrawn and seemed happier to let his wife speak for him in an interview at the Different Drummer Cafe in Watertown near Fort Drum. He re-enlisted because “I just didn’t know what else to do. I couldn’t keep a job.”
The couple had been discussing whether he should re-enlist because of the benefits of military life, such as health insurance, free housing and steady employment, but had reached no decision. “He jumped the gun,” Cara Smith said.
An independent study by the RAND Corp in April found that about 300,000 U.S. troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, or nearly one in five of the 1.5 million who have deployed to the two war zones, suffer PTSD or depression.
Dean Anthony, a Vietnam War veteran who works at a family counseling center in Watertown, near Fort Drum, said soldiers with PTSD will often be emotionally withdrawn, quick to lash out in anger and prone to abusing alcohol or drugs.
“Most people come to me not because of trauma but because of family difficulties, but that’s directly related to trauma response,” Anthony said. “One of the things we do when we respond to trauma is we shut down our emotions.”
His clients are often referred to the center after getting in trouble for drinking, drugs or domestic violence.
Even those who are not clinically suffering mental health problems can have family problems, Anthony said. “I don’t believe that everybody who goes into combat is traumatized but I do believe everybody is changed.”
Reporting by Claudia Parsons; Editing by Eddie Evans