By Ashley StetterJanuary 29, 2007
WASHINGTON (Army News Service, Jan. 31, 2007) - Before Capt. Paul Olsen completed his first tour in Iraq as commander of Company A, 2nd Battalion, 506th Infantry Regiment, his wife, Erin, contemplated what life was like before her husband's most recent deployment; the couple had spent two of the past three years living on different continents.
Erin said she spent time wondering where he was, what he was doing, and whether he was thinking of her and the baby they were expecting.
"Being married to a Soldier at war is difficult," Erin said. But today she recognizes her relationship has reached a level many Army marriages don't.
"I've seen many marriages fall apart due to the stress that deployments put on Soldiers and their families," she said. "Life in the Army is hard, and you have to be truly committed to the other person and the life you've built together in order for it to last."
Statistics provided by the Army chief of chaplains indicate that 8,367 Army couples divorced in 2005, making the Army's divorce rate higher than that of any other military service.
Given that fact, Army leaders are introducing new initiatives to help reduce divorce rates, improve mission readiness and enhance Soldier well-being.
"The Army has launched a tremendous number of family support programs since the war began," said Lt. Col. Peter J. Frederich, family ministries officer for the office of the Army Chief of Chaplains.
"Strong Bonds," a proactive and holistic marriage initiative, is among those. It provides guidance to single Soldiers, married couples, families and those facing deployment in order to stem potential problems.
"Strong Bonds is different from anything we've tried before, because it isn't a counseling program," said Frederich. "Counseling means something is wrong and we're going to fix it. This is more of a preemptive education initiative."
Strong Bonds is unit-based and calls upon commanders to provide adequate time on their training calendars to allow chaplains to come in and administer program training.
So far, survey results of the program have been positive. Couples who complete it "show marked improvement in skills and habits that lead to increased marriage satisfaction and survival," said Frederich. Additionally, the study reveals that "more than 90 percent of those who participated in Strong Bonds reported that the program was helpful and appreciated."
"Military One Source" is another beneficial marriage-related program. It provides online consultants, articles, educational materials and other interactive tools to the military community every day, year-round.
Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Military Community and Family Policy John M. Molino told the American Forces Press Service that "Military One Source is a revolutionary augmentation to the family services we currently have on military installations around the world. It leverages technology and enables the Department of Defense to provide assistance to families and servicemembers via the Internet or toll-free telephone numbers."
Programs like Military One Source and Strong Bonds seem to be having a significant impact on divorce statistics.
The number of Army marriages that ended in divorce when the war began in 2003 was 2.8 percent. While that number spiked to 3.9 percent in 2004, Frederich said the percentage has declined ever since and is currently less than 3.3 percent.
Capt. Patrick M. Gordon, who returned from Iraq in November 2006, said that while programs are helpful, Soldiers must take the first step toward maintaining a strong marriage.
"Preparation is the key," said Gordon, who has been married and in the military for seven years. "You must prepare the family for success."
Gordon and his wife, Michelle, who is pregnant with their first child, encourage all couples facing deployment to practice communication, mutual respect and understanding well before the deployment.
"I think you have to make sure that your spouse is prepared for deployment just like you are," Gordon said. "Several months before I deployed, I made sure that we had a plan to cover all the angles. I think a lot of Soldiers take off and leave their spouses unprepared to deal with issues, and this can cause grief for the Soldiers, the chains of command and the spouses."
Maj. Amy R. Johnson, who divorced her husband, Lt. Col. Craig Hess, in 2002 and remarried him this year, said she feared the stigma of seeking help when she experienced problems with him.
The officers married in 1996 and were separated for much of their first five years together. As much as they wanted their relationship to work, pressures of increasing job responsibilities, twins and long-term separations quickly wore on the couple's relationship.
"We worked in an environment where many dual-military couples worked, and it was clear that we were not the only ones struggling with these issues," Johnson said.
While Johnson didn't have access to programs like Strong Bonds, she came to understand the fundamentals of military marriage when Hess deployed to Kuwait in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom in the fall of 2004.
"I was so sad for our children that, once again, they were going to be without a parent," Johnson said. "I vowed to Craig that I would do anything I possibly could to keep him as close to the twins as possible. Months passed, and I started to realize that the exchanges we had contained more depth."
The deployment, which came three years after the couple separated, taught the Johnsons the importance of communication and ultimately led them to remarry in November 2006, 10 years after they were first married.
"I could speak volumes on the exchanges we had over the year he was deployed - how we came closer together in spite of the distance, the pure communication in our e-mails and letters, the true honesty and depths we reached in our brief phone conversations. Those are what we leaned on to not only get us through his year of deployment, but to reestablish our relationship," Johnson said.
"My unit performed above anyone's hopes and desires, but the most successful part of my deployment was returning home to Amy, the children and a loving relationship that is stronger than it ever has been," said Hess.
New Army initiatives reinforce this deep communication and supplant former reactive programs that caused couples who needed help to hesitate in seeking it for fear of reprisal.
"The military is doing better in providing services," Johnson said. "Now we need to take it to the next step and encourage Soldiers to use them. It is imperative that an environment exists in which commanders are supportive of using the services, and will remain supportive while the services are being used."
"Right now, we are looking great. Our divorce rates are below the national average and that is in spite of the fact that we are distressed at a much greater average," Frederich said. "Our Soldiers continue to do meaningful work, and we will continue to provide them with the world's best care and programs."
Successful military couples like Amy and Craig Hess, Michelle and Patrick Gordon, and Erin and Paul Olsen encourage Soldiers to take advantage of the wealth of opportunities the Army offers.
"Too many people lack the skills to communicate and listen to each other, and they expect the initial rush of romantic emotions to carry them through a deployment," said Paul Olsen. "In the long run, it's all about communication, compromise and commitment. So long as both partners remember that and constantly work toward it, a marriage will stay strong."