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Saturday, July 19, 2008

Family Strains Worsen as Wars Drag On, Deployments Add Up

From David Crary, AP:

Far from the combat zones, the strains and separations of no-end-in-sight wars are taking an ever-growing toll on military families despite the armed services' earnest efforts to help. ...What makes today's wars distinctive is the deployment pattern — two, three, sometimes four overseas stints of 12 or 15 months. In the past, that kind of schedule was virtually unheard of. ...

An array of studies by the Army and outside researchers say that marital strains, risk of child maltreatment and other problems harmful to families worsen as soldiers serve multiple combat tours.

For example, a Pentagon-funded study last year concluded that children in some Army families were markedly more vulnerable to abuse and neglect by their mothers when their fathers were deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In Iraq, the latest survey by Army mental health experts showed that more than 15 percent of married soldiers deployed there were planning a divorce, with the rates for soldiers at the late stages of deployment triple those of recent arrivals.

For the Army, especially, the challenges are staggering as it furnishes the bulk of combat forces. As of last year, more than 55 percent of its soldiers were married, a far higher rate than during the Vietnam war. The nearly 513,000 soldiers on active duty collectively had more than 493,000 children.


In educational interest, article(s) quoted from extensively.

Continuing:

Jessica Leonard at Fort Campbell says family support programs there have improved since her husband's first combat tour, helping her feel more self-reliant. Yet she's convinced that domestic violence and divorce are rising at the base, which is home to the 101st Airborne Division.

"Infidelity is huge on both sides — a wife is lonely, she looks for attention and finds it easier to cheat," she said. "It does make even the most sound marriages second-guess."

Among soldiers coming home, whether for two-week breaks that often end with wrenching good-byes or for longer stays, she sees evidence of lower morale and rising depression. "They come home, and find that problems are still there," she said. "Instead of a refreshing R-and-R, a nice little second honeymoon, it's battle for two weeks." ...

There have been some horrific incidents shattering families of soldiers back from the wars — a former Army paratrooper from Michigan charged with raping and beating his infant daughter; a sergeant from Hawaii's Army National Guard accused of killing his 14-year-old son as the boy tried to save his pregnant mother from a knife attack by the soldier.

In one of the saddest cases, a recently divorced airman who served with distinction in Iraq chased his ex-wife out of military housing with a pistol in February before killing his two young children and himself at Oklahoma's Tinker Air Force Base. Tech. Sgt. Dustin Thorson's former wife had sought a protection order against him, saying he threatened to kill the children if she filed for divorce.

Officials at Tinker, while confirming that Thorson had been getting mental health care, would not say whether those problems related to his service in Iraq. His brother, Shane Thorson, a sheriff's deputy from Pasco, Wash., who also served in Iraq, has no doubt Dustin's war experiences contributed to the tragedy.

"He didn't want to go — he was afraid, but he had a job that he'd signed up to do and he went and did it," Shane said. "I do think it led up to everything that happened. ... It opened up a world of death and chaos and uncertainty."

Shane, who is married and has an 8-year-old daughter, is sure the deployments have damaged many marriages.

"My wife and friends, they tell me I'm not the same person before I came back — not as loving," he said. "You really realize how insignificant you are in this world, and life moves on whether you're there or not."

Overall, the Army says its domestic violence rates are no worse than for civilian families. However, critics say there is a lack of comprehensive, updated data that reflects the impact of war-zone deployments and tracks cases involving veterans, reservists and National Guard members. The Miles Foundation, which provides domestic-violence assistance to military wives, says its caseload has more than quadrupled during the Iraq and Afghan conflicts. ...

Medical personnel, meanwhile, have been directed to be more aggressive in screening spouses of deployed soldiers for depression. More than 1,000 "family readiness support assistants" are being added, as are dozens of marriage and family therapists. A respite child care program is expanding to provide more relief to stressed mothers. However, for families living off-base, there are often far fewer support programs readily available.

Advocacy groups also say more must be done for families of wounded and traumatized soldiers who leave the service. At a recent congressional hearing, Barbara Cohoon of the National Military Families Association suggested the Veterans Administration is not meeting these needs, and said the anguish of wounded soldiers' children "is often overlooked and underestimated." ...

Many returning soldiers experience some form of depression, lapsing into substance abuse, sleeping fitfully, withdrawing from family activities. Children may feel their father is too distant, or unsettlingly changed.

"The kids may not really recognize their parent," said Col. Elspeth Ritchie, psychiatry consultant to the Army surgeon general. "Their expectations build up, and then expectations aren't met."

The Army would like to beef up psychiatric care for children, Ritchie said, but is hampered by a national shortage of child psychiatrists.

"The children of these families are suffering damage emotionally and a lot of them aren't getting any help," said Lee Rosen, whose North Carolina law firm handles many military divorces. "We're going to have fallout from this for a long time."

Rosen says the breaking point for many couples often arrives with a second or third deployment. "To go off for one deployment for a year is difficult, but when that soldier comes back, people are able to adjust, to heal," he said. "When you go a second time, and are threatened with the possibility of a third, it's just devastating."

Army family-support programs: http://www.behavioralhealth.army.mil/

Read the whole AP piece for more.

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