Rate highest for female troops, enlisted personnel.
December 23, 2007 – When Maria Braman’s marriage ended shortly after she joined the Army, she had trouble finding anyone to whom she could relate.
That was in 1989. There were only two women in her unit. “And the other girl was single,” Braman recalled, “so there was nobody really to talk to.”
The Army’s a different place now. And Braman said younger female soldiers often come to her to talk when their marriages are in crisis.
“Now it’s different,” said Braman, a senior sergeant in the 96th Regional Readiness Command headquarters at Salt Lake City’s Fort Douglas. “In my unit, there are a lot of females. And I think the majority of us have been divorced.”
About one in every five married service members has filed for divorce since September 2001, a period of time during which military divorce has trended upward, even as researchers say that divorce nationwide is slowly decreasing.
It’s no secret that the current, frenetic pace of extended duty and war-related deployments have been tough on military members and their families. But an analysis of Pentagon data shows the suffering has not been shared equally.
Female troops divorce at rates several times higher than their male counterparts. And enlisted service members end their marriages substantially more often than officers.
The gaps are significant. And growing.
A startling spike
When Joe Lappi’s marriage fell apart during his tour of duty in Iraq, he didn’t need to look far to find an empathetic ear: His roommate was also going through a divorce, as were many other soldiers from the young officer’s Utah National Guard unit.
The marital problems faced by Lappi and other Army officers in the immediate aftermath of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq were a wake-up call for military officials.
More than 27,000 service members filed for divorce in 2004 – a 44 percent increase over 2001.
The 2004 spike was startling to those who monitor the well-being of U.S. troops. “That’s when we really started paying attention to divorce rates as an indicator of the overall health of the Army,” said Peter Frederich, the family ministries officer at the Army’s Chief of Chaplains Office.
While the data showed increases in divorce in nearly all segments of the military that year, the spike was led by a threefold rise in the number of Army officers, like Lappi, whose marriages had come to an end.
The Army quickly responded with a barrage of new resources and programs aimed at weathering deployment woes and shoring up rocky relationships. Since then, the number of divorces among Army officers has averaged about 1,200 a year, and officials now call the spike an anomaly. Indeed, taking 2004 out of the equation, divorces among Army officers have been relatively unchanged since 2001.
“We saw it come back down in 2005 and 2006 and said ‘all right, that’s good,’ ” said Frederich.
But Frederich said that as he and others continued to study the data, they grew less content.
“We all said, ‘wait a minute – what about these women?’ ” Frederich said. “I’ll be honest, I don’t think we were really tuned into this until last year.”
‘A nice image’
Even before the post-2001 increase in divorces, Pentagon statistics show, female service members were twice as likely to divorce as their male counterparts.
But while the rate of divorce among males has increased gradually in the past six years, the rate among women has skyrocketed. By September of 2007, female soldiers were filing for divorce at a rate three times greater than the Army’s men.
Army officials say they are in the process of commissioning a study to investigate the issue. But Frederich, who has led a number of focus groups on the topic, said some common themes already have emerged.
Though married women make up about 6 percent of the military, “we still don’t have a really good image of what a military husband is,” Frederich said. “There’s a definite narrative to the Army wife: She’s Meg Ryan with three kids, watching her man go off to war. She’s pretty tough herself – independent – but she loves him. That’s a nice image.”
But husbands of military wives, Frederich said, have a very vague social image. “Almost by definition, civilian husbands are isolated,” he said.
He noted that support groups for military spouses are dominated by civilian women, who often choose to get together over activities more geared toward their gender. He said men tend to see their careers as less mobile than women do – a major obstacle for nomadic military families. And when female soldiers go off to war, “their husbands know they’re going to be immersed in this testosterone-filled environment . . . and that’s a breeding ground for resentment,” Frederich said.
Harking on her conversations with younger female soldiers, Braman added some other common problems. She said civilian husbands often don’t understand why their military wives have to work long hours at odd times – sometimes for months at a time and often on a moment’s notice.
And female soldiers married to male soldiers often complain that their spouses are jealous – not of their relationships with other soldiers, but of their rank. “Very few males in the military can handle a female going up in rank faster than they do,” Braman said.
Though Frederich said a 10 percent annual divorce rate, “is still a 90 percent success rate” for married military women, “that’s not good enough.”
He’s hoping the Army study will help shed light on the issue – and point to some solutions.
“Women need to know that one of the costs of serving their country is not losing their families,” he said.
Marriage, divorce ‘gap’
Though less pronounced, the gap in the divorce rates of enlisted service members and commissioned officers also is widening.
While the number of divorcing officers fell drastically following the 2004 spike, the number of divorcing enlisted soldiers has continued to rise. More noncommissioned soldiers ended their marriages last year than at any time since 2001.
Utah National Guard chaplain Gerald White expressed surprise at the difference in male and female divorce rates. But he said the enlisted-officer divide is well known to people in his line of work.
Enlisted soldiers tend to have less life experience when they join the military, White said, and might rush into marriage unprepared for the challenges ahead.
In a report published earlier this year, David Popenoe of the National Marriage Project observed “the growth of a marriage and divorce ‘gap’ between differently educated segments of the population.” Those who have completed college – around a quarter of the population, Popenoe wrote – divorce at a rate much lower than less-educated persons.
Frederich said that holds true for the military, too. “The key difference between enlisted and officers, at least at the start, is college,” he said.
But while the average level of education among Americans has been on the rise for decades – pulling with it the rate of successful marriages, demographers say – the past six years have seen a precipitous drop in the level of education among newly enlisted military personnel, as military officials have lowered educational standards to counter recruitment problems.
The Army’s goal is for 90 percent of its new recruits to have high school diplomas, but it hasn’t met that mark since 2004. Last year, just 73 percent of its recruits were high school graduates.