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Keeping it together in time of war

Today's military couples face old and new challenges while deployed

by Nick Stubbs
Thunderbolt staff writer

If a deployed Air Force wife gets a “dear Jane” letter these days, more likely than not the "other woman" could turn out to be Lara Croft, Tomb Raider.

When the roles are switched, deployed 'Airman John' may discover he's been replaced with a faceless and sometimes nameless male chatter who goes by "Loverboy132" in an Internet chat room.

It is ironic that while computers and the Internet would seem to be the ultimate tool to keep couples united when apart, providing email, live chat and even video conferencing, they also are turning out to be the devil in a microprocessor's clothing, says Chaplain (Capt.) Richard Holmes, 6th AMW Chapel.

The ages-old problems created by deployments, long separations and the loneliness and stress during war time are hitting military couples hard. And while many are using the Internet to stay in touch and ease separation pains, some are being seduced by the dark side of the net.

No Air Force statistics are available at present, but the U.S. Army reports breakups have increased 71 percent since the operations in Afghanistan and Iraq began. The number is higher among officers.

While infidelities and just plain giving up due to stress and complacency remain problems, Chaplain Holmes said the new gremlin of video games and pornography on the Internet are increasingly common issues. Online male chatters looking for companionship are all too willing to provide emotional support to lonely military wives, and both are wrecking a lot of relationships among today's servicemembers.

The problem comes to a head when one or the other finds out about the addiction and when even after couples reunite, they continue to feed their habits, said Chaplain Holmes. The syndrome is one of many things he confronts as a marriage counselor to Air Force couples and representative of the Base Chapel, which provides solutions and spiritual guidance to couples on the rocks as well as advice to those who want to steer clear of those rocks.

"Communication is the key," said Chaplain Holmes. The Internet can help facilitate that. It is a tool and means couples during the Vietnam era and WWII never could have dreamed possible, yet today not only is it taken for granted, it is being used by couples in ways that endanger their relationships, he says.

Chaplain Holmes said as a counselor it is important to understand the needs of men and women and to recognize the differences. Men, he notes, desire more physical contact, while women need the same, they're primary needs are for emotional support and validation of their feelings, he said.

Both needs can lead to addictions, and in dealing with the conflicts among today's younger couples, Chaplain Holmes said those addictions top the list of dangers.

"We're seeing it more and more," he notes. "It's being made possible by the Internet and the prevalence of and access to Web sites."

Men at home, particularly without children to keep them busy, while wives are deployed often become consumed with gaming, using it as a thrill escape and substitute for the physical relationship with their spouse. Likewise they become enthralled with online pornography. Even though these habits develop in a response to a separation, they often continue after the couple reunites, and the man is unable to give up his addiction.

"It can drive couples apart because he can't quit and she feels like she can't get the attention she needs," said Chaplain Holmes, who adds that resentment can brew to the boiling point.

Men returning to the marriage can be surprised to learn their wives have cultivated online relationships with like-minded women or worse, men who are playing them by providing the attention they are not getting in the marriage. Once these relationships are established, some women find it hard to break or even limit them, putting strain on the relationship and home and keeping couples apart.

Chaplain Holmes said his advice to couples apart or about to be for extended periods is to stay in touch enough and say the right things. Isolation and feeling out of the loop on what is going on in each other’s life can lead to seeking relief or replacement elsewhere.

"Not only do you have to communicate, but you have to know how to communicate," said Chaplain Holmes. "The time talking on the phone, e-mailing or chatting has to be good quality time to be effective."

Phone calls are easy but he warns e-mail can be tricky. It is hard to convey feeling and mood in text and nuance is impossible. Another problem with e-mail is a person who spends a half hour composing and e-mail at home only to get a two-line response may feel like they are getting the cold shoulder, when in actuality there could be nothing further from the truth.

"A deployed person may have been up for 18 hours straight and only has a minute to check their mail," said Chaplain Holmes. "They send out a quick response because they want to reply but they don't explain why it's so short and the other person takes it the wrong way; it happens all the time."

Chaplain Holmes knows because he spent some time deployed and saw from that end how Airmen handle communications with home. What he learned has been beneficial in his counseling of couples on how to communicate effectively.

Army Lt. Col. Aubrey Wood knows all to well the importance of communication, both professionally as commander of the 2nd Squadron of the Joint Communications Support Element based at MacDill and as husband when deployed. Having been deployed several times in his military career, including recently to the Middle East, he makes a point of staying in close contact with wife Stacy. He says speaking together often, frequent e-mails and holding nothing back (within the limitations of operational security) is the key.

"I tell her what's going on with me as much as I can and she tells me everything," he said.

"If she is having trouble with something she tells me and sometimes there are tears but you have to be completely open and honest."

Telling all is part of the trust the couple has established, and Mrs. Wood says that is the foundation of their relationship. She has three words for military couples, especially when dealing with deployments: "Trust, share, support." She went on to note that it also is essential to be supportive of each other when communicating from great distances.

"Be complementary and supportive and fully appreciate what the other is doing for the family," she said.

Mrs. Wood also warns couples not to fall into a trap of trying to establish which of the two is experiencing the most hardship during a deployment.

"You have to be a team," she says. "There can't be any competition because that can go on forever."

Besides, she said joking, with five children, bills to pay and managing the money, vehicles and house, it's clear who has the tougher job.

Mrs. Woods said she has run into many couples who make the split more complicated than it has to be. They don't have a plan, with responsibilities and needs identified and they don't know what services are available to them from their base and the military.

Colonel Wood said every servicemember owes it to themselves and their family to map out everything prior to deployment. It eases stress at deployment and helps prevent surprises once the couple is apart. MacDill Family Services is a great place to start and if it doesn't have the info needed, can direct couples where to find it.

Mrs. Wood also notes that military spouses have to be part of the team. Anyone with a military husband or wife must accept their responsibility to service and country and all that goes along with it. She said it is surprising how many military spouses have a disconnect with what their husband or wife does. Some don't know exactly what their military spouse does on the job. Some are so removed, they are not even sure to what unit they are attached or how to get in touch with them.

"When you are married to a military person you can't not be a part of that life," she said, adding that every military spouse has the responsibility of knowing as much as possible about the military, its services and what is expected of them.

Mrs. Woods said other factors that have helped the couple endure are their strong religious faith and their long-term plan and set of goals.

They have a roadmap of where they want to go in their lives together and they are going about making it happen. Any responsibilities the Global War on Terrorism or other duty may place upon them, is just something they accept and work with as they follow their personal map.

"With communication, trust and faith, there isn't anything we can't deal with," said Colonel Wood.

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