Daily life an unpredictable challenge for military families

By David Crary

FORT CAMPBELL, Ky. – 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.

Divorce lawyers see it in the breakup of youthful marriages as long, multiple deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan fuel alienation and mistrust. Domestic violence experts see it in the scuffles that often precede a soldier’s departure or sour a briefly joyous homecoming.

Teresa Moss, a counselor at Fort Campbell’s Lincoln Elementary School, hears it in the voices of deployed soldiers’ children as they meet in groups to share accounts of nightmares, bedwetting and heartache.

“They listen to each other. They hear that they aren’t the only ones not able to sleep, having their teachers yell at them,” Moss said.

Even for Army spouses with solid marriages, the repeated separations are an ordeal.

“Three deployments in, I still have days when I want to hide under the bed and cry,” said Jessica Leonard, who is raising two small children and teaching a “family team building” class to other wives at Fort Campbell. Her husband, Capt. Lance Leonard, is in Iraq.

Those classes are among numerous initiatives to support war-strained families. Yet military officials acknowledge that the vast needs outweigh available resources, and critics complain of persistent shortcomings – a dearth of updated data on domestic violence, short shrift for families of National Guard and Reserve members, inadequate support for spouses and children of wounded and traumatized soldiers.

If the burden sounds heavier than what families bore in the longest wars of the 20th century – World War II and Vietnam – that’s because it is, at least in some ways. 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.

“Its hard to go away, it’s hard to come back, and go away and come back again,” said Dr. David Benedek, a leading Army psychiatrist. “That is happening on a larger scale than in our previous military endeavors. They’re just getting their feet wet with some sort of sense of normalcy, and then they have to go again.”

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.

Almost in one breath, military officials praise the resiliency that enables most families to endure and acknowledge candidly that the wars expose them to unprecedented stresses and the risk of long-lasting scars.

“There’s nothing that has prepared many of our families for the length of these deployments,” said Rene Robichaux, social work programs manager for the U.S. Army Medical Command. “It’s hard to communicate to a family member how stressful the environment is, not just the risk of injury or death, but the austere circumstances, the climate, the living conditions.”