Female GIs face higher rate of divorce

Staff Sgt. Robin Duncan-Chisolm gets a hug from her son Seth in Upper Marlboro, Md., on March 7, 2011. AP Photo/Susan Walsh

WASHINGTON - Two failed marriages were the cost of war for Sgt. Jennifer Schobey.

The breaking point in her first marriage came when her husband deployed to Afghanistan, the last in a long line of separations they had endured as they juggled two military careers. Schobey married another combat veteran, but eventually that union failed under the weight of two cases of post-traumatic stress disorder — his and hers. They are now getting divorced.

Separations. Injuries. Mental health issues. All are added weights to the normal strains of marriage.

For women in the military, there's a cold, hard reality: Their marriages are more than twice as likely to end in divorce as those of their male comrades — and up to three times as likely for enlisted women. And military women get divorced at higher rates than their peers outside the military, while military men divorce at lower rates than their civilian peers.

About 220,000 women have served in Afghanistan and Iraq in roles ranging from helicopter pilots to police officers. Last year, 7.8 percent of women in the military got a divorce, compared with 3 percent of military men, according to Pentagon statistics. Among the military's enlisted corps, nearly 9 percent of women saw their marriages end, compared with a little more than 3 percent of the men.

Like all divorces, the results can be a sense of loss and a financial blow. But for military women, a divorce can be a breaking point — even putting them at greater risk for homelessness down the road.

It has an effect, too, on military kids. The military has more single moms than dads, and an estimated 30,000 of them have deployed in support of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Why military women are more burdened by divorce is unclear, although societal pressure is likely a factor.

"It's a strange situation, where there's a fair amount of equality in terms of their military roles, but as the military increasingly treats women the same as it treats men in terms of their work expectations, however, society still expects them to fulfill their family roles. And that's not equally balanced between men and women," said David Segal, director of the Center for Research on Military Organization at the University of Maryland.

One speculation is that while more traditional men join the military, women who are attracted to military life are less conventional — and perhaps less willing to stay in a bad marriage.

About half of all married women in the military are married to a fellow service member, compared with less than 10 percent of military men. While it can be an advantage to be married to someone who understands military life, balancing two military careers poses challenges.

Former Army Sgt. Daniela Gibson, an Afghan war veteran, knows that first-hand. Gibson, 24, spent more than four years apart from her military husband and thousands of dollars on long-distance phone calls as they each did war deployments, training and moves. She said it's tough to not feel insecure about your own marriage as you watch others falling apart around you and see fellow service members cheating on their spouses, which she says is all too frequent during deployments.

"Even just rumors of cheating can really affect you," Gibson said.

Gibson left the military after she got pregnant. She's now raising their 1-year-old in Mannheim, Germany, while her husband continues his military career. Fortunately, she said, they were able to make their marriage work.

"It was really hard. . We've gone through a lot of difficult points in the relationship and sometimes we weren't even sure how it was going to end up. But at the end I think it made us closer because it kind of made us prove to ourselves how much we wanted it," Gibson said. "We weren't about to just give up."

Female service members married to civilians face their own challenges. The rate of divorce among military women is higher for those married to civilians, said Benjamin Karney, a psychology professor at UCLA who studied the issue for the Rand Corp. Research has found that the husbands of female service members were less likely to be employed than military wives.

"You've got to look at the realities of what military life is like on the family, and it really is kind of set up around a traditional married model of a husband and a wife that runs the house, if you will," said Kimberly Olson, a retired Air Force colonel who is executive director of Grace After Fire, a support organization for female veterans.

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