The toll for a nation long at war is evident in military homes: The divorce rate in the armed forces edged up again in the past year despite many programs to help struggling couples, and the rate now is a full percentage point higher than around the time of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
There were an estimated 27,312 divorces among roughly 765,000 married members of the active-duty Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps in the budget year that ended Sept. 30, the Pentagon said Friday.
That's a divorce rate of about 3.6 percent for fiscal year 2009, compared with 3.4 percent a year earlier, according to figures from the Defense Manpower Data Center. Marriages among reservists failed at a rate of 2.8 percent compared to 2.7 the previous year.
Air Force Maj. April Cunningham, a Defense Department spokeswoman, said the changes from 2008 to 2009 were relatively small because of a myriad of programs offered by the services.
"All military services have a variety of programs focused on strengthening and/or enriching family bonds among couples," she said. "We believe these programs are instrumental in mitigating the stresses deployment places on marriages."
Still, the figures show a slow but steady upward trend in recent years as American forces fought the two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Friday's reported 3.6 percent rate is a full percentage point above the 2.6 percent reported in late 2001, when the U.S. began sending troops to Afghanistan in response to the September terrorist attacks.
Much higher rate for female soldiers
As in previous years, women in uniform suffered much higher divorce rates than their male counterparts — 7.7 percent in 2009, compared to 3 percent for men.
There's no comparable annual system for tracking the national or civilian divorce rate, though the Centers for Disease Control said in 2005 that 43 percent of all first marriages end in divorce within 10 years.
"Every marriage has controllable and uncontrollable factors," said Joe Davis, spokesman for the organization Veterans of Foreign Wars. "But when you interject eight years of war, preparing for war, being at war, coming home and having to think about going back to war again — and when you have children — it just has a tremendous impact on the family unit."
In programs run by chaplains, mental health officials and family services agencies, service members have access to retreats, couples' counseling, workshops and other programs aimed at easing the strain of separation during long and repeated tours of duty.
They are taught how their absence and return may affect their family relationships; troops and spouses get training in how to adjust to problems that arise after homecomings. And the Army has a broad family initiative to improve the quality of life for military families nationwide and overseas, including improving health care, schools, housing and child care to relieve stress on spouses.
"The military prides itself on taking care of military families — and it is true that they do that," Davis said. "Still, at the end of the day, it's that one mother or father who has to go home and close the door and be home alone with their children.
"There's nothing you can do that will end the stress of having a loved one at war ... until the war ends," Davis said.
'Extremely conservative' numbers, critic says
Critics complain annually that the divorce rate reported by the Pentagon comes nowhere close to depicting the damage done to marriages and families by the two ongoing wars.
"Those numbers seem extremely conservative and they are not at all representative from what we're hearing from the community," said Paul Rieckhoff, who served with the Third Infantry Division and founded the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.
"Every time my unit got deployed, we saw a whole new round of divorces," he said, estimating that the marital fallout is closer to double digits than to the Pentagon rate.
In the past, the Pentagon has said the data does not count actual divorces, but rather takes the numbers of married troops in each service at the beginning of the year and the number at the end and calculates the difference. Because people come and go during the year — recruits join, retirees and others leave — those counted at the beginning of the year are not all the same as those counted at the end. Officials couldn't immediately say whether the same method was used for Friday's report, but have said this calculation method is valid to get a year-to-year idea of the trend.
The Pentagon number also obviously doesn't count veterans — that is, those who divorce after leaving the services, let alone reflect other possible wartime consequences on families, such as increases in alcoholism or the toll on orphaned or emotionally stressed children of troops.
The numbers also do not speak to troubled but intact marriages. In an Army battlefield survey taken in Iraq in the spring, nearly 22 percent of young combat soldiers questioned said they planned to get a divorce or separation, compared to 12.4 percent in 2003. The mental health survey only measures intent and not the number who actually follow through when they get home.