By Bari Zell Weingberger | WEINBERGER LAW GROUP, NEW JERSEY
New Department of Defense statistics show that women serving in the military are now three times more likely than men to end their marriages.
What does the stress of war do to marriage? In recent years, this question has been answered by Department of Defense statistics that document a dramatic rise in divorce rates among military service members since the onset of conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2011, when large numbers of active duty members began returning home, military divorce rates appear to have peaked, with 3.7 percent of married troops—or one in every twenty-seven—getting a divorce that year.
We’ve also learned from these statistics that divorce disproportionately affects female service members. In 2012, military divorce rates dipped slightly across all branches and ranks, but divorces for female troops remained high. Last year, nearly one in ten female enlisted service members—9.4 percent—got a divorce, a number almost triple the divorce rate of their male counterparts during the same time period.
Some point to the slowed pace of deployments and the success of marriage support and emotional health programs, such as the army’s Strong Bonds retreats and private counseling, as the reasons why there has been a general drop in military divorces. So could it be that women still need different, or perhaps additional, kinds of support?
And what about support for the female (and male) service members and their families who do end up in divorce court? States are just now beginning to respond to elevated military divorce rates by considering family law revisions that more accurately account for military obligations.
A sampling of reform measures include greater flexibility in scheduling court appearances, and writing child custody plans built around military members’ active duty commitments. In New Jersey, for example, Governor Chris Christie just signed a new law that will essentially prevent courts from making permanent child custody decisions while a parent is on active military duty. It is being hailed on both sides as a step in the right direction.
It’s ironic that at the same time the Pentagon released these latest divorce statistics, gender equality in the military recently reached a new milestone in the form of Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s order to open over 200,000 combat jobs to qualified female troops this past January. With such a dramatic step to treat men and women in uniform the same, it’s almost unimaginable that such gender inequity persists in the success rates of military marriages.
It is never easy to see those who give so much to serve our country not getting what they need to serve themselves in their own lives. As we move forward into a new era in the military, we can only hope that more attention will be paid to supporting all members of the armed forces.