For women in military, an elevated divorce rate

Staff Sgt. Robin D. Duncan-Chisolm, with son Seth, went through a divorce last year while she was in Iraq with the D.C. National Guard.
Staff Sgt. Robin D. Duncan-Chisolm, with son Seth, went through a divorce last year while she was in Iraq with the D.C. National Guard. (Susan Walsh)
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By Kimberly Hefling
Friday, March 11, 2011

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.

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, meaning they aren't commissioned officers, nearly 9 percent of women saw their marriages end, compared with a little more than 3 percent of the men.

Research indicates that military women also get divorced at higher rates than their peers outside the military, while military men divorce at lower rates than their peers, according to a journal article published last year by Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and the Brookings Institution. Directly comparing divorce rates between the military and civilian sectors is difficult because of the way the numbers are kept. It also noted that older military women - ages 40 to 49 - are about half as likely to be in their first marriage as civilian women of the same age.

The percentage of military women getting a divorce has been consistently higher for at least a decade.

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 children. 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 probably 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.


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