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Cultivating Afghanistan: Married to the Military

Counselors often tell soldiers the price is freedom is high—very high. Not just for the soldiers, but also for their families.

Sara Wright and Catherine Lobbestael

Photo: Stress Counselors

Capt. Sara Wright from Grand Ledge, MI and Tech Sgt. Catherine Lobbestael, from Manchester, MI are a Combat Operations Stress Control Team in Laghman Province in eastern Afghanistan. Beyond helping soldiers deal with the stresses of the battlefield, the Combat Stress Counselors also provide therapy for soldiers struggling with their relationship problems with loved ones back home.

Counselors often tell soldiers the price is freedom is high—very high. Not just for the soldiers, but also for their families. Cpt. Sarah Wright is a clinical psychologist who serves as a Combat Stress Counselor in eastern Afghanistan. Speaking from her frontline post, she said military deployments can devastate marriages.

“The divorce rates, the army has put out the divorce rates are just skyrocketing,” Wright said. “Numbers-wise, marriages are going down the tubes.”

Divorces in the military, already well above national averages, soared after 9/11, when repeated deployments further strained marriages. Counselors say about half of the married soldiers in Afghanistan will experience the threat of divorce or legal separation while deployed. An army chaplain, who asked to remain anonymous, said combat trauma isn’t the main reason soldiers in Afghanistan seek help.

“Primarily, soldiers come to me when they are struggling with relationship problems back home,” he said. “It’s interesting to see a 20-something young man, with a rifle over his shoulder, trained to engage and kill the enemy if necessary, say, ‘My heart is broken.’”

The chaplain says commanders can often predict which marriages will suffer during the deployment—young, shaky relationships primarily. But sometimes there are surprises.

“Some of the tougher ones are the ones that are good in the states, but it sneaks up on them, and it scares them,” the chaplain said.  “And it scares their love.”

And so the chaplain and other counselors begin the work to rebuild fractured marriages that are half a world apart.

“Gut-wrenching. I tell them, ‘You’re going to eat your guts out several times over. It’s going to be awful, it’s going to be miserable. You’re going to cry. If you can do that work, your marriage, your relationship, can be better. Don’t let Afghanistan destroy the family.’”

The chaplain tells the soldiers they need to stop the hurtful behavior, they need a truce, and they need to put off divorce decisions while deployed—particularly if there are kids. But he says returning home is no panacea:

“And sometimes going home is actually harder, even if you didn’t have problems while you were deployed. It’s extremely complex.”

But back home the military has an array of counseling services to help returning vets reintegrate with their families. And the chaplain says there is another agency involved:

“I’ve been extremely humbled by the power of love,” he said.

In our next segment: the second ADT prepares to replace the first group of farmer-soldiers.

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