Officer struggles to balance family and military life

December 19, 2012 § Leave a comment

Hong Tien Vu/ University of Kansas/ Fall 2009

FT. LEAVENWORTH, Kan. _ For Maj. Mark Cheatham, the hardest part of being a soldier is saying goodbye to his wife, Stacy Cheatham, and their two kids. Whenever he gets ready for his next deployment, Ms. Cheatham worries that her husband might never see her and the kids again.

“I want to talk to her, but she would cry all night,” said Cheatham, 35. “I know she is scared that I will never come back.”

So he writes.

He writes her letters about what he has prepared for them so they can move on in their lives without him, where he wants to be buried and what he wants her to do after his death. He seals the letters and asks Ms. Cheatham to open it only if she hears bad news. He has been deployed twice; two letters have been written.

Luckily, none of them has been opened. Each time he came home, he tore them up, sighing with relief.

Military life has placed countless strains on marriages of soldiers like Cheatham. Distance, loneliness and the fear of danger are most common troubles for separated couples. In addition, recent studies have found that enduring conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq and frequent deployments have caused even more serious problems for military families, such as heightened divorce rate and various forms of mental stresses among family members.

According to the findings, roughly 20 percent of active-duty members in the military considered separation a primary stressor in their family lives. So far, the Cheathams have managed to weather all of those strains. But it hasn’t been easy, the young officer admitted. Being separated from one another is, perhaps, the biggest challenge in their 10-year marriage.

“I missed them terribly, especially, at Christmas or Thanksgiving,” Cheatham said. “I’d sit there imagining the kids opening their gifts and me and my wife looking at them.”

Maj. Eric Johnson, also at Leavenworth, said that during his year-long deployment to Iraq he cried more than he had ever done before.

Leaving his fiancé thousands of miles away in Richmond, Va., Johnson went to battle in Iraq. The couple talked on the camera phone every week.

“When I saw her I cried, she cried. I missed her and she feared that I wouldn’t come back,” Johnson said. “Dealing with those feelings is really hard.”

Apart from the loneliness they felt in those holidays, the dangers soldiers face in their combat scare them the most. Cheatham recalled the day when his unit in Iraq was under attack. The officer survived, but the worries he had for his wife and the kids filled his mind.

“I thought about my wife. I thought about my kids such as what if I was injured or what if I was killed, what would happen to my family,” he said.

Cheatham called home. However, he had to refrain from telling them what he had been through. It’s the military confidentiality.

“I could only talk to them to let them know that I was alive. That was it,” he said.

Lack of sharing feelings and family responsibilities for a long period of time often pushes young couples apart. Psychologists say that for military families, frequent separation could result in the worst: breaking them up.

The break-up rate in military marriages increased in direct proportion to the time young officers deploy, according to official figures. Divorce among active-duty soldiers in 2008 was 3.5 percent, up from 3.3 percent a year earlier. Among Marines, the rate was 3.7 percent, up from 3.3 percent.

Some 13,000 couples with at least one military partner broke up last year, psychologists say. Many others are struggling to deal with mental distress.

Fulfilling parental responsibilities is another problem for frequently deployed officers. A study recently published in the Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics shows that one-third of military children who have a parent deployed in a war zone are at “high risk” for psychological problems. The rate is well above the national level. Across the country only one out of 10 children might face similar strains.

For Cheatham, the parental instinct is telling him that his 12-year-old son needs him when the boy is growing into the teenage years. The father is, nevertheless, expecting another deployment next year after he finishes his training at the garrison.

“I think he needs me now more than he did before,” Cheatham said. “He’d have lots of questions to ask his dad, but I am not going to be there to answer him.”

This time, Cheatham has a different preparation. He plans to talk to his soon-to-be-13-year-old son about the deployment and that the fierce battle might take him away forever. He says he has the confidence that the boy is strong enough to take it.

“I am gonna be realistic. I know he will play the man’s role in the family while I am away,” Cheatham said. “If something happened to me I want him to take care of his mother and sister.”

The plan, as usual, will still include a letter to his beloved family that he will put in the same place. Yet the officer holds a strong hope that he will still have another chance to tear it up himself.

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