At Fort Campbell, a common sight on some cars—often juxtaposed with a "Support Our Troops" ribbon—is a window decal:
Toughest job in the Army
Karla Sketch knows that wisdom firsthand. Her husband is a member of the Night Stalkers, the elite 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment. In 15 years of marriage, she has lived through 10 deployments.
"It's tough, even for the best of marriages," she said in an interview on post. "I think my husband and I have a wonderful marriage, and I have learned to cope, but during Desert Storm I did my whole pregnancy alone and had my baby alone. He didn't get back until she was 4 months old. That alone is enough to send somebody flailing over the edge."
Special operators like Sketch's husband may go overseas more often than regular Army troops, but their assignments typically tend to be short-term—30 to 60 days, perhaps six months. The 101st Airborne Division, by contrast, is preparing for a yearlong stay in Iraq, its second rotation there since the beginning of the war.
"A year is tough," said Sketch. "Your whole personality changes, your whole way of doing everything in your life changes, and if you weren't independent before, you learn very quickly to become independent. And sometimes when the spouse comes back, that creates a lot of turmoil."
In the past, the service relied on an army of informal volunteers to help support families during deployments. Family readiness groups (or FRGs, to use the inevitable acronym) are a feature of life in the all-volunteer Army, providing an informal safety net for the families of soldiers. They help deal with the rigors of military life—adjusting to a new post, finding childcare, or navigating Army bureaucracy. And during deployment, they act as an information conduit, managing telephone trees, publishing newsletters, and keeping families posted on news from the front.
As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan grind along, the stress can grow on families as much as on the force. According to Defense Department statistics, 2.7 percent of the married personnel in the active-duty Army divorced during Fiscal Year 1994. In Fiscal Year 2004—the first full year of the Iraq war—that figure jumped to 4.1 percent. (That figure does not account for separations: Air Force Lt. Col. Ellen Krenke, a DOD spokeswoman, said the figures are calculated by taking all married personnel at the beginning of the fiscal year, then comparing against various files to determine if they switched status from married.)
In recent months, the service has started hiring people like Sketch to work full-time assisting families of deployed soldiers. Her title has a military-sounding ring to it: FRG assistant. She's a 40-hour-a-week employee of the Army.
The paid FRG assistant job is new, created back in May of last year. The Army hired 88 FRG assistants across the country, as well as a few on bases in Germany.
"They did this, I think, because the Army relies so heavily on volunteers to take care of the families when they're deployed," Sketch said. "And sometimes it works well, and other times it doesn't."
Problem was, support groups often mirrored the military pecking order: The brigade FRG leader would be the colonel's wife, a company FRG leader would be a captain's wife, and so on. When group leadership is based on the rank of someone's spouse, things can get cliqueish, so the paid FRG assistant cannot work for the unit that his or her spouse belongs to. Sketch, for instance, is the FRG leader for the 101st Aviation Brigade, one of the all-purpose helicopter units in the division.
Mindful of the impact that marriages have on retaining soldiers, the Army is also starting to offer incentives to keep marriages together. The service is offering vouchers for marriage retreats, where couples attend group counseling to learn how to better communicate. A popular destination is the Opryland Hotel in Nashville, a luxe resort just over an hour away from Fort Campbell.
"For the most part, I've just heard wonderful things about it across the board," said Sketch.
Upon their return from a combat zone, soldiers have to sit through mandatory seminars on "building strong and healthy families," along with filling out questionnaires that gauge whether they suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.
The marriage and family seminars (referred to by soldiers as "don't-beat-your-wife class") are supposed to provide some guidance on reintegrating with their spouse. But despite the service's attention to preserving families, some in the 101st are still anxious about the impact the next deployment will have.
The division returned from its first yearlong deployment in Iraq in late January and February of 2004. This fall, they are expected to ship out for another year, perhaps even longer.
"If we're gone even longer this time than we were last time, I feel even more that relationships will fail compared to last time," said Spec. Patrick Croff, a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter crew chief. "There were a lot of people who went to Iraq married and came back single. A lot of people."
Technology eases some of the strain. The widespread availability of e-mail means that soldiers can be in almost daily contact with their families. That keeps morale up, but it also has its hazards—especially when gossip from home reaches the combat zone, and vice versa. In a few cases, people at home learn about casualties before the Defense Department can officially notify next of kin.
"The rumor mill is very hard to control," said Sketch.