Military Steps Up Programs to Help Families

U.S. military officials say the pace and frequency of deployments to Iraq is leading to greater divorce, alcohol and drug abuse, and spousal and child abuse. The Army has had to rapidly establish intervention programs, especially for National Guard and Reserve forces returning from Iraq.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

The deaths and often crippling injuries suffered by military personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan put a terrible strain on military families; so do long and repeated deployments, US military officials acknowledge. Statistics compiled by the military suggest the stress may be showing in increased divorce rates and problems involving drugs, alcohol and spouse or child abuse after a service member returns home. NPR's Vicky O'Hara reports.

VICKY O'HARA reporting:

Most of the some 160,000 US troops now in Iraq are in the Army, and the job of helping their families falls to the Army's Community and Family Support Center. Delores Johnson, director of the center's family programs, says military couples generally expect and adjust to deployments. But the Iraq War, she says, is straining their ability to cope as evidenced by the Army's own research.

Ms. DELORES JOHNSON (Director, Army's Community and Family Support Center): The data generally says that deployments longer than six months on most families will cause them to experience a number of problems.

O'HARA: The deployments in the Iraq conflict, Johnson says, can be 12 to 18 months long, and many service member deploy more than once. She says the stress shows in increased drug or alcohol abuse or other family problems when troops return from Iraq.

Ms. JOHNSON: Bad marriages that were in existence before the deployment certainly don't get better during the deployment.

O'HARA: According to the statistics of the Defense Manpower Data Center, divorce across the Army has increased since the Iraq War began, especially among officers. In the year to September 2002, the divorce rate among officers was 1.9 percent. Last year, according to the military statistics, it was 6 percent.

It's difficult to compare family problems during the Iraq War with those of previous wars because in years past the military did not do the kind of research that it does today. But Delores Johnson says the stress of the Iraq conflict is undeniable, and it's especially acute, she says, for members of the National Guard and Reserve.

Ms. JOHNSON: Of the soldiers that are involved in this conflict, half of them are from the Reserve component. So that's a completely different scenario.

O'HARA: Johnson explains that when members of the Guard and Reserve return home, they lose most of their military infrastructure.

Ms. JOHNSON: There are issues around being able to return to their jobs. There are issues around the medical support that they get, reuniting with their families, all big issues.

O'HARA: Army officials say they learned from Vietnam to monitor returning veterans. Brigadier General John Macdonald, commander of the Community and Family Support Center, says the Army has documented a spike in behavioral or emotional problems at certain intervals after a soldier is reunited with his or her family.

Brigadier General JOHN MACDONALD (Commander, Community and Family Support Center): We're finding at 45 days after the soldier's feet hit the ground in America and then about four and a half months after his feet hit the ground in America...

O'HARA: Macdonald explains that at about 45 days the soldier has returned from leave and is back on the job.

Brig. Gen. MACDONALD: You have an initial maladjustment period. We start to see some alcohol spike. We start to see some driving spikes, accidents. And then later some of those kind of feelings subsurface, and then they start to emerge, particularly in junior leaders that have been in the most intense combat and responsible for soldiers at about the four-and-a-half-month mark.

O'HARA: General Macdonald says the Army has created a number of intervention programs.

Brig. Gen. MACDONALD: First, we're briefing soldiers about that while they're still deployed in reunion and reintegration training. We're briefing spouses to watch for it. We're teaching commanders about it. Then when people come back, we're talking about it again, and then when they get back off block leave, we're watching very carefully for that, so that all the things that are associated with post traumatic stress syndrome we take care of and they don't perturbate into domestic violence.

O'HARA: The National Guard and Reserve also have instituted counseling programs. Joyce Raezer, director of government relations for the National Military Family Association, says the Defense Department has contracted with several counseling firms to provide services to far-flung Guard and Reserve members. Raezer says her organization has been surveying military families about the impact of the Iraq War, and those results, she says, support the Army's general findings.

Ms. JOYCE RAEZER (Director of Government Relations, National Military Family Association): If you count back from when we first got into Afghanistan after 9/11 till now, we've been at war longer than we were at war during World War II. And so a lot of the service members and the families have been running on adrenaline for a long time, and you can't do that forever.

O'HARA: In recognition of the stress, the Pentagon has ordered mental and physical health assessments for combat veterans three to six months after they get home. Vicky O'Hara, NPR News, Washington.

HANSEN: It's 18 minutes past the hour.

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