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Unity on the Homefront: Helping Veterans Stay Married

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When veterans return to civilian life after their duty to our country ends, a surprising number will also see the end of something else: their marriage. As a study from Brigham Young University shows, combat veterans' first marriages are 62% more likely to end in separation or divorce compared to the first marriages of non-veterans. For the brave men and women of our armed forces, this means that the very relationships veterans may be counting on to provide love and support during a time of transition are the same relationships that are the most vulnerable and at risk.

Why is this? And what solutions can help veterans and their spouses stay married? One key to identifying what works is to understand just what veterans are up against.

For example, John was an Army Ranger during the Iraq War. In his three separate tours of duty, he was required to make split-second decisions that could mean life or death for his unit -- and for himself. On mission after mission, the stress he felt was unlike anything he had ever endured. And then the worst came when he watched in horror as one of his unit members stepped on a live mine left lying in wait for them...

After the war, John remained in active duty service until he was honorably discharged in 2011. His wife Pam and their children were so happy to have him home again, and John was pleased to quickly land a private sector job in the computer industry. On the outside, it looked like John and Pam were settling into normal civilian family life. But inside...John couldn't shake how numb and distant he felt. As the years went by, he had flashbacks and nightmares, and struggled constantly to find meaning and connection with his family. He drank as a way to cope, but getting drunk only made him lash out at Pam. When he came home one day to find that Pam had taken the kids and moved in with her mother, he wasn't surprised. John loved his family, but his isolation and depression felt insurmountable. As he read the note she left on the kitchen table telling him to expect divorce papers to be served the following week, John's only response was to pour himself another drink.

Are you a combat veteran or military spouse in need of real solutions to protect your marriage and family? For John and Pam, and other veterans going through marital strife, here are five ways to help you through this time.

Be Open to Counseling: Something that is important for all military couples to understand: the transition home can be a challenge for veterans, but it can also be difficult for spouses and partners. If you are feeling alone and isolated, be aware that your spouse may be experiencing their own sense of disconnectedness. When left unaddressed, these kinds of emotions can feed off each other and worsen. To protect your relationship, work on ways to open the lines of communication. You may benefit from attending couples and/or individual counseling or peer support groups for military families. Counseling is often a vital part of reunification because it can help you (and your spouse) process emotions and learn coping skills as you adjust to post-military life.

Recognize PTSD: As a lingering effect of combat, upwards of 10% of veterans of recent wars and combat missions develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a serious mental health disorder marked by symptoms such as nightmares and difficulty sleeping, angry outbursts, depression, loss of interest, hyper-vigilance, and feeling numb or emotionally distant. Experiencing any of these symptoms, however mild, is not something to brush off as insignificant, or view as a sign of weakness. Indeed, getting help to recover from trauma may be the single most important step you take to keep your personal and family relationships intact. If you need help with PTSD, please contact your local VA Center to be connected with medical and therapeutic professionals trained in PTSD recovery. Tip: Ask if the VA Center offers EMDR, an evidence-based treatment for helping individuals process and release trauma.

Protect Your Kids: Children grow up so fast, and reuniting with your kids following a lengthy service commitment may feel like you are meeting each other for the first time. Your kids may not be as responsive or comfortable with you as soon as you would like, and reintegrating into everyday family life may feel strange. It can also be the case that your spouse, as the parent in charge while you were away, may be reluctant to let go of control over discipline and other parenting matters. Accept that rebuilding your relationship with your children will take time and understanding, as will the relationship you and your spouse have as co-parents. Family counseling or attending a military family support group can be helpful for all of you.

When Living Apart Is The (Temporary) Answer: If there is substantial discord at home, you and your spouse may decide to live apart while you continue to work on your problems. As part of the temporary separation, it is important to contact a family law attorney who can help you prepare agreements that establish temporary child support and a parenting plan, temporary spousal support as needed, and related matters such as who pays the mortgage payments and costs related to home maintenance. Not having written agreements in place to address these issues can create added strain in the relationship -- which can then sink your attempts to heal and rebuild your relationship. If your spouse is reluctant to make agreements with you, you can ask the courts to issue temporary custody and support orders.

Understand Your Legal Options: If you have separated, or even if one of you has filed for divorce, but now the two of you are working through your issues, you may want to explore the legal option of having a reconciliation agreement put in place. A reconciliation agreement is a specific type of post-nuptial agreement that spells out how assets and debts, including military pensions, would be divided in the event of a divorce. Having a post-nuptial agreement in place provides peace of mind during a sensitive time, and also adds gravitas to your decision to give your relationship a second chance.

As we celebrate Veterans' Day this November 11, we thank veterans for their service to our great nation. But this year, let us also take our gratitude one step further by offering veterans some of what they need to make their lives happy, healthy, and whole...starting with helping them protect their marriage.