Go to Iraq, lose your wife and your money
You can lose a limb, a life or your wife in Iraq.
Atrios picked this up.
Shrapnel From Home
It's a war that soldiers in Iraq weren't trained for: a long-distance fight to keep marriages and finances intact, and keep 'Jody' out of the picture.
By Faye Fiore
Times Staff Writer
KILLEEN, Texas ? Most of the men in 4th Squad, Charlie Battery, fought two wars while they were in Iraq. There was the war against the insurgents that had them patrolling for roadside bombs and raiding houses at all hours. Then there was the war back home, which had them struggling, over phone lines from 7,000 miles away, to keep their marriages and their bank accounts intact.
They say they eventually got used to the bombs. The crazy possibility of dying any minute didn't haunt them so much. But that other war, that was the one that tore them up in the downtime spent in Sgt. Cox's trailer at Camp Victory. It would get quiet, and then one or another of them would ask: "So, how are things going at home?" And they would begin to brood.
They all knew about "Jody," the opportunist of Army lore who moved in on a soldier's girl while the soldier was off fighting a war. They had sung hundreds of cadences in basic training deriding the name. But it had always seemed like a joke, something that happened to other guys.
After all, Sgt. Brent Cox, 36, and his wife, Kristina, were expecting their first child after 12 years of marriage.
Pvt. Ray Hall, 21, was married to his high school sweetheart, an airman first class stationed in San Antonio.
Spc. Jason Garcia, 23, believed that his on-again, off-again relationship with the mother of his then-2-year-old son was on again; he had given her his ATM card as a gesture of commitment.
But on the long-awaited day in February when the three soldiers returned here to Ft. Hood, Texas, turned in their rifles and stood on the parade field, only Hall had a sweetheart there to meet him. And he found himself wishing she hadn't come at all.
After surviving the chaos of Iraq, thousands of soldiers have become casualties of a fight they were poorly trained for: keeping control of their family lives during the separation of war. Men and women who feel lucky their units suffered few fatalities say they can name dozens who returned to empty houses, squandered bank accounts, divorce papers and restraining orders.
The Army divorce rate has jumped more than 80% since the fighting began overseas in response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The courts around Ft. Hood, the Army's largest post, may have to add another judge to handle the caseload. Divorce lawyers hire extra staff whenever a division prepares to come home.
To a soldier in battle, the threat of a family falling apart can be a dangerous distraction. "That's probably the worst part about being over there," said Hall, now back at Ft. Hood and facing a marriage so damaged it may not survive. "Your wife's cheating on you, you know she's been spending all your money the entire time, and there's nothing you can do about it. You think about that more than you do a bomb on the side of the road."
For some in the 4th Squad, the tensions played out nightly in Camp Victory's "Internet cafe" ? the Army trailer with rows of computers where soldiers flocked to contact their families. Some found more pain there than comfort. Cox's wife was five months pregnant when she announced she was leaving him and going back home to Lawton, Okla.
Hall visited the Internet trailer less often after he checked the phone messages on his home answering machine one day and heard another man tell his wife he loved her.
Garcia stopped hearing from his girlfriend and started tracking his bank account. He said thousands of dollars of his saved pay was gone and she had found somebody else.
All three men said they were devastated. Hall and Garcia were demoted after they were caught with black-market booze, a violation of Army regulations.
Cox ? a personable and popular noncommissioned officer whose men compared him to actor Rick Moranis with a crew cut ? grew snappish and withdrawn.
"He was not himself at all when his wife told him she didn't want to be with him no more," recalled Spc. Lance Fernandez, 23. "He was short with us sometimes, and you could see that he was down and he was depressed."
There are six men in the squad, and five of them saw their marriages or relationships come under severe pressure. One relationship survived and three didn't; the fate of the fifth is unresolved.
Concentrating on the mission became hard. Sitting in a Humvee, waiting for orders to roll out, the men would think about how life at home was falling apart and they could do little about it.
"When we go outside that gate and into Baghdad, you've got to have your head straight," said Cox, who now lives alone in an apartment at Ft. Hood. "You're trying to stay alive, but your mind goes to back home. Whatever problem you had before you left escalates, because you're not there?. I just wish she would have talked to me."
Marriages and divorces in Bell County, home to Ft. Hood, are the highest per capita in Texas and as predictable as the tides. Before a division leaves for duty, Killeen's two justices of the peace get busy. When the division returns, Michael White, a leading family law attorney, stocks up on divorce intake forms.
Cox, Hall, Garcia and the rest of the 17,000-member 1st Cavalry, the Army's largest division, returned in March. In April, the district clerk's office recorded 335 divorces. The monthly average is 200.
"The divorce rate is so high here, we are just in the beginning stages of approving a fifth district court in Bell County. And there are suggestions that we really need a sixth," said White, whose waiting rooms are regularly filled with clients, mostly military.
Married or not, soldiers are encouraged to assign powers of attorney to people they trust to monitor their finances while they are overseas. Some hand over their ATM cards and sign blank checks to people they hardly know.
"They come back and their accounts are gone," White said. "It's not unique anymore." Indeed, the Army recently instituted a program for single soldiers titled "How Not to Marry a Jerk."
To girls who grow up around Killeen, or who land here courtesy of the Army, a soldier is considered an excellent catch ? steady paycheck, health benefits, guaranteed housing.
Stability like that can be irresistible in a part of the country where earning $12 an hour is considered top dollar for a woman.
Still, when Owen met a young soldier two weeks before he left for Iraq in the spring, she declined his absurd marriage proposal ? he was, after all, already married, and she'd had enough of that.
But when he asked her to handle his finances while he was off manning the gun on top of a tank, she agreed. He left her his ATM card, his pass code, a book of signed checks and instructions to spend some money on herself.
The thousands that accumulated in his account was irresistible, and she soon became the sort of woman she had seen so many others in Killeen become.
First, she went to Wal-Mart and bought her daughters a $400 motorized bicycle. That was followed by clothes for all three of them, a DVD player and a television set for the girls' room. She took one of the blank checks and paid her April rent. There were a few nights of $600 rounds of drinks for her friends at one of the local strip clubs. When the soldier's $10,000 reenlistment bonus came through, there was no stopping her.
"I got caught up on my bills and bought clothes for me and my girls," she said, laughing weakly. "It was nothing he didn't know about. He knew about most of it. He knew I was taking money out of his account. He just didn't know how much."
About $5,000 later, the soldier ? who still is in Iraq and could not be reached for comment ? caught on..
"I felt like if he was that stupid to have known me for two weeks and given me his ATM card, that's what he gets," she said, the tears in her eyes competing with the harsh words. "I tell myself I'm like a Good Samaritan, trying to get these soldiers to quit doing that. I know, it's monstrous."
"This whole deployment really messed up a whole lot of marriages," Spc. Fernandez said. "I can see six or eight months ? it has to be done. But anything longer than that takes too much out of the marriage. My little girl is still getting to know me."
Gee, you mean it's not all loyal, waiting wives? Jesus, people forget about this, but war doesn't just ruin lives, it corrodes marriages as well. You have young marriages as is, but the war just makes it worse. A lot of people just can't handle the stress of war and marriage.
posted by Steve @ 11:10:00 AM