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The military divorce rate went down slightly in 2012, settling at 3.5 percent, according to Pentagon statistics released to Military.com on Tuesday.
Military officials and divorce experts are hopeful that the overall rate, which had crept slowly up from 2.6 percent in 2001 to 3.7 percent in 2011, is starting to move downward. Still, researchers are hesitant to call the decrease a real trend until they see it continue for a longer period.
“The sense is that things are possibly drifting down,” said Benjamin Karney, a researcher with the RAND Corp. who has studied military divorce. “Interpreting it is a challenge. As much as it would be terrific to say ‘Oh great, we’ve turned a corner,’ it’s really hard to do that in one year.”
The divorce rate is measured by comparing the number of married military members at the beginning to the end of the fiscal year while taking into account attrition, new recruits, and new marriages.
Between 2011 and 2012, the divorce rate went down slightly in every service among male and female servicemembers of all ranks.
Enlisted female soldiers and Marines, however, continue to experience the highest rate of divorce -- 9.4 percent and 9.3 percent respectively. In the Army, the female enlisted divorce rate is more than triple that of enlisted males. Still, those rates are down from the 2011 rates of 9.6 percent in Army and 9.8 percent in the Marine Corps.
But the incremental rate change does not necessarily translate into a noticeable day-to-day difference. One divorce attorney in military-rich San Diego said he has not seen any substantial increase or decrease in military divorces over the last 10 to 20 years.
“I have seen the instance of divorce remain steady … without any decline over the last 10 to 20 years,” said Alan Edmonds, the principal divorce attorney at the Edmonds Law Firm in San Diego. “The biggest problem facing married military members is their age and their lack of coping skills for the stress of long separations.”
Karney said the lessening of two key marriage stressors, including the length and frequency of separations, could be linked to the slight 2012 divorce rate decrease.
“The divorce rates are perhaps trickling down because the pace of deployment is getting slower,” he said. “Another possibility is that the economy is kind of bouncing back and military families are absolutely affected by the broader national economy, so maybe their lives are gradually getting easier.”
The civilian divorce rate stands at about 3.6 percent as of 2010, according to the most recent data. Military and civilian divorce rates cannot be accurately compared due to how they are tracked.
While the divorce rate in the military is based on personnel data used to distribute benefits, the civilian rate is calculated on a per-1,000 person basis by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The CDC’s calculation, however, only accounts for 41 states because several states, including California, do not track or report their rate.
Military officials attribute the small decrease to the success of marriage support and emotional health programs, such as the Army’s Strong Bonds retreats and private counseling.
“The health and well-being of servicemembers and their families is a priority,” said Cmdr. Leslie Hull-Ryde, a Defense Department spokesman. “Strong relationships are important to our readiness.”
Officials with the Army’s chaplains office, however, admit that there is still room for improvement. To really help divorcing couples, they need to be able to track what is causing the divorce -- something that is not currently done well, officials said. While they believe their Army Strong Bonds program, which takes participants on a retreat weekend for a series of relationship classes, is very successful, knowing what causes divorce could help them make it even better, one official said.
“Right now, there’s no reporting requirement on the part of individuals. If there weren’t entitlements and benefits linked to it, they wouldn’t have to tell us they're divorced at all. Unless they seek counseling before the divorce or after the divorce, we are unlikely to know any of the reasons they’re divorcing,” said Chaplain Col. Ken Stice, a spokesman for the Army Chief of Chaplains. “Right now, we’re on the sweet spot of respecting servicemembers and their spouses, but because of that we’re unable to support them.”
However, Stice said Army chaplains recognize the problem. And as troops spend less time deployed and more time at home, chaplains are ready to dig in deeper with servicemembers.
“I think the Army is posturing well for a more garrison environment where we have the time to ask those questions,” Stice said.