FORT MYER, Va. -- A lot of marriages have been tested in Iraq, said an Army chaplain who returned from a year-long deployment there in November.
Maj. Derrick Riggs, now a religious-support resource manager at Fort Myer, Va., served with the 82nd Airborne Division's 3rd Brigade Combat Team in Iraq last year.
"Marriage will succeed or fail based on everything you do before a deployment," Riggs said. "If you have a strained marriage, the deployment will have a greater adverse impact. Absence will only make the heart grow fonder if you have a strong marriage to begin with."
"I don't think younger Soldiers have solid expectations of marriage, but, rather, are driven by emotion," added Maj. Chris Downey, operations officer for the 82nd Airborne Division's 82nd Combat Aviation Brigade. "They're seeking immediate companionship before and after deployment."
Downey and his wife, Trish, have been married for 15 of his 17 years in the Army - from the time he was an enlisted Soldier, through advanced military training, to his commissioning, and two recent combat tours to Afghanistan and Iraq.
"I'm worried about my family when I'm deployed, but when I'm deployed, the mission has to be my main focus," he said.
That's why Soldiers depend so much on the support available to them through family readiness groups and others. It's that support, and the support of other spouses that helps military families cope, Downey said.
Deployment, while not easy on a family that includes a son and daughter, ages 10 and 13, respectively, didn't cause any marital problems, Trish said. "I had no feelings of resentment when he deployed. I was proud of him. And our marriage was very strong when he left.
"What makes it strong is his commitment to his family," she said. "And I know his family comes first when it can come first."
Sgt. 1st Class Ernest Rabot of the Italy-based 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team has been married to Joy for 20 years. He echoes Downey's sentiments.
"When I'm deployed, I focus on the mission, but when there's time to relax a bit, I write my wife all about the things I've been doing or going through during the deployment.
Spc. Chase Windell, another member of the 173rd ABCT, deployed to Afghanistan soon after his wife, Samantha, joined him in Bamberg, Germany. The couple's son was 2 months old at the time.
"The first few months after my husband deployed were miserable," Samantha said. "I wanted to stay home the whole time."
Instead, she got involved, spending time with other women whose husbands had also deployed, participating in Yoga classes, shopping, supervising their respective children's playtime and taking trips together. Samantha also volunteers as her family readiness group's treasurer. Her advice to spouses of deployed Soldiers is: "Get out there and get involved."
"The most important thing you can do to keep a marriage healthy is to communicate," Downey said. "If you're going to deploy, talk about some of the stressors before, during and after deployment."
Soldiers who are deployed should try to call as much as possible, he added, even if the calls are short.
"Just knowing Chris was thinking of me meant a lot to me and the kids," Trish said.
"I think marriage in the military is a significant challenge for the Army," Downey added. "But officials are doing a very good job at understanding that the family is a combat multiplier - an important part of the puzzle - and are providing programs to support the family."
The current Reset pilot program, as an example, is one of the Army's newest attempts to ease a Soldier's transition back to his family and his community by minimizing or eliminating training requirements for 120 days after a Soldier returns from deployment, Downey said.
"Marriage isn't for kids, and being in the Army just makes it harder," added Chief Warrant Officer 3 Roy Melebeck, commander of Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 173rd ABCT Rear Detachment.
Besides communication, he suggests honesty, unselfishness and support, candlelight dinners and flowers - for no special occasion at all.