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Failed marriages can often follow wartime romances

Hundreds of soldiers and Marines based in North Carolina flocked to magistrates to be married in early 2003. Young and headed to Iraq, they were joining a romantic tradition as old as war and marriage.

Failed marriages can often follow wartime romances

By Jay Price


Many are contributing to the military's high wartime divorce rate.

The register of deeds in Onslow County, which is home to Camp Lejeune, issued 479 marriage licenses in the first two months of 2003, nearly 50 percent more than the same period in 2002. Cumberland County, the site of Fort Bragg, issued 644 licenses, up nearly one-third.

Since then, units have deployed repeatedly, keeping new spouses apart - in some cases nearly as much as they have been together. Meanwhile, recruiting has fallen, and the Pentagon knows that it must keep marriages healthy to shore up re-enlistment.

That means that it needs to save unions such as the ill-starred marriage of Seth E. Kilkuskie and Lakiesha N. Carter.

Carter, a 19-year-old single mother, spotted the handsome 20-year-old Marine one night in October 2002 in a Jacksonville gas station. He noticed her, too. He got her number, and that night they talked so long that her cell-phone battery drained twice.

"I don't know if it was just that we were both lonely," she said. "Everything got really, really serious, really, really quick."

About three months after they met, they were talking about his coming deployment and the extra pay and benefits that he could get as a married Marine. "One Wednesday, we just went down and got married," she said.

That was in January 2003. Things started going wrong almost as quickly as they had gone right. Money was tight. They didn't know each other as well as they thought.

"I'm stubborn, he's stubborn. Sometimes it got childish," she said. "Marriage is supposed to be about compromise, but neither one of us was willing to do that." Within months, they split.

"All we ever did was struggle," she said. "I think we got married too quick, considering how young we were."

Kilkuskie, who is in Iraq, could not be reached.

The ingredients of wartime romance - love, impulse, young hormones and looming separation - can also be a recipe for divorce, said Lt. Cmdr. Breck Bregel, a Navy chaplain at Camp Lejeune.

"There's just this idea out there that 'I'll be better off financially, or my fiancee will.' But there's maybe not that foundation. They may not have known each other very long. Or, being young, they might not have really developed that intimacy, that knowledge, that trust that make up a good foundation for marriage."

There were 5,700 divorces among active-duty Army soldiers in 2001, according to Pentagon statistics. By 2004, the number had nearly doubled, to 10,500. It dipped in 2005 but was nearly 25 percent higher than before the war.

The divorce rate among Marines was steadier. Nearly 75 percent of all military marriages that begin during a first enlistment end in divorce, Bregel said, compared with the national rate of about 50 percent. A big problem behind many failed military marriages is little known outside the service: misconceptions about pay.

More money is available to married personnel - about $12,000 on top of an annual $23,000 for a Marine lance corporal with three years of service if he moves off the base, and a couple of hundred dollars a month more during deployments. But the young Marines often don't understand how much extra they will have to shell out for vehicles, rent and other monthly bills.

Bradley J. Urias, then 20, and Ashley L. Petersen, 18, were married by an Onslow magistrate Jan. 15, 2003. He shipped out for the Middle East the next month and came home in July. The marriage lasted only a few months longer.

Petersen, through her mother, Lynn Petersen of Eagle River, Wis., declined to talk about the experience. But Lynn Petersen said that one problem was that Urias believed that he would come out ahead financially.

Urias told Ashley and her family that some of his leaders said that getting married was a good idea because of the pay.

"Are they not parents themselves?" Petersen said. "Don't they know the kind of damage they can do to young people's lives?"

Some of the marriages are working, despite the odds.

Glendon T. Sword and Billie Jo Harkins, then 24 and 19 and both Marine lance corporals, were wed the day after Lakiesha Carter in January 2003, by the same magistrate. They, too, had met in October - on a Lejeune rifle range where they were firing M-16s at adjacent targets. Her empty shell casings pelted him each time she pulled the trigger. They, too, made the decision to visit the magistrate quickly. But their experience was different in many ways.

"We had good, strong communications built up by that point," Sword said. "If you meet someone out on the town and start dating, and then you get married really quick, those are the couples that have a lot higher divorce rate."

But both agreed that marriage to another Marine is easier, because both know the nature of the job.

Troops often make decisions about re-enlistment based on their family's support. As recruiters struggle to meet targets, divorce rates have become a headache for the military, which has started several new programs to support marriage in recent years.

Chaplains are available for counseling almost any time. But the services also offer premarriage counseling programs, informal support networks for young wives, programs to ease combat soldiers' return to the family, groups to support the family while a soldier is gone - even weekend retreats at the beach for couples to improve their relationships. But much of this is voluntary, and arrayed against it are macho military culture, the irrationality of young romance, stress and long separations.

In many cases, couples get no counseling. At Lejeune, if Marines or sailors want to marry, most commanding officers require them to attend a two-day course called "Before I Say I Do," which focuses on financial issues, compatibility, sexuality and communications.

Sometimes, said Carter, the single mother, it is not that two people are wrong for each other, just that the way they handle marriage is wrong.

She doesn't blame her ex-husband for the collapse of their marriage any more than she blames herself. "I regret it, like, every day," she said.

Carter has seen a lot and done a lot since that impulsive trip to the magistrate. But even after what she has been through, the romance of wartime marriage can still overcome logic. "Considering that rising death toll, I might tell somebody who was thinking about doing it to go ahead," she said. "I mean, one of them might not be around that much longer, so why not?"