People think it’s easier for single soldiers to go to war. In some ways, I believe it’s harder.
I was married once…nearly a decade ago. Like anything in the Marine Corps, even the holy sacrament of marriage can be made into a competition – who gets married the youngest, who gets married the quickest, who remains married the longest, who has the hottest wife or husband, or who has the most children. “Marriage” and “success” were (apparently?) synonymous. The ironic thing is, most military marriages don’t last.
Several years ago when I began dating a civilian guy, he bluntly asked me, “Have you been divorced?” His father, a former Air Force pilot, told him to ask me this because, in his opinion, all Marines had been married and divorced. I hesitated, but replied, “Yes.” The stereotype that a majority of Marines get divorced does exist for a reason. Divorce statistics among the military population are well above the national average.
Usually, I do not volunteer information about my marital history until further along in a relationship. When I am directly asked about it, though, I keep my answer simple. I allow people think I am part of the military statistic. I allow people to think my ex-husband and I just could not “hack it” as a young married couple. I allow people’s minds to wander and to assume one of us cheated on the other, one of us abused the other, or one of us lied to or stole from the other. I allow the questioners to fill their heads with whatever assumptions they already have about young, divorced Marines. I do not explain to them that when I committed to my marriage, I had taken it more seriously than most of the other Marines I knew at the time and that before my fiancé and I got married, I evaluated the forthcoming union from all vantage points.
One of the ways I assessed the future marriage was logically. I studied sociology in college and often applied the lessons I learned in the classroom to my personal life. Therefore, I recognized the common education, socio-economic class, and general background my ex-husband and I shared. Intellectually, we grilled each other on what we thought would breed success and why others had failed. Personality-wise, we were both active, outdoorsy, and loved our families. I also gauged the potential success of our relationship on a spiritual and emotional level. We prepared by attending pre-marital counseling with our pastor and appeared to be compatible. We were young, but by anyone’s standards, we were a good match. This was a recipe for success, right?
I choose not to reveal the full details of my divorce to everyone when first asked about it because those details are painful to share. One week after we were engaged, I was raped…by a fellow Marine. My relationship with my then-fiancé took a tumultuous turn. The high we felt a week before nose-dived into confusion that lasted for several months. Eventually, we emerged from the emotional fog, believing we had made it through the roughest patch of our lives and come out mostly whole on the other side. If anyone could do it – marriage – we could. We followed through with our plans to get married four months later.
Two months after our wedding, I finally had an opportunity to report the assault. At this point in time, my ex and I functioned as happy newlyweds, romantically in love with one another, disappointed to be stationed apart from one another, but confident in the strength of our relationship. When I presented the facts of the rape to the Judge Advocate General (JAG) and moved forward with the legal proceedings, the scab was ripped open. The Marine Corps’ institutional failure to handle the situation appropriately just poured salt into the wound; it was too much to bear. I was forced to relive the rape every day for two months straight because I was required to tell the JAG, or my ex, the story again and again and again. Even though my ex knew every detail of the story, he incessantly demanded that I retell it. It felt like he didn’t believe me. It felt like he insisted I repaint the picture in lurid detail time and time again in the hopes that he’d hear some new detail that would make him really believe me that I was raped and I hadn’t just made a drunken mistake.
Parts of me began to shut down. I wasn’t myself. I was depressed. I was exhausted. I was in physical pain. I had nightmares. I didn’t want to be touched. I went from laughing every day to crying every day. I was not Sarah, and my ex had had enough. I asked him to stick with me through those tough months because I knew it wouldn’t last forever. I explained to him that I was having a delayed, but textbook, response to rape. That the poor handling of the case by the TBS JAG was exacerbating this grief cycle, but darnit, I was trying my best to suck it up and move on. “Just give me time,” I pleaded. A couple months later, he shrugged his shoulders, raised his hands, palms toward me, and muttered the fateful words that begun the final unraveling, “I can’t do it anymore.”
We were divorced less than a year later.
The rape, the marriage, the reporting of the rape, and my subsequent divorce all happened during my first year as a Commissioned Officer in the Marine Corps. As I progressed through my career and witnessed more and more of my peers and colleagues tie the knot, it bothered me that those with newly minted marriage bands held themselves above those who hadn’t taken the plunge (and certainly thought better of themselves than those who had already and “failed”). Shortly after my divorce, I remember a fellow female Marine at TBS looking at me with disdain, then speaking of her marriage as if it were a model to emulate based on its existence alone. She had no idea what had caused the death of my dear relationship, yet she openly judged it…and me. Ironically, she, too, was divorced only a few years later and, as far as I know, under no more dire circumstances than the stress and separation the Marine Corps graciously bestows upon all of its members. But I could be wrong; one never really knows another’s story and I do not intend to judge as I was judged.
It just seemed preposterous to me that some relationships were given more validity than others. I knew of more than a handful of cases where Lieutenants met at TBS and were married by the time their MOS school was over in order to offer each other some sort of emotional guarantee before they went off to war. These less-than-a-year-old relationships were looked upon as more of a relationship than those of people who had been together for years simply because they had an official label. It disgusted me to know the cycle would just keep repeating itself as I talked to Marine friends – male and female alike – who rushed to figure out if they should marry their current dating partner. They knew being married made you appear more grown up, responsible, and as a new officer (where you were often younger than your enlisted Marines), this was yet another plus on the pro/con list for getting hitched.
Though few and far between, I know of some couples in the Marine Corps who have been together for years without getting married yet. I admire them because they’ve resisted the institutional force and good old-fashioned peer pressure telling them to do so; and those who resist often do so for all the right reasons. I wish I’d known a couple like that to talk to before my ex and I got married. I remember thinking, “Being married will help keep us together when we are apart.” (Gimme a break, I was 22 at the time!) When instead (and what I now advise to others) I should’ve taken a step back and thought, “If it’s going to work out, it’s going to work out regardless of if we’re married. If we stay together through the PCS’s, deployments, and various other crap, then we’ll stay together whether or not there’s a license saying so.” If you take marriage seriously, of course it’s more than just a piece of paper, but what I’m driving at is the point that if you take your relationship seriously – married or single – that will result in success; the attitude, not the label, determines “altitude.”
As far as deploying as a single person or a married one, on my deployments, I noticed a lot of married people couldn’t wait to get away – whether it was because they craved the Corps so much or couldn’t stand their family was irrelevant. What mattered when I first started contemplating this topic years ago was that they were relieved to be anywhere other than “home” and/or were particularly happy living in a war zone. I was single, yet I still yearned for home as deeply as anyone else; I intensely missed my family and every dear friend I had while I was deployed. One of the worst parts of “going to war” was the simple fact that I was away; it wouldn’t have mattered if I was in a combat zone or vacationing in Europe. Being in Iraq meant being removed from everyone else’s lives and hovering in suspended animation while their worlds kept turning and mine was Groundhog Day.
I empathized with the Marines who’d left spouses at home, though. I felt for them then, and I feel for them now when I think of being separated from someone you chose you marry. Moreover, I really felt badly for Marines with children. I knew I couldn’t imagine the pain they felt from that separation. But for many of the young Marines, “spouses” were little more than that than by title alone and more of serious girlfriends in reality (sometimes not even that). Yes, technically, they were married; but Marines I knew, male and female, entered into early marriages in order to provide a sense of the relationship being secure. Also, and I think sometimes most importantly for some couples, marriage made the relationship valid in the eyes of the Marine Corps. And when you have the DEPLOYMENT black cloud constantly looming above you, you will grasp onto anything that seems solid. So I knew many of the nuptials were sure to leave one or both of the partners wanting before the deployment was over, and simple immaturity coupled with prolonged distance was usually the culprit.
Many of the unmarried and married Marines in the Squadron solicited me for relationship advice during deployments. I particularly related to one handsome Corporal. He was more like a college buddy than most of the other Marines. I knew his union was doomed before we returned to the States. What he told me about his young bride sounded familiar and his aspirations reminded me a lot of my ex. He genuinely loved her and wanted things to work, but felt compelled to marry quickly based on the circumstances. His relationship was one of the few that I perceived to be genuine, and so I felt deeply disappointed for him knowing it would probably end in separation soon after his return. Sadly, we think we’re doing our partner a service by legally joining them to us, but when things sour, it makes the split that much harder.
I wish the Marine Corps honored the inherent value of committed partnerships. I wonder now with the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell how same-sex couples will feel. I wonder if they will flock to states that legalized same-sex marriage to get that stamp of approval. I wonder if either group – the committed unmarried couples or steadfast same-sex partners – realize how much they have in common. I wonder if now that the gay and lesbian couples can come out, it will inadvertently help the dual sex couples.
Those of you for whom the shotgun-style wedding works, grows, and lasts – bless you. I know your year by year ticking off of marriage achievement is something you wear like a badge of honor, and I am truly am happy for your “success.” (I’m afraid this sounds sarcastic, but it’s not). For those of you who really tried to make something doomed for failure work, I commend you. For those of you abusing the system to get benefits and favor, shame on you. For those of you too confused to know the difference, I wish there was more sound guidance available or an institution that didn’t prematurely push the bonds of yet another on you. I wish the military institution didn’t force people into one institution whilst already fully enveloped by another…
According to the military machine, being married equates with being successful.
Capt. Sarah Plummer, USMCR is the prior Deputy Director of Geospatial Intelligence for MCIA and is a military Olympic athlete as a Reservist on the Women’s Soccer team. Her blog is at MarineChick.com.