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Soldier: Wartime Stress Often Ends Marriages


I'm Michel Martin. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up: a visit with a man who brings the flavors of the Ivory Coast to suburban Virginia. Could he be the next Iron Chef?

But first, we're going to go Behind Closed Doors, our segment where we talk about sensitive issues that people often find hard to discuss. Today, we're going to talk about the stress on families for military service, specifically prolonged deployments. We love the image of the conquering hero who heads off to serve his or her country, flags waving, his family or her family standing proudly by. We like to think that when that service man or woman returns, all is fine, one big happy family.

But that picture, as we're starting to learn, can be a lot more complicated than that. Sometimes, long and frequent deployments are too much for a relationship. Sometimes, things fall apart.

Percell Artis, Jr. was deployed in Kosovo when his first marriage ended. He decided to write about this very personal and painful story in a self-published book, "Divorce by Deployment." He joins me now in our Washington studio to talk about all of this.

Master Sergeant Percell Artis, U.S. Army retired, thank you so much for speaking with us.

Master Sergeant PERCELL ARTIS JR. (U.S. Army, Retired; Author, "Divorce by Deployment"): Thank you. Thank you. I appreciate being here.

MARTIN: What made you join the service to begin with?

Master Sgt. ARTIS: Well, believe or not, I was a radio broadcaster in Norfolk, Virginia, at WNSB if you don't mind me saying. It's a public radio station. I graduated in mass communications, and I was working, doing due diligence at $3.35 in an hour. Eventually, I went on to do some TV work, just behind the scenes, but again, no money in it. And I had a guy come in to do a commercial from the Army, and I was like, wow, this looks pretty exciting. Lots of ribbons on his uniform. He must make a lot of money. We struck up a conversation, and next thing you know, I was at Fort Jackson, South Carolina in basic training.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Master Sgt. ARTIS: And that was back in 1986, and I just retired back in July of this year.

MARTIN: Were you able to work as a broadcaster in the service?

Master Sgt. ARTIS: I've done some stuff in radio. Matter of fact, while I as in Kosovo, I had a radio program for nine months called "The Flavor," and I broadcasted from 10 until midnight, broadcasting in four different countries -Kosovo, Albania, Greece and Macedonia.

MARTIN: You met your first wife when you were in Germany.

Master Sgt. ARTIS: That's correct. The first time I was in Germany in 1987, we met. We began dating. And about two years later, I went back to Fort Knox and she came on six months later after me on a fiancee visa. And we got married in 1990.

MARTIN: So this wasn't a hurry-up wedding?

Master Sgt. ARTIS: No, it wasn't.

MARTIN: This wasn't a crisis…

Master Sgt. ARTIS: No.

MARTIN: She wasn't pregnant. Forgive me for

Master Sgt. ARTIS: No.

MARTIN: …getting personal.

Master Sgt. ARTIS: No.

MARTIN: I mean, it wasn't…

MARTIN: No. She wasn't. She was not pregnant. Nope. She was not pregnant.

MARTIN: You were both adults and…

Master Sgt. ARTIS: We were both adults, and we were in, quote, unquote, "love."

MARTIN: You know, your book is titled "Divorce by Deployment." Clearly, you think that there was some relationship between the stress of your service and your constant separations and what happened in your marriage. What are the stresses? Is it just the separation, the fact that the woman or the -generally, it's the woman, but at some times the man who is staying at home, has to take on both roles - be both mother and father and run the household and so forth after that. But what else?

Master Sgt. ARTIS: Well, you know, children get sick, things break down. Grass needs to be cut. Car needs to be washed, you know, just the normal things that most spouses do that other spouses don't do. So when - and it always happens, it seems like, you know, everything is running along fine when you're home, but when you're deployed or something like that, then it goes south.

MARTIN: But you know that going in, right?

Master Sgt. ARTIS: Well, you do know that going in, but you hope that your better half can also adjust to that, because, you know, this is a relationship. You are signed on, quote, unquote, "to carry on this relationship" for good or for bad, for deployment, for not deployment and things of that nature. So you really have to be a total team player.

MARTIN: When you were in Germany, you were able to have your family with you, but, obviously, when you went to Kosovo and Macedonia, Bosnia, those were all, you know, hot-conflict…

Master Sgt. ARTIS: Right.

MARTIN: …areas. Do you think that that affected you and when you came home? Your behavior?

Master Sgt. ARTIS: I don't think so. But if you ask my first wife, she'd probably say something different.

MARTIN: One issue that we've heard of people with some real adjustment problems with some soldiers coming back, particularly from Iraq and Afghanistan during the current conflict - I mean, that's just terrible situation down in - I think it was in Fort Bragg, where just over a period of a couple of months, a number of soldiers from all - from the same kind of unit, killed their wives upon returning home.

Master Sgt. ARTIS: Right.

MARTIN: And, obviously, that was not your situation, but I just sort of - was there something about the stress of conflict that perhaps people don't fully realize?

Master Sgt. ARTIS: Well, what I put out in the book and what I like to pass along to everybody, the soldier that is deployed, they definitely have a job to do. Now, if I could just - please bear with me - the spouse at home, you have to keep this in mind, that they are under a lot of pressure. So the small things that could wait until you get home, I would advise that you do just that. Because if you are constantly, you know, making snide comments or making trouble or some troubles are at home, that you can basically take care of yourself and you communicate that on to your loved one, that soldier is not in the game. His mind is on somewhere else. He might be out doing a patrol in Iraq or Afghanistan, Kosovo, Bosnia, but his mind is a thousand miles away. So you have to keep his mind in the game.

MARTIN: What do you mean by keep your mind in the game? Are you saying when you're overseas, essentially, you're not married anymore?

Master Sgt. ARTIS: No.

MARTIN: You know, you're just doing a different - I don't mean in terms of violating your vows. Are you saying that you really - it isn't reasonable to expect that you're maintaining a relationship while you're overseas, and that when you come back there's a lot of repair work to be done?

Master Sgt. ARTIS: Well, what I mean by keeping your mind in the game is they have a big job ahead of them, you know. You drove to work today. I came here today. We didn't have to worry about IEDs or anything like that. But, you know, when you're in Kosovo or when you're in Afghanistan or when you're in Iraq, you have to be really focused on driving, getting to the mission from point A to point B. You can't be wandering. Your mind can't be, you know, off in another place or something like that. So you have to really stay in focus, and that's what I mean by keeping your mind in the game. Not only your taking care of yourself, but if you are a senior enlisted person, you're taking care of others as well.

MARTIN: Well, I don't know. But I think people grasp that, that this is just not a normal business trip, you know…

Master Sgt. ARTIS: No.

MARTIN: …where you just sort of e-mail, you know, how are things? And…

Master Sgt. ARTIS: Right.

MARTIN: …you know, and fix it. But, again, I have to ask you, what is it - do you think there's something about the way that military service is now being experienced that is adding more stress to relationships than in times gone by, or do you just think that people have less tolerance for it?

Master Sgt. ARTIS: Well, I think deployments, one, are longer. When I came in, deployment was only six months. For me - in Kosovo - it was six months, but I stayed another six months. I volunteered to stay another six months. Now, you have people in Iraq and Afghanistan, they're staying anywhere between 12 to 18 months. That's very tough on a relationship, and it's tough on a family.

And I'm not excusing those soldiers from what they did at Fort Bragg. That is very, you know, it's uncalled for. And I understand a little bit, but, of course, you have to realize that when you come home, you know, you're upset. And these soldiers really need - they have a family, a network that takes care of those problems. But, unfortunately, I don't know what triggered those guys and their mind to do that with their wives.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm speaking with Percell Artis, Jr., a retired master sergeant, about his book, "Divorce by Deployment."

You are very candid about some of the problems that service did in your marriage while you were overseas, including that your former wife got involved with another man - got pregnant by another man.

Master Sgt. ARTIS: Right.

MARTIN: Well, that must have been devastating.

Master Sgt. ARTIS: It was. It was. That led me to start writing. I was writing a little small things for my son, just a little teeny stories about things I was doing in Kosovo. I don't want to paint a picture that our marriage was all happy and everything. We did have problems, and I came from a family that really worked the problems. My mother did not want me to grow up in a broken home. She just stayed with my father, although he was very abusive. This is back in the '70s. She put up with it for 35 years.

Now, I wasn't - I'm not saying that I was abusive to my wife, but we did have some problems. But the underlining story is when I was deployed, I got the Dear John letter, the Dear John phone call saying, oh, by the way, I'm leaving, and I got a boyfriend and I'm pregnant.

MARTIN: But, again, do you feel like that that's the stress of constant separation, or perhaps - forgive me - the two of you are just ill-suited to each other and perhaps a little immature?

Master Sgt. ARTIS: Maybe a little of both. But I think it's more that the stress of me being away for, you know, quite a bit of time, I must honestly say.

MARTIN: So do you think that there is adequate support right now for the men and women serving and their families? What do you think would make it better?

Master Sgt. ARTIS: Wow. That's a good question, because I think a lot of people are having to answer that question every day. There is support. You do have family's groups that are around the military, everybody's deployed, so the families get together and they have a group. And therefore, us soldiers that are overseas, they're deployed - you know, we have the chaplain's assistant. We have other soldiers we can talk to.

MARTIN: But is there a stigma to accessing that support? Is it considered okay to access that support?

Master Sgt. ARTIS: No. It's quite common, actually. It's quite common, because everybody goes through problems, be it financial, be it marital, be it anything else. Everybody goes through those problems. And that's one thing the Army is fairly good at, is addressing those problems.

MARTIN: But you think that the length of the deployments and the frequency of them is just really more than most people can take?

Master Sgt. ARTIS: That's the problem right there: multiple deployments. I haven't been to Iraq, but I've been to Afghanistan, so can you imagine a family member going to Iraq on a third tour? I mean, that is just, you know, it's very tough on a family.

MARTIN: If you had to do it all over again, is there anything you do differently?

Master Sgt. ARTIS: I don't know if I could do anything different. I enjoyed all of my tours. Everything was great other than, you know, getting a divorce. But the best thing for me is I got custody of my son. That was the most important thing in my whole - going through this whole traumatic experience, was just to get custody of my son. So I guess everything worked out for me fine.

MARTIN: And you have remarried?

Master Sgt. ARTIS: I have remarried, and my son is living with us right now.

MARTIN: But I also noted in the book that five weeks after you remarried, you were deployed again.

Master Sgt. ARTIS: Yeah, that's right. That's right. I was in Bosnia.

MARTIN: Where did you go? You went to Bosnia.

Master Sgt. ARTIS: I went to Bosnia at that time.

MARTIN: For how long?

Master Sgt. ARTIS: About eight months. And then, after I…

MARTIN: I'm sorry, I can't imagine being a newlywed five weeks, and she's raising…

Master Sgt. ARTIS: Another person's child…

MARTIN: …a child who is not hers…

Master Sgt. ARTIS: …right.

MARTIN: …and a teenage boy, and then you're gone for eight months.

Master Sgt. ARTIS: Right.

MARTIN: I just…

Master Sgt. ARTIS: Well, it was - again, that's the level of commitment, and that's a different type of person. You see what I'm saying? My second wife, she used to be in the military, but not full time, just a reservist. So she understood that, and she understands it now.

But one thing that you brought up that I thought was very interesting that I did go to Bosnia after then I came back home. I was home for about three months, and then I went to Korea, and that was a yearlong tour. So you have to ask your spouse, can you put up with this? Can you sign up for this type of relationship, because I will be gone for four months here. When I get back, I may be going to Korea again without you, and this is a 12-month deal, so, you know, do you think we can work this? And we did. You know, we had an open line of communications, and it was much better the second time around.

MARTIN: I do wonder, though, about the future of our forces if this continued rate of deployments, the length of these deployments continues, just because people are serving who - this isn't just a bunch of young kids anymore.

Master Sgt. ARTIS: Right.

MARTIN: This is people with families, people who - I mean, this isn't just a bunch of 18 and 19-year-olds serving it for two years and then out. These are people who are trying to make the military their career.

Master Sgt. ARTIS: Right.

MARTIN: And I just wonder how common your experience is, number one. If that's the case, how does this situation sustain itself?

Master Sgt. ARTIS: I don't think it will. And like you said earlier in your opening remarks, you know, Behind Closed Doors, some of the things that the military is not talking about is divorce, separation. How is it affecting family members? How is it affecting children? We've talked about - pretty sure you've talked about the help that the veterans are getting, as far as the medical care. Now, once a soldier gets injured, they're treated properly. But once they go home, you know, they're having problems. So here's yet another thing that the military has to face: divorce, separation, stress on the family, stress on the military member as well. It's very tough.

MARTIN: What do you hope people will take away from your book?

Master Sgt. ARTIS: That…

MARTIN: Particularly because you were - you were so, I mean, obviously, this is just your side of it. And there's two sides of a story, especially in a marriage, but you are sharing a lot of painful and sort of personal details about a situation that a lot of people would find - that they wouldn't want their best friends to know, let alone the world. So what is it that you're hoping people will get from this?

Master Sgt. ARTIS: Well, that one, again, I hope that family members realize that if you do have a problem in a relationship, I think it's best to better serve that relationship and address those problems when you're at home.

Two, I hope that a person that reads this book gets an idea of how we feel as military members being deployed. You have a lot of time to think on your own when you're by yourself and you're deployed. You have a lot of time on your hands. And again, you can't work the relationship on a telephone or by e-mail. You have to work it face to face. You have to work it with a marriage counselor. You have to work it with a pastor or chaplain. So those things, I hope that someone can take away from reading the book is that the military member is deployed, he's doing a job, got to have his mind in the game. And also, just realize that there's a lot of stresses and factors going on when you're deployed.

MARTIN: It might be good to hear from your former wife.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: You should have given her maybe a chapter so we could get her side of it. What do you think?

Master Sgt. ARTIS: I'd be more than happy to give you her phone number. I think, you know, I told the story fairly. And I didn't slam her in the book. I really didn't.

MARTIN: Percell Artis Junior's memoir about surviving divorce in the Army is called "Divorce by Deployment." He joined us here in our Washington studios. Master Sergeant Percell Artis, U.S. Army, retired. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

Master Sgt. ARTIS: Thank you so much for inviting me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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