• The Washington Post


Military spouses talk about almost everything. In running groups, prayer groups, writing groups, many spouses say they lean on one another heavily while their partners are overseas on yet another deployment in this decade of war.

They discuss how to explain drones to their kids, how desperately they need jobs and how to keep positive during the weekly Skype session to Afghanistan with a husband they have been apart from for six months.

Community is tight, conversation frank.

But not when it comes to the topic of cheating.

The rest of America may be fixated on retired Gen. David Petraeus’ affair with Paula Broadwell — what they did or didn’t do and when, what it means about military culture and power and whether affairs are inevitable if two people spend enough time together jogging and talking about counterintelligence. But in military circles, the subject appears to be largely taboo.

Military Spouse magazine posted a statement on its website after the scandal broke, saying it would not write about the subject — not even in general terms. The statement got hundreds of Facebook “likes” and cheers of “Bravo!” On the Facebook pages where enlisted people and their loved ones meet virtually, the scandal is either unmentioned or referred to in the briefest shorthand, like elevator chitchat about the weather.

Part of the reason for this is the community’s relatively small size — active military personnel and their families comprise only about 1 percent of Americans — that is hesitant to be seen as gossiping about Petraeus and his wife, Holly, who is beloved for her advocacy of military families. But it goes to a much more raw, sensitive issue in a culture where cheating on your spouse is a crime that can hold back your career, and yet relationships are struggling after a decade of separations.

“I can’t think of a single example of a family readiness group or a spouse group meeting or anywhere even quasipublic where it would be discussed” even before the Petraeus affair came out, said Alison Buckholtz, a U.S. Navy wife and author who led a group of spouses from 2006 to 2009 while her husband was deployed overseas. “Even this week, a lot of military spouses I know said they don’t want to talk about it, it’s just too close to home.”

Sara Horn, founder of the Wives of Faith website, which connects Christian military spouses to help support their marriages, said she returned a few weeks ago from a conference for women connected with the military and of the 52 sessions held, none were on the subject of fidelity. In recent days, even in Horn’s leadership team, no one has mentioned the Petraeus scandal.

“As a military spouse you have a lot on you. . . . I think a lot of women are just focused on trying to do right by their marriages and families and are focused on that,” Horn said.

Yet the absence of discussion seems glaring in a community where the many challenges to fidelity are obvious: Spouses are apart for months on end, sometimes repeatedly, far from home in life-and-death situations with comrades who are often sworn to secrecy on who did what, when and where.

Kristina Kaufmann, 42, the wife of a U.S. Army colonel who advocates on military issues, said soaring suicide rates in military families have finally forced conversations about mental health into the open, “and that (issue) seems to be more acceptable than conversations around infidelity.”

The U.S. military is a community in transition. The percentage of married service members has been rising since 2000, Defense Department statistics show, and stood at 57 percent last year, up from 53 percent in 2000. People are also remaining longer in the military as the economy makes staying put in a secure job with benefits attractive, and women have become more visible, including in some leadership positions.

Experts say there are no data on whether military partners — men or women — are more or less likely than any other Americans to stray.

The annual divorce line has continuously risen since 2000 and is now believed to be comparable to that of the general public, said Joyce Wessel Raezer, executive director of the National Military Family Association in Alexandria, Virginia. In response to the rising divorce rate, the army has recently been promoting a chaplain-led weekend marriage retreat for recently returned soldiers and their spouses called “Strong Bonds.”

But Raezer and others said the rate is expected to rise as more troops come home for good. Sheila Casey, wife of former army Chief of Staff Gen. George Casey, made news a few years ago when she testified that military couples were so slammed by multiple deployments that “they haven’t had time to get divorced.”

One thing that hasn’t changed — and which has even been amplified during the intense demands of the past decade — is the tendency in the military to focus on the positive. Several spouses who have led support groups said there’s a fear that a complaint about one’s marriage could somehow morph into something that might sound like a complaint about military life.

“In this country, we all wear masks. But I think in the military, it’s important to put your best face forward, keep everything together,” said Kaufmann, the military issues advocate. “I think no one wants to say, infidelity has increased or is more because of these (multiple deployment) pressures because no one wants to make an excuse for it. But there is a difference between making an excuse and putting things into context.”

Yet every aspect of culture has its mythology. Like foreign correspondents or politicians who jet off to Washington five days a week, some members of the military community view separations and change as an asset to marriages, something that makes them more romantic.

But who wants to live a myth? A thread on online military chatter in recent days argues the civilian world is looking at military sex lives in the way a zoo visitor stares at animals through a glass, making them sound either more exotic or more unstable than they may feel on a typical day.

“With 18 veterans killing themselves every day . . . we’re too busy to focus on this,” Kaufmann said when asked why there’s been so little chatter among people she knows in the military about the Petraeus saga.

“Maybe I wear rose-colored glasses. Or maybe I am just a realist. There is not one part of me that can buy into infidelity being a military thing. It is a human nature thing,” Wayne Perry, a stay-at-home dad married to an army combat medic based at Fort Riley, Kansas, wrote last week on a military blog.

Others agreed. “Cheating isn’t due to separation,” one wrote. “It’s due to some people being ‘cheating cheaters’ who cheat, which is a pre-existing condition.”

Probe on documents


A federal investigation of how David Petraeus’ biographer obtained numerous classified records is focusing on whether the retired general’s staff gave her sensitive documents at his instruction, according to federal officials familiar with the inquiry.

Petraeus aides and other high-ranking military officials were often tasked by Petraeus and other top commanders to provide military records and other documents to Paula Broadwell for her work as his biographer, former staff members and other officials said. Broadwell frequently visited Petraeus in Afghanistan when he was in charge of the war there. She repeatedly sought records that she said Petraeus wanted her to have, according to the former staffers and officials.

The focus on the role of military staff members adds a new chapter to the complicated ethics scandal that led Petraeus to resign as CIA director. Petraeus and Broadwell have told FBI investigators that Petraeus did not provide her with classified information.

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