In the past year, I’ve seen divorce-related Facebook messages filled with anger, desperation, sadness and even, on occasion, glee. They run the gamut from the “vague-booked” status update, to cries of “It’s over! I’m so done!” (naturally followed by a check-in at a lawyer’s office) to personal message blasts detailing long travails of infidelity and post-deployment estrangement. One acquaintance didn’t bother to mention her divorce at all — instead, she posted photos of her immediate wedding to a civilian, after everything was official, to break the news. I know it sounds tacky — perhaps overly theatrical, too. But Facebook is both an effective and efficient method of getting the word out on major life changes (as well as getting a quick read on which friends will support you as you make those changes and which will drop you like the proverbial hot potato). I’ll admit, when I first filed for divorce, I fantasized about updating my Facebook status. Probably because, as an officer’s wife, I felt there was so much I couldn’t say, or shouldn’t say — even while planning my exit strategy.
I couldn’t mention my concerns about the company my husband was keeping during his deployment, nor ask friends for their advice about how we might communicate better. Once my husband returned, I couldn’t complain about our inability to find any equilibrium in our home life. As a former leader of a support group for spouses and children of deployed soldiers, I was supposed to pass on all the wonderful resources available to families in crisis. So it seemed hypocritical to mention that the only marital counselor available to us was the guy whose primary job was evaluating young children for learning disabilities. As much as he might have tried to switch gears to more adult issues, he just wasn’t much help. And, frankly, I didn’t have the words to share my son’s unhappiness—which, ultimately, made any further wavering in my decision seem unnecessarily cruel. Once I finally made my decision, I couldn’t share the humiliation involved in my first information-gathering trip to Legal Services — the noncommissioned officer who rolled his eyes when I stated my purpose, and then set me up to watch a canned military divorce video in the public waiting room, in full view of other soldiers and spouses coming in for power-of-attorney and other standard legal forms. I couldn’t talk about the hoop-jumping and personal interviews required to arrange for my son and I to leave Germany, my husband’s permanent duty station, without him. Nor the degrading interview with a chaplain who told me I hadn’t thought my decision through — and who suggested I humble myself and “beg” my husband’s forgiveness before my son and I found ourselves alone and destitute. Back in the states, I couldn’t mention all the phone calls to Army-related agencies regarding my son’s health care or other benefits that ended in: “I can’t help you. You need to ask the service member to handle this.” (I did, admittedly, offer statuses regarding how long I was put on hold for most of these phone calls.) When the Pentagon cheered about the military divorce rate taking a dip in 2010, a sign, they argued, that the many family programs they had instituted in the past few years were working, I kept quiet. I also didn’t mention my lawyer’s handful of calls to the Defense Finance and Accounting Service regarding the allocation of my husband’s retirement — not even when one representative yelled: “Mrs. Sukel gets nothing, do you hear me? NOTHING!” before hanging up. And, of course, the stilted and angry phone calls between my ex and I about, well, everything, seemed not worth mentioning either.
Now that my divorce is final, I wonder if perhaps I should have chronicled these events — yes, even on Facebook. With some perspective, I realize now that I am one of the lucky ones. I had a family waiting for me back in the states, support from close friends, my own career, my own money and a sense, even as I fought time and time again with the military bureaucracy, of how my divorce should be handled. Perhaps the odd status line would have helped someone else, lost and alone, find a path that didn’t throw them back at their soldiers or back into the world without the right support for themselves and their kids. Maybe I could have offered some humor, some direction — or, even, with luck, hope. More important, I could have shared the realization that while I did, indeed, leave my husband, I have not and will not leave the military behind. The Big Green Machine — and its bewildering bureaucracy — will be with my family for some time to come. My former husband, my son’s father, will still deploy. My son and I will still face many of the same mental, emotional and financial issues that intact military families do. I just no longer have the military ID card, or convenient power-of-attorney, to help me slog through any problems. There’s an old joke that the military calls family “dependents” for a reason. But as an ex-military spouse, I now discover that I may be more dependent than ever — especially when it comes to my son’s health care and benefits. Until my son turns 18, I will have to rely on my former husband to navigate any issues, whether he’s stationed in Kabul or Kansas. I’m one of the lucky ones here, too — because I know that no matter how angry he may be at me, my ex will make sure our son is taken care of. Others, I’m afraid, won’t be so lucky. When a soldier passes away, the family is assigned a casualty assistance officer who helps the bereaved navigate the military bureaucracy as they make the transition from the military back to civilian life. As I look back at my own experiences of military divorce, as well as those of all too many Facebook friends and acquaintances, I can’t help but feel that the military would also benefit from creating a new post: the divorce assistance officer. Certainly, the families, bereaved and broken in their own way, would.
When I imagine it, the divorce assistance officer would be a trained and informed unit representative who handles divorced families for an entire battalion, a person who might field basic questions like how to change your child’s primary care physician when you aren’t the Tricare sponsor or finding local, free deployment-related counseling. Alas, there is nothing like that available now. When a divorced spouse reaches out to the military for any assistance, she or he are all but guaranteed a series of frustrating phone calls that usually end with, “You need to talk to the service member.” Not so helpful when the service member is deployed and unreachable — or, as all too often happens in divorce, refusing to speak to you at all. The newest statistics on military divorce have yet to be released. I imagine that once they are, my Facebook wall will explode with new status updates and comments again. Certainly, these preventative efforts are something to applaud, even if the programs were not available or didn’t work for my own family. Yet, before the Pentagon celebrates too loudly, I would also ask them to take a look at the tens of thousands of divorced military families already out there, still tenuously tethered to the armed services bureaucracy for health care and other benefits. To care for us may not fall under the Pentagon’s official mandate, but it certainly should fall under the ethical one.