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The Conversations About Infidelity On The Homefront


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. There's been a series of front-page stories about the sex lives of senior military officers in recent days, none more prominent than the affair that ended the CIA career of retired General David Petraeus. Many regarded General Petraeus as a model officer. His wife, Holly Petraeus, has worked long and hard on issues that affect military families.

There's no reason to believe that infidelity happens more or less often in the military than anywhere else, but this is a relatively small and relatively tight-knit community. Beyond issues of military ethics, security and leadership, these high-profile cases of infidelity are also starting other, more painful, private conversations about military marriages, frequent deployments and cheating.

So military spouses, call, tell us: How has the conversation about infidelity changed? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Later in the program, the scientist at NASA who answers questions about the end of the world.

But first, military marriages and fidelity. We begin with Jacey Eckhart, spouse editor for Military.com, author of "The Home Front Club: The Hardheaded Woman's Guide to Raising a Military Family." She's with us here in Studio 3A, and nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION today.

After the Petraeus scandal broke, you wrote an op-ed in the New York Times. Most of the time my long-married military friends and I don't think about fidelity, you wrote, then went on to say: until now. What changed?

JACEY ECKHART: I think it's because General Petraeus was such an admired figure. He and his wife Holly were such proponents of the American soldier, and their marriage lasting 38 years was the kind of thing you aspire to. You think they're one of us.

CONAN: And if it can happen to them, dot-dot-dot...

ECKHART: Yeah, if it could happen to them, having such a solid pair of people, it could happen to somebody nice like us.

CONAN: Let's bring Kristina Kaufmann into the conversation, executive director of the Code of Support Foundation. She advocates on military and family issues and joins us also here in Studio 3A. Nice of you to be with us as well.

KRISTINA KAUFMANN: Thank you for having me.

CONAN: And this is - is this something of an off-limits topic?

KAUFMANN: I don't think anybody really is comfortable talking about infidelity. I don't think it's a civilian or military question. I think if we ask ourselves how the conversation might have changed, I think the biggest difference is conversations that people would have one-on-one are now happening in social media.

I think that's one of the biggest differences, is that there are Facebook pages where you can have some anonymity, where people feel more comfortable talking about some of the infidelity challenges they're facing, military or civilian.

I think there's a difference between making an excuse for behavior and putting it into context. It would be untrue to say that 10 years of war have not impacted military families and military marriages. Now, as you said, whether that means it's a cause for more infidelity, I don't think that we know that, but it certainly in the larger scheme of things has had an impact on families.

CONAN: And families, given those strains, Jacey, they've got to be asking more questions, not - but I also read that - in some of those blogs people say I don't want to talk about this, I don't want to - let's keep this private. This is their affair.

ECKHART: I think there are a few people who are saying this a private affair for the Petraeus family and for the other high-profile families who are out there. But I don't hear anybody saying that no one in the ranks should be talking about infidelity, because we talk about it all the time.

CONAN: Really?

ECKHART: Absolutely. It's - I work for military.com. Spouse Buzz is one of our properties. And on our - from our readers we hear that they do worry about this. Is it true that what happens on TDY stays on TDY? People want to know that?

CONAN: TDY is military terminology for deployment, what we would call deployment.

ECKHART: Actually, TDY is probably more likely to be a training in another place.

CONAN: Anyplace out of town.

ECKHART: That's right. You know, that whole what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas kind of thing.

CONAN: Well, does it cut both ways?

ECKHART: Absolutely. I think of military people deployed, one of the things you have to keep in mind as a spouse is the numbers. Eighty-five percent of all military people are male. That means that the numbers don't really stack up. We spouses back home are much more likely to be living in a target-rich environment.

CONAN: Has - Kristina Kaufmann, as you look at this discussion, the Petraeus - as Jacey Eckhart was saying, the Petraeus incident seems to have opened a wound.

KAUFMANN: Yeah, I mean, one of the reasons I decided to do this interview and talk to somebody in the press at the Washington Post last week, and I waited a while before I commented, and I won't comment directly on the Petraeus' marriage, of course, but I think that Jacey and I were talking about this whole concept of what the new normal is, right?

We have a term in the military that we've coined called the new normal. And I get it, you know, basically we do it in order to normalize something to get through it. But the problem is nothing about 10 years of war is normal. And when we set the bar at I think an unattainable height, then it makes people feel like they're not living up to these unrealistic expectations.

I'm not, again, talking directly about fidelity. What we really need to be calling it is our new reality.

CONAN: And that reality includes issues other than fidelity. It should be important to point out not just PTSD and traumatic brain injury but the level of suicide that's been going on in the military. There are any number of issues. This is the one that seems to be on the front page right now. And is that fair?

ECKHART: I think that this is a new part of the national conversation about the military that we haven't really had as a nation. And I think what's new about it is that there is not an age at which you are suddenly safe from infidelity. You would look at a couple married more than 20 years and expect that this is not one of their issues and that the fact that military marriage is constantly being rewritten and redesigned, that's a surprise.

CONAN: Let's get some callers in on this conversation, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. We want to hear from military spouses today. Please join the conversation. We need to hear this conversation as you're experiencing it. But Kristina Kaufmann, it's another thing that we say military marriages. Boy, there's a lot of different kinds of marriages in the military.

KAUFMANN: Yeah, I don't think that there's a typical military marriage. I think that there are some cultural norms that are involved in all military marriages. I think that there is - when we have this conversation about fidelity, I think there are generational differences. I also think that there's a difference between the way career officers and non-commissioned officers and the bulk of the military, which is there for a relatively short time, talk about this.

What I find interesting and a little bit disheartening, but I understand it, is your question of why we are focusing specifically on this. And we lose a soldier every day to suicide now. I personally know three Army wives who have killed themselves. Eighteen veterans a day are killing themselves. Yet this is what we're focusing on.

So I understand why, in this culture, that's happening, but it's also because people - we're less than one percent of the population, the military culture, and there's this voyeuristic quality to military life because it is so foreign to people. But most marriages have challenges.

Are there different challenges to military marriages? Yes, but some of them draw people together, and some of them break people apart. It depends on the marriage.

CONAN: There are, Jacey Eckhart, though, also unique opportunities. That's probably a poor way to put it, but people who are in conflict undergo a special kind of bonding when they're away from home.

ECKHART: Absolutely, they - but one of the changes in our society has been the changes in technology. When I was a child, my mother and - my father was in the military, he was in Vietnam, they exchanged letters every day. It took a long time for letters to get there. With our generation, we have people Skyping each other every day, emailing each other, talking on the phone. That enables a relationship to stay a lot more alive if you are both working on it.

CONAN: If you are both working on it.

ECKHART: If you're both working on it.

CONAN: And again, this is not peculiar to the military. There have been - it's been known to happen in other institutions everywhere. There is no greater rate of divorce in the military than anywhere else. And - but one fact is clear: The military is getting a little bit older than it used to be as a result of the volunteer army, people staying longer. As a result of that, by natural projection, a greater percentage of those in the military are married, so this is becoming a greater issue on that front as well.

KAUFMANN: Yeah, I mean we have the most married military we've ever had. I think it's upwards of 50, 60, 57 percent. There's an old saying that if the Army had wanted you to have a family, they would have issued you one. I think that we've moved beyond that in a lot of ways. Programmatically speaking, there's a lot of support systems out there.

Culturally speaking, I'm not sure how that's gone. I mean, I got married two months before September 11. So I really have no other perspective than a wartime marriage. And I'm one of an entire generation of military families with that experience. I don't know what a civilian marriage is like, and I certainly don't know what a military marriage without war is like.

So it's difficult for me to make any kind of comparisons of what it would have been like with my marriage should it had not been a wartime marriage. So it's hard to say.

CONAN: And you're speaking of that marriage in the past tense.

KAUFMANN: Yeah, unfortunately my husband and I are going through a divorce now, and I get asked all the time if it's because of war and deployments, and I just don't have the perspective to answer that. The only marriage I've ever known has been a wartime one.

CONAN: How much time did you spend apart?

KAUFMANN: A lot. Like most people in the military in the past 10 years, we were separated not just by deployments but by moves and training and all that kind of stuff. But you would never hear me blame, you know, the military lifestyle or the deployments for what happened, and I think that's one of the things that we talk about too; there's a difference between excuses and context.

CONAN: Jacey Eckhart, is that also a factor in why people don't speak about this publicly, in that they are afraid they will be accused of criticizing the military life, making that connection that Kristina Kaufmann declined to make just now?

ECKHART: I think that there are certain services in which silence is required, but for the most part I think what's interesting about what Kristina's saying is that she's talking about living her marriage in the military as an environment. She's not blaming anything about the military. And that's how most couples have to think of it, as this is the environment we live in, and it is rigorous.

It's like living in Alaska. And so there are certain things you have to do in order to make that marriage work. And sometimes you get lucky, and those things work, and sometimes you don't.

CONAN: We're talking about military marriages. If you're a military spouse, how has the Petraeus scandals changed the conversation about fidelity? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. We'll be back in just a minute. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. In the days since the Petraeus scandal unfolded, a conversation that's traditionally been kept under wraps has come into the light. Military spouses have been talking about military marriages and fidelity on public stages like Rebecca Sinclair, who took her story to the Opinion Page of the Washington Post and more private ones like online message boards and support groups and the toll that protracted and repeated deployments can take on a relationship, but adultery in the military is more than a personal problem. It's a crime under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

If you're a military spouse, we want to hear from you. How has the conversation about infidelity changed in recent weeks? 800-989-8255. Email is talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation at our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Jacey Eckhart, spouse editor for Military.com, author of "The Home Front Club" is with us; also Kristina Kaufmann, executive director of the Code of Support Foundation. They're both with us here in Studio 3A. Let's see if we can get a caller in on the conversation, and Jim's(ph) on the line calling from Sumter, South Carolina.

JIM: Hi Neal, how are you doing? I enjoy your show. Thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: Thank you.

JIM: Yeah, I just wanted to call in and say as a military retiree, 20-plus years and a man, my wife, we've been married for a period of time, she's about to deploy for one year to South Korea. The issue of military service, military service is a sacrifice, but a marriage is a marriage that goes on well past that. And infidelity, it happens in the civilian sector as well as in the military, unfortunately, but the two are separate.

CONAN: They're separate. Does the length of that deployment - your wife must have been on the other side of some of those.

JIM: Well yes and no. But, you know, I always tell folks that the concept that temporary duty or TDY or combat deployment, it's not Las Vegas. And people make mistakes, but there are plenty of others who, I mean literally don't leave their room if they're not executing the mission. And infidelity and the marriage, the concept of a military marriage, you might be in the military, but marriage, infidelity and the military, they're all three very separate things. And they're not as pervasive as a lot of folks might get the impression.

CONAN: Thanks very much, Jim, and we appreciate that, and we wish your wife the best on her deployment to South Korea.

JIM: Thank you very much, bye-bye.

CONAN: Appreciate it, and let's see if we can go to this email, this is from Patricia(ph): I'm a military wife who's lived through my husband's infidelity. Speaking from my experience, I naively thought my marriage was safe because my husband graduated from the U.S. Military Academy. I thought he would live by the honor code taught there.

I also found comfort in the fact that it was illegal for him as a military member to engage in adultery, especially since he travelled a lot for his job. We started growing apart when my husband had a top-secret job, which he couldn't discuss with me at all. It took up a lot of his time. I became more independent, focused my time on our kids and my work.

Being military, we were away from our families. No one was around to notice that we were having problems within our marriage. Feeling lonely and since I wasn't meeting his needs, he found another woman. It was five years ago. We're working to work on our marriage, but it can be tough. I'm sorry that the Petraeus family has to go through this, but it brings attention to the fact that the military is not immune to this.

The military lifestyle is tough enough without worrying about your military member's faithfulness. Well, as we mentioned, and has been brought up earlier, this can be a legal issue as well. Joining us now is Eugene Fidell, the Florence Rogatz Visiting Lecturer in Law at Yale Law School, an expert on military law. Nice of you to be with us again.


CONAN: And is this strictly something, adultery, that is prosecuted?

FIDELL: The military prosecutes adultery from time to time, but usually it's only part of a larger package. In other words, the military is typically angry at the individual for something else. For example, you might have a situation where there's an affair that comes to the attention of the management, and somebody says to the adulterer or adulteress look, you better knock it off. And the individual, you know, disregards that friendly warning. And then it turns out - then the management finds out the affair is still going on. That tends to get people quite annoyed. Similarly, if there's some other offense that's been committed, that might make lights and buzzers go off. But it's quite uncommon for what I'll call simple adultery to be the basis for a court martial.

CONAN: Would a case where someone was in the same chain of command, would that be - a senior - someone senior to another, would that be a simple adultery?

FIDELL: Yes, and that would be definitely problematic. You know, I see the distinction you're drawing. Where you have one person in an affair with another person who works for him or her, that is the type of thing that would tend to have a bad effect on good order and discipline, and that is one of the features that adultery is charged under, under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

There are basically two possibilities: either conduct that is prejudicial to good order and discipline, along the lines you indicated; or conduct of a nature to bring discredit on the service. So either one of those tests, if it's applicable, could trigger a prosecution. But it's entirely discretionary within the military justice system. And commanders have the discretion whether to bring charges or not. It's not like the civilian world, where a district attorney is in the picture.

CONAN: And even with the proviso that they only charge some, how common is it?

FIDELL: It's very uncommon. I would be surprised if there were more than a dozen cases a year. I might add, by the way, that surprisingly, over 20 states in the union continue to criminalize adultery. So even though it sounds like kind of a hokey crime in the 21st century, it's still there on the books. And maybe it's like lightning striking to be prosecuted for it, but people do get prosecuted for it from time to time.

CONAN: And in the case of General Petraeus, he's of course retired, and at least according to what you read, began the affair after he was retired. Would the military still have jurisdiction?

FIDELL: Yes, they still have jurisdiction because retired regulars, that is members of the regular Army or other branches of the armed services who are drawing pay as he is remain subject to the Uniform Code of Military Justice. However, I would say it's deeply, deeply unlikely that he would be prosecuted for conduct that occurred after he retired and went over to the CIA.

CONAN: Eugene Fidell, as always, thanks very much for your time.

FIDELL: My pleasure, good to talk to you, Neal.

CONAN: Eugene Fidell, a lecturer at Yale Law School, he joined us from New Haven in Connecticut. Let's see if we can get another caller on the line. This is Steve(ph), and Steve's with us from Cincinnati.

STEVE: Good afternoon.

CONAN: Afternoon.

STEVE: Thanks for taking my call. My comment is in my time in the Army, and I've active-duty Army actually, and in my time in the Army, I've been deployed twice, and my first one was as a single soldier, and my second was just before my first wedding anniversary, and it was one of the service deployments. So I spent my first and second wedding anniversary away from my wife.

And my wife and I, we went into it knowing that we're going to be separated for a period of time. And I told her that we were - that it's going to be a military marriage, and there's going to be times when I'm not going to be home and sometimes for a very long time. And she went in understanding that.

But our understanding's always been and from my experience is that the Army doesn't - and military service doesn't so much - it doesn't help bad marriages by keeping you away, but it also doesn't, it doesn't break up good ones so much because the infidelity, if it's going to happen, eventually it's going to happen regardless, no matter where you are...

CONAN: Jacey Eckhart?

STEVE: ...if the opportunity is going to present itself.

ECKHART: You make an excellent point. What we know about infidelity is that there are three occasions where you are more at risk than other times. And the first is what you were saying: You're in a bad marriage. You're fighting with each other; you're bickering already. And the second thing is you get the idea that your spouse does not care about you. And the third thing is opportunity, and that's the thing that military relationships always have to deal with.

CONAN: Steve, a way for both your wedding anniversaries, as usual the military's brilliant timing.


STEVE: Well, I was going back - I was in the process of returning to active duty when I met my wife. So she knew about it, and we had pretty much planned it. So we went in with our eyes open.

CONAN: And you're home now?

STEVE: I'm in the United States, let's put it that way.

CONAN: OK. All right.


CONAN: Thanks very much, and we hope...

STEVE: All right.

CONAN: I hope you can get home for the holidays.

STEVE: Oh, I am. I'm going home for holidays.

CONAN: Thank you very much.

STEVE: Thank you.

CONAN: Appreciate it. Let's see if we can go - I'm sorry. Did you want to say something, Kristina Kaufmann?

KAUFMANN: Yeah. I think that one of the things to consider and one of the populations I'm most concerned about and - is the population of families, both active duty and on veteran status, who are dealing with service members with traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder. Some of the symptoms of both of those injuries are disinhibition and infidelity in that community, I think, is a problem.

And again, you know, you don't want to make excuses for behavior, but there are some things that happen in war that change people, and that's not just the people who deploy. Whole families change. I mean, the mental health impacts on the family members I don't think that we really understand that yet among the spouses and the children.

We make light of it in our community a lot of times around kind of the lack of sex. I remember someone gave me some little tea towels during one of my husband's deployments that said: sexually deprived for your freedom, which was cute and, you know - but these are, you know, these are challenges that, I think, those dealing with the wounds of war are even more vulnerable to these kind of challenges.

CONAN: And, Jacey Eckhart, she's - these are not individual silos that everybody experiences separately. These things all happen to everybody.

ECKHART: Actually, one of the most interesting pieces of research that has come out is from the RAND Corporation, and they have looked at the difference between deployment and combat, and - because everybody who deploys is not in combat.

And so when it comes to deployment, they say that it is kind of like having a child. It causes great stress in your relationship at first, but you overcome it. Combat has been shown to reduce marital satisfaction in a way that deployment does not.

CONAN: Interesting. There's also - we've been talking primarily about regulars, people in the regular armed forces. There are any number of National Guard and reserves who've been called up who don't necessarily live with their families on or near military bases. And that's another situation, without that kind of support network that some in the regular armed forces have come to understand.

ECKHART: That's why I like social media for that. For all the people across the country who are either in a community where there's no one else deployed, there is someone that you can talk to. There is other people that you can relate to, and they're right there online.

CONAN: We're talking with Jacey Eckhart, a spouse editor for military.com, author of "The Homefront Club: The Hardheaded Woman's Guide to Raising a Military Family." Kristina Kaufmann is also with us here in Studio 3A. She's executive director of the Code of Support Foundation, a national nonprofit dedicated to bridging the gap between civilian and military America. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's see. We go to Virginia. Virginia is with us from Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida.

VIRGINIA: Hello, Neal. It's nice to speak with you.

CONAN: Nice to speak with you. Go ahead, please.

VIRGINIA: So I was just kind curious. Do you think that now there is more opportunity for infidelity since the deployment rate has gone up so much, and not just for the deployed member, but also the spouses who are sitting at home, possibly bored away from everything that they know?

CONAN: Well, let me ask Jacey Eckhart. What do you think?

ECKHART: I think that opportunity abounds. And you could work with this - the - with your husband in a print shop in Florida, and there would be opportunity there for you. A lot of times it is really about the relationship, and that varies from person to person, whether you are in the military or in civilian life.

CONAN: You're calling from an air force base, Virginia. What's your experience?

VIRGINIA: Well, I've been happily married for 15 years. My husband's been in for 18. So I am that pre-time of not just knowing wartime. But it hasn't changed much for me, honestly, because I don't need my husband. I love my husband, and I want him, and I think that's maybe - I don't need him to be at home for me.

When he deploys, I'm fine with it, but when it's his turn, I will not ever stomp my foot or, you know, raise a fuss because I understand when he goes, it's somebody else's turn to come home. But it's different now than it was before, and not for my own marriage, but to see 18- and 20-year-olds who are freshly married.

And as I'm now a seasoned spouse at 36 years old - I'm one of the old ones - I look back and think, oh, was that ever me? And I really don't think so. I think the times have honestly changed that much in the last 10, 15 years, that - and I don't know. Maybe the panel disagrees. I'm not sure, but...

ECKHART: Oh, I married at 21, and I know I was an idiot. So I don't think that that has changed very much over time.

KAUFMANN: Well, I married at 31, and, you know, and I would not consider myself an idiot. But I would say that I felt more ready to get married than I think I would have at 21. But then, you know, my marriage is ending, so who's to say?

I will say that I grew up in the East Coast. I went to school at Berkeley, which is probably about as far as you can possibly get from the military. So I had no experience with this lifestyle.

They do tend to get married younger than what I'm accustomed to. You know, we had wives that were younger than 18 in our battalion, and 18, 19, 20 years old to be married is not unusual in the military. And I do think that there are challenges to younger marriages - again, civilian or military - that are possibly different than a more mature marriage.

But we're focusing right now, because of what's going on with the Petraeus issue or - on kind of that upper echelon of military and that culture and that - and I've heard people say things like sense of entitlement and you get used to having power and all that kind of stuff. That's where we get to how different military marriages are. It's a much different game or challenge at that level than it is at other levels.

CONAN: Virginia - go ahead, I'm sorry. Didn't mean to (unintelligible).

VIRGINIA: I was going to ask the ladies, do you find that it's easier to look the other way? Not for us, but my husband had an upper at one time who had cheated on his wife, and he didn't look at him any differently because he was always so very - and he was. I'm not even going to try and pretend that he was a mentor to my husband. And it was funny to me because I looked at him differently afterwards. But my husband, it was just like it was too thick.

CONAN: And I'm afraid we're going to give you 12 seconds to answer that, Jacey Eckhart.

JACEY ECKHART MILITARY.COM: I'm with you. I would've looked at him differently. But one of the things that came out of - during this Petraeus scandal is that you can be an outstanding person in the military and yet still make mistakes in your personal life.

CONAN: Virginia, thank you so much for the call. We appreciate it.

VIRGINIA: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: And I'd like to thank our guests. Jacey Eckhart, you just heard, spouse editor for military.com. Thank you very much.

MILITARY.COM: Thank you.

CONAN: And also Kristina Kaufmann, who's executive director of the Code of Support Foundation. Appreciate your time today.

KAUFMANN: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: Coming up next, the scientist at NASA who answers questions about doomsday. This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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