Of the explanations offered for why a staff sergeant went on a shooting spree that killed 16 Afghan civilians, one is especially unsatisfying because it is trotted out so often: marital problems. An Army official told The New York Times that the sergeant, who has still not been identified by the military, "snapped" in part because of marital problems during his deployments. The soldier's lawyer responded by saying, in essence, What are you talking about?John Henry Browne told The Times that the idea the soldier faced marital tension was "nonsense" and "not true." But Browne shouldn't be surprised the Army made that charge -- "marital problems" is one of the Army's favorite ways to explain heinous crimes as isolated incidents.
One of the reasons it's so easy to point to is that you could say that anyone who is married and deployed in a combat zone is by definition having marital problems. Even the happiest couples fight sometimes, but these downrange spats involve somewhat tougher issues, such as "not seeing spouse for six months" or "phone calls home after seeing dead bodies that focus on stateside banalities like bitchy coworkers" or "having ceded all control over short- and medium-term personal decisions to a massive bureaucracy." The implication in citing marital problems -- as well as drugs or alcohol, the latter of which the official also accused the soldier of using -- is that the guy is so out of it he can't maintain the most important relationship. Of course he would snap in a war zone! But that wouldn't be the Army's fault. Perhaps it was his wife's fault? Whoever's to blame in the unhappy marriage, it ultimately serves to distract from any possible failing by the Army -- like in this case, how the soldier managed to get off post alone.
To demonstrate just how popular "marital problems" is as an explanation for violence and suicide involving soldiers, here are eight examples of how it's been trotted out during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan:
- "Five killings this summer involving Fort Bragg couples were likely due to existing marital problems and the stress of separation while soldiers are away on duty, Army investigators said Thursday." -- the Associated Press, November 6 2002.
- "In the summer of 2002 three Special Forces soldiers who had served in Afghanistan and took Lariam killed their wives, and subsequently themselves, after returning to Fort Bragg. The Army investigated, ruling out the drug as a common factor in those deaths and instead blaming marital problems. An investigation by United Press International found that all three had exhibited behavior consistent with acknowledged side effects of the [anti-malaria] drug and that there was no apparent history of violence in the marriages." -- United Press International, February 11, 2005.
- "Officials are investigating the hanging death of a Fort Eustis soldier to determine whether it could have been prevented. Thirty-seven-year-old Brian McKeehan had been extremely upset for weeks over marital problems and had threatened to kill himself... He was notified just before his death that he was in line for a promotion to sergeant major... But as well as his career was going, he was suffering from serious personal problems after he returned home in September from a 45-day deployment to Iraq. He was deeply troubled by a belief that his wife was having an affair with a neighbor while he was gone -- an allegation she denied, according to incident reports filed in the York County Sheriff's Office." -- Newport News, October 18, 2004.
- "Larry G. Flores, an Army staff sergeant, had seen combat in Iraq and Afghanistan when he was assigned as a recruiter in Nacogdoches in East Texas. Combat was hard, but being a recruiter is rated one of the toughest jobs in the service... The pressures of the job combined with troubles in his marriage -- his wife was planning to leave him -- became too much. On Aug. 9, he was found dead, hanging by an extension cord in his garage." -- Corpus Christi Caller-Times, November 13, 2008.
- "A few days before apparently killing his wife and committing suicide, a soldier just back from Iraq told Army evaluators of his financial and marital problems. But they didn't consider him a risk to himself or others." -- Rocky Mountain News, August 6, 2005.
- "Colonel Elspeth Ritchie, a psychiatrist in the Army Surgeon General's office, said while the army is hiring and training more medical workers, more involvement is needed... Colonel Ritchie said problems within family or marital relationships back at home were significant factors leading to suicides, but she noted that legal, financial and occupational difficulties contributed as well." -- Spero News, February 9, 2009.
- "The challenges people here have may be unique because they are in the Army, but they're still total persons... So there are relationship challenges, life challenges, work challenges. In that respect, they are no different from anyone else, except they are in a high-stress situation," Maj. Roderick Mills, a chaplain, Washington Times in a story about a soldier who shot five fellow service members at a clinic on Camp Liberty in Iraq, May 13, 2009.
- "[Peter] Chiarelli, the Army vice chief of staff, inched toward admitting that war-related stress constituted part of the problem. 'We are at war, and we have been at war for the past seven-plus years,' he noted... He quickly added that other factors, including marital discord, family disagreements, legal, financial and work problems, may have caused the spike in suicides." -- Salon, May 19, 2009.