BAQUBA , Iraq — Months after U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Yvonne Smith and Staff Sgt. Kevin Smith got married, they deployed to Mosul together as part of the same military unit. At the time, Yvonne worked in the brigade headquarters and her husband, an infantryman, provided security for the headquarters element, so they often went on missions together.
“People used to kid around with us our first deployment that it was a honeymoon in Iraq. We were the biggest novelty: The Smiths in Iraq,” said Yvonne, currently on her second deployment with her husband.
Over the course of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it has become increasingly common to find married couples like the Smiths deployed together, often sharing private living quarters and having date nights between busy mission schedules. While repeated deployments have strained a number of military marriages, couples who’ve deployed together say that they’re better able to relate to one another knowing what their partner has been through.
“I would not wish to deploy without him,” said Sfc. Emily Pint, speaking about her husband Master Sgt. Donald Pint. Both work in military intelligence and are currently deployed together in the Diyala Province. “He’s the one who helps me out. If I have problems at work and I need to vent, he’s the one that I go to. It’s not like talking to a girlfriend who doesn’t know what I’m going through. He knows what I’m going through because he’s been in that situation more than likely.”
However, knowing exactly what your spouse is going through can create another type of stress. Soldiers married to civilians have the luxury of sharing varying amounts of information with their spouses. Many try not to worry their spouses by providing only general accounts of life in Iraq or Afghanistan, but those deployed alongside their spouse know all the risks in vivid detail.
For Yvonne Smith, who has been on convoys with her husband when roadside bombs detonated, she says that knowing the risks helped her focus on the bigger picture. “There are so many things that go through your mind, what if it’s the last time [I see him] and I was upset with him because the bed was unmade,” she said. “When you’re here in this environment you start realizing the really important things, the things that matter in life.”
Smith admits, however, that once they return to the United States, she’s not certain how long her Zen attitude toward a messy house will last.
Still for couples who live together in Iraq, many of the domestic chores that can test a marriage are taken care of by base services. The cafeteria prepares meals, there’s no lawn to look after, and there’s a laundry service.
But living together isn’t always a guarantee. Smith’s husband was recently sent to a small base north of hers. They still see one another a few times a month when her husband comes to the base to resupply, but the honeymoon is over, so to speak.
The Pints, on the other hand have managed to stay together for the entire deployment. In their small trailer, they’ve pushed two single beds together and decorated the space with pictures of their children.
“I’ve been in the Army 23 years now and I never thought the day would come when my spouse and I would be deployed together,” Pint said. When he first joined the army he shared a room with three other soldiers; the four of them were allowed one desk, one radio, and one TV and VCR to share.
Though deploying married couples together may seem like a radical change for the military, perhaps more than anything the shift may owe itself to the increasing number of women in the military, rather than a sweeping military policy change.
“Whereas it was it was a pretty rare thing [in the past] to have a dual military couple, it’s much more common now. It’s not the novelty it used to be, so people are used to that in the military in general, let alone during deployments,” said Laura Miller, a military sociologist at the RAND Corporation in Washington, D.C.
While women have served in the military in various capacities for centuries, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have highlighted how prevalent they have become among the ranks of today’s U.S. military. Women now make up at least 14 percent of the Army and although they’re not allowed to occupy combat roles, they serve in 91 percent of all Army occupations.
Acknowledgment of the mixed military and the issues surrounding it have become common enough that last year in Afghanistan commanders lifted a ban on soldiers having sex in the combat zone. However, they emphasized that despite the change in rules, intimacy was still strongly discouraged.
During previous wars, including Vietnam War or World War II, which involved a draft, the average conscript tended to be young, unmarried, and remained in the military for a short period of time, says Miller. Now with an all-volunteer force, soldiers are staying in the military longer and starting families. Consequently, the military has also begun making a greater effort to keep married soldiers together.
Despite these changes, over the course of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan a number of military couples have been forced to spend years apart due to different deployment schedules. It is not uncommon for one spouse to return from a deployment just as the other ships out for another deployment.
For those who do deploy together, one of the biggest challenges is often leaving children behind with family or friends. Both the Pints and the Smith have children back at home.
“I wonder if people realize the sacrifice. Being deployed together does not equal a marriage necessarily. It’s not the typical, realistic marriage that we envisioned,” Smith said.
More GlobalPost dispatches on U.S. forces in Iraq:
Downtime in the desert
Too many warriors, too little war
U.S. withdraws from Iraq cities