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Getting dumped on deployment

How the specter of "Joe D." haunts soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan.

A soldier talks on the phone at a media center in Diyala province, Iraq, Aug. 6, 2008. (Andrea Comas/Reuters)

AMMAN, Jordan — It was almost midnight and I’d been gabbing with a U.S. Army captain for several hours in an empty mess hall in Iraq when he leaned in close and asked if I’d ever heard of “Joe D.” He said the name cautiously, like a kid looking into a mirror and saying “Bloody Mary.” I’d never heard of him.

“Joe D. is the man who steals your wife or girlfriend when you’re deployed,” said the captain. “For a lot of the younger soldiers on their first tour, Joe D. is like Santa Claus. They refuse to believe he exists. They think he’s just a myth. But after one or two deployments, everyone believes.” He went on to explain that Joe D. could be anyone — a stranger, a trusted friend, your brother, anyone.

At the time I was single and had been for years. Joe D. seemed like just another soldier story. But soon I was seeing signs of him everywhere, namely in the phone room. Typically, a soldier would call home and instead of his wife, a strange male would answer, resulting in an outburst of expletives from the soldier.

To be sure, Joe D. has probably been a part of every war throughout human history. One could argue that Odysseus returned home from the Trojan War only to find his house full of Joe D.'s pining after his wife. But unlike any other war, the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have given soldiers unprecedented access to cheap calls home and regular internet access.

Most soldiers can call loved ones in the U.S. almost everyday and get real-time updates about everything happening at home, good or bad. As a result, problems that in other wars would have appeared in a single “Dear John” letter now drag out for months.

Judith Broder is the founder and director of The Soldier’s Project, which offers free, anonymous counseling for veterans. Among the soldiers who seek out her help, she estimates that at least half of them are dealing with relationship issues, either from problems arising from prolonged separation or because the soldier returned home a changed person. While Broder said the ability to remain in constant contact was meant to be helpful, it can create serious distractions from soldiers who are unable to escape unfortunate news.

“When there are problems at home it is extremely disturbing,” she said. “Each of those emails
[about the issues] is another disturbance everyday. With letters, even if you were getting a disturbing letter once a month, it’s still only once a month.”

Joe D. isn’t such an abhorrent figure to soldiers simply because of the infidelity. Rather, they fear him because they're powerless to do anything about him.

If you cheat on someone while you’re sharing a house or in the same city, chances are your partner will find out sooner or later, or at least the affair will require a serious effort to keep things secret. If you catch your partner in the midst of an affair, you can do something to intervene. But Joe D. can be as careless as he wants while wooing a committed woman and if the soldier discovers him he can't intervene.