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thedrifter
02-12-06, 09:30 AM
Posted on Sun, Feb. 12, 2006
‘Here we are at dinner talking about an ambush’
Troops find love in the ranks
By CHUCK CRUMBO
Staff Writer

Shelton and Tracy Mickel were thousands of miles apart on their second anniversary last November. Chief Warrant Officer Shelton Mickel was in Afghanistan; Sgt. Tracy Mickel was in Iraq.

The soldier-couple knew their marriage had to be flexible. There might be times when the Army’s needs would trump their personal lives.

They will celebrate the anniversary, just later. “We’re planning a trip to Las Vegas when Tracy takes her two weeks of R&R in March,” said Shelton Mickel of Bishopville.

The Mickels reflect a growing trend as Uncle Sam has inadvertently become Cupid. About 77,000 members of the U.S. military are married to another member of the armed services.

Dual-military or “mil-to-mil” marriages made up nearly 13 percent of all marriages in 2003 — the most recent year for which the Defense Department has numbers — compared with 8.5 percent in 2001. Overall, about 52.3 percent of active-duty personnel were married in 2003.

The jump in dual-military or mil-to-mil marriages largely is due to an increase in the percentage of women in uniform. In 1990, women made up 11 percent of all active-duty personnel. By 2003, women accounted for 15 percent of the force, according to a Defense Department report.

The report also found:

• Nearly half, or 49.5 percent, of married women in the active-duty forces are in mil-to-mil marriages.

• Married female officers are nearly 7.5 times more likely than married male officers to have a spouse in uniform.

• About 65 percent of married female Marines and 59 percent of married women in the Air Force are in dual-military marriages. The numbers for the Navy and Army are 44.5 percent and 40.5 percent, respectively.

Marriage long has been the target of Pentagon studies because commanders have learned that a good marriage is key to retaining seasoned troops. The studies also have found that female troops in mil-to-mil marriages stay in uniform longer.

Dual-military marriages, though, face unique challenges, the studies have shown.

Foremost is the strain that deployments and long periods of separation put on couples and families.

However, mil-to-mil couples interviewed said they understood those risks before tying the knot. But, they added, its reassuring and comforting to have a partner who understands the military, can speak in military acronyms and relate to the dangers the partner faces.

“Here we are at dinner talking about an ambush,” said Maj. Scott Conway, a logistics officer at Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort. “It’s an ironic conversation we’re able to have very naturally.”

Conway’s wife of about three years, Army Maj. Alayne Conway, is a public affairs officer at Hunter Army Air Field, 45 miles down the road in Savannah.

Dinner conversations aside, there’s a very practical reason to marry to another member of the military, Alayne Conway said.

“It helps personally as well as professionally,” she said. “We use each other as a sounding board.”

Most dual-military couples met on the job — in the chow halls and briefing rooms of military bases.

Cols. John and Cynthia Valentin met on the track at the Marine Corps Air Station in El Toro, Calif. It was about a year later, when they were at the same conference table, that John Valentin — a self-proclaimed “confirmed bachelor” — became smitten.

Valentin was impressed by Cynthia’s confident bearing and poise. “I remember saying to myself, ‘Now, there’s someone who looks like the type of person I would marry,’” Valentin said.

They wed 17 years ago. Both are stationed at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot at Parris Island. He’s chief of staff; she’s commander of the female training battalion. They are the parents of two boys, ages 12 and 10.

Experts who work with military families say the foundation of a good dual-military marriage is no different than for civilians.

“Trust, good communication and strong affection of the partner, those are building blocks of any good marriage,” said Shelley MacDermid, co-director of the Military Family Research Institute at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind.

Learning how to do things the military way helps some dual-military couples plan families and careers.

Capt. Connie Taylor is executive officer of the finance school at Fort Jackson, a mom of five and the wife of Sgt. 1st Class Randell Taylor. She believes a soldier’s penchant for planning and problem-solving is a function of personality, too.

“Does the military make a soldier or does the soldier go into the military? It’s a cause-and-effect thing and I think that’s why some people mold into the uniform better than others,” said Taylor, who has been married to the sergeant for almost nine years.

JUGGLING KIDS, WORK

Planning is crucial to raising the couple’s five children, Taylor added. “For children, it’s important to have structure and predictability.”

Studies show children raised in military-civilian marriages grow up well-adjusted and adaptable despite numerous moves over the military parent’s career.

But Purdue’s MacDermid said multiple deployments for the long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq could affect children.

Dual-military couples and their families are going through everything twice over, MacDermid said. “The kids are not just worried about one parent being deployed but potentially worried about the other.”

How blended families function when the children’s biological parent is deployed also has been studied.

The toughest relationship is between a teenage boy and male stepparent who’s in the military, said Regina Cooper, director of clinical counseling for the Beaufort Tri-Command.

When the biological parent — in this instance, the mother — is deployed, there is no mediator or buffer between the teen and male stepparent, Cooper said.

“Male stepparents that are Marines may have difficulty seeing a young man being disobedient and disrespectful,” Cooper said.

The clinic helps these families by offering counseling and tips for both the teen and stepparents, she said.

While deployments get the headlines, military families also must cope with more frequent, but shorter training assignments, which can last from a few days to several weeks.

One way to make the short separations easier is to find a way to include the family, said Senior Master Sgt. Eric and Tech Sgt. Keli Benford, who are stationed at Shaw Air Force Base.

Last summer, Keli Benford, who’s assigned to the 9th Air Force headquarters at Shaw, spent about two weeks training at Nellis Air Force Base near Las Vegas.

The Benfords made a family vacation out of the trip. Dad and the three children spent the day seeing the sights. Mom joined them at night.

The Benfords, who’ve been married 10 years, often find themselves switching off parental duties like caring for the children, attending PTA meetings and coaching youth teams.

When it comes to caring for children or keeping up the house, most dual-military couples jump right in with the same spirit of teamwork that they acquired in the service.

“We don’t really have roles,” said Army Command Sgt. Maj. Jimmy Blackmon, who’s married to Sgt. Maj. Wanda Blackmon. “We do whatever is necessary to make it work.”

The Blackmons are stationed at Fort Jackson.

THE CAREER TRACK

Another challenge for dual-military couples is finding ways to keep two careers on track despite having to transfer from one duty station to another every two or three years.

All of the armed services try to find couples jobs at either the same base or within 50 miles of each other. Commanders usually keep an eye out for openings, the troops said.

But couples like the Conways, who are in different branches, are not covered by any agreement. They have to hunt for jobs in areas where Army and Marine bases are near each other, like the Beaufort-Savannah area.

Other couples hold jobs that can be transferred just about anywhere. Capt. Taylor is in finance and Sgt. 1st Class Taylor is in logistics — fields that exist at any Army post.

The Blackmons have advanced their careers to the top of the enlisted ranks after 11 years of marriage. They are the first Army couple to be promoted to sergeant major at the same time.

As they climb in rank there’s plenty of competition, but the Blackmons said they don’t compete with each other.

“We set our goals and we just support each other,” Billy Blackmon said.

Mil-to-mil couples believe they enjoy advantages over couples in which one member is a civilian worker. If they have to transfer to another base, mil-to-mil tandems retain their seniority, maintain their benefits and accrue more leave time.

By comparison, in a marriage between a soldier and civilian, the civilian spouse often loses seniority and must start at the bottom of the organizational ladder.

Ultimately, what keeps a dual-military marriage together are the same ingredients that work in civilian pairings, said Purdue University’s MacDermid.

“Military marriages may get tested a little more regularly than others by separations or by dangers that the partners face, but I don’t think that makes them different animals than civilian marriages.”

Reach Crumbo at (803) 771-8503 or ccrumbo@thestate.com.

Ellie