WASHINGTON -- They talk about almost everything, military spouses.
In running groups, prayer groups, writing groups, many spouses say they lean on one another heavily while their partners are overseas on yet another deployment in this decade of war. They discuss how to explain drones to the kids, how desperately they need jobs and how to keep positive during the weekly Skype session to Afghanistan with a husband they've not touched in six months. Community is tight, conversation frank.
But not when it comes to the topic of cheating.
The rest of America may be fixated on retired Gen. David Petraeus and Paula Broadwell -- what they did or didn't do and when, what it means about military culture and power and whether it's inevitable that two people will have an affair if they spend enough time together jogging and talking about counterintelligence -- but in military circles the subject appears to be largely taboo.
Military Spouse magazine put a statement on its website soon after the Petraeus-Broadwell news broke, saying it would not be writing about the subject, not even generally. (The statement got hundreds of Facebook "Likes" and cheers of "Bravo!") On the multiple Facebook pages where enlisted people and their loved ones meet virtually, the scandal is either unmentioned or referred to in the briefest shorthand, like elevator chitchat you might make about the weather.
Part of the reason for this is a relatively small community (active military and their families comprise only about 1 percent of Americans) hesitant to be seen as gossiping about Petraeus and his wife, Holly, who is beloved for her advocacy of military families. But it goes to a much more raw, sensitive issue in a culture where cheating on your spouse is a crime that can be held against your career and yet relationships are struggling after a decade of separations.
"I can't think of a single example of a family readiness group or a spouse group meeting or anywhere even quasi-public where it would be discussed," even before the Petraeus affair came out, said Alison Buckholtz, a Navy wife and author who led a group of spouses from 2006 to 2009 while her husband was deployed. "Even this week, a lot of military spouses I know said, they don't want to talk about it, it's just too close to home."
Sara Horn, founder of the website Wives of Faith, which connects Christian military spouses to support their marriages, said she returned a few weeks ago from a conference for women connected with the military and of the 52 sessions, there were none on fidelity. In recent days, even in her leadership team, no one has mentioned the Petraeuses.
"As a military spouse you have a lot on you . . . I think a lot of women are just focused on trying to do right by their marriages and families and are focused on that," she said.
Yet the absence of the topic seems glaring in a community where the many challenges to fidelity are obvious: Spouses are apart for months on end, sometimes repeatedly, far from home in life-and-death situations with comrades who are often sworn to secrecy on who did what, when, where.
Kristina Kaufmann, 42, the wife of an Army colonel who advocates on military issues, said soaring suicide rates in military families have finally forced into the open conversations about mental health, "and that seems to be more acceptable than conversations around infidelity."
The U.S. military is a community in transition. The percentage of people married has been rising since 2000, Defense Department statistics show, at 57 percent in 2011, up from 53 percent in 2000. And people are remaining in longer as the economy makes staying put in a secure job with benefits attractive. Women are more visible, including in some positions of leadership.
Experts say there is no data on whether military partners (men or women) are more or less likely than any other Americans to stray. The divorce line goes straight up since 2000 and is believed to now be comparable to that of the general public, said Joyce Wessel Raezer, executive director of the National Military Family Association, based in Alexandria, Va. In response to the rising divorce rates, the Army has recently been promoting a chaplain-led weekend marriage retreat for recently returned soldiers and their spouses called "Strong Bonds."
Raezer and others said that rate is expected to rise as more troops come home for good. Sheila Casey, wife of former Army chief of staff Gen. George Casey, made news a few years ago when she testified that military couples were so slammed by the multiple deployments "they haven't had time to get divorced."
One thing that hasn't changed -- and that has even been amplified during the intense demands of the past decade -- is the tendency in the military to focus on the positive. Several spouses who have led support groups said there's a fear that a complaint about one's marriage could somehow morph into something that might sound like a complaint about military life.
"We all in this country, we all wear masks. But I think in the military it's important to put your best face forward, keep everything together," said Kaufmann. "I think no one wants to say, infidelity has increased or is more because of these (multiple deployment) pressures because no one wants to make an excuse for it. But there is a difference between making an excuse and putting things into context."
Yet every aspect of culture has its mythology. Like foreign correspondents or politicians who jet off to Washington five days a week, some members of the military community see the separations and change as an asset to marriage, more romantic.
But who wants to live a myth? A thread on online military chatter in recent days is the vibe that the civilian world is looking at military sex lives like a zoo visitor through a glass, making them sound either more exotic or more unstable than they may feel on a typical day.
"With 18 veterans killing themselves every day . . . we're too busy to focus on this," Kaufmann said about why there's been so little chatter among people she knows in the military about the Petraeus-Broadwell saga.
"Maybe I wear rose-colored glasses. Or maybe I am just a realist. There is not one part of me that can buy into infidelity being a military thing. It is a human nature thing," Wayne Perry, a stay-at-home dad married to an Army combat medic based at Fort Riley, Kan., wrote last week on a military blog. Commenters agreed.
"Cheating isn't due to separation," one wrote. "It's due to some people being cheating cheaters who cheat, which is a preexisting condition."
By Michelle Boorstein
The Washington Post