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Study finds that serving in military combat may strain marriages to the breaking point

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) _ Lawrence Streeby saw brutal combat and almost lost both feet to frostbite in the bitter cold of the Korean War. A shrapnel wound in his right knee makes walking difficult.

``After I came back from Korea, I got married three times,'' said Streeby, 72, of Portland, Ore., whose latest marriage has lasted 32 years. ``The third time's the charm.''

Streeby's early struggle at marriage wasn't unusual, according to new research suggesting that three of the biggest U.S. wars of the past century may have taken a heavy personal toll on the marriages of those soldiers who fought on the front lines.

Men who served in combat in World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War were 62 percent more likely to get divorced than other men of their generation, according to the largest and most comprehensive study of its kind.

The study, produced by Brigham Young University researchers and published this week in the academic journal Armed Forces & Society, found that combat duty was a consistent hazard to marriage. Military service alone _ without combat duty _ had little effect, the study determined.

The study focused on combat veterans for all three wars as a whole but didn't compare the data among wars. The report also looked at veterans as a whole and compared them to their non-serving peers.

All World War II vets _ including those who served on the front lines and those who never saw combat _ were overall better able to maintain their marriages than other men of that generation who did not serve in the war, the study found.

But Korean War vets, as a whole, were 26 percent more likely to get divorced than non-veterans of their generation, and twice as likely to divorce as World War II vets.

Researchers say the Korean War anomaly was their most surprising finding. It was more pronounced than that for the Vietnam War, whose veterans are commonly thought to have suffered the most devastating effects of war. But Vietnam War servicemen _ those who saw combat or not _ were overall no worse off at marriage than other men of their generation, the study found.

Researchers don't know why Korean War vets _ those who served at home and abroad _ stand in stark contrast to their brethren of the other wars.

They speculate that many such veterans fought gritty, mostly cold-weather and often brutal battles that never seemed to earn the status of the earlier ``great'' war. Social changes, meanwhile, were making divorce more acceptable at home in the 1950s, said Sven Wilson, assistant professor of political science at Brigham Young University.

``Korea was a harsh, bitter war that wasn't popular at home,'' said Wilson, one of the principle researchers. ``World War II veterans came home to great celebration. Korean War veterans came home and others didn't want to hear about it.''

Such personal costs of conflict are no small matter for a nation that needs public support for war and a steady supply of recruits, said study co-author William Ruger, now of Brandeis University.

``We believe you have to understand the social cost of war, especially as we weigh the advantages and disadvantages of fighting new wars,'' he said. ``In some cases, maybe it's not worth it.''

The study was based on information taken from government-funded surveys of families between 1987 and 1994 that included 1,600 war veterans. Of those, 623 saw combat duty. The study examined the first marriages of all soldiers who got married before, during or after their military service. Any marriages that dissolved before someone's military service were not considered.

The stress of service has even been linked to violence. This summer, an Army report concluded that five marital murders involving couples at the military base in Fort Bragg, N.C., were likely due to existing marital strife made worse by frequent separations of military families as the soldiers trained and fought.

Some veterans weren't surprised by the study's suggestion that combat duty can brutalize soldiers and ruin marriages.

``It affected some guys. They just couldn't handle it,'' said Gerald Glenn, 76, a Marine flame-thrower, scout, sniper and demolitions expert during World War II. ``Their wives couldn't understand why they were so shaky.''

Glenn's own marriage lasted throughout his military career, which started with World War II, when he received two Purple Heart medals for pulling comrades under fire to safety. Wounded twice by shrapnel, he wasn't allowed to see combat during the Korean War.

Ret. Col. Mel Jarvis, 81, said he's still married to the same woman he had to leave for combat in Korea, but many others weren't so lucky.

``That's a pretty closed secret for people,'' he said.
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