Marriage: A Casualty of War

updated 10/17/2005 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/17/2005 AT 01:00 AM EDT

As the Iraq war wears on, it has exacted an unexpected toll on military families. The lengthening campaign has sparked a crisis for the Army: About half of G.I.s are married, and the stresses of long deployments have sent divorce rates soaring. Stacy and John "Adam" Knoblach, both 41, don't want to be a statistic. Married 12 years, the Lewiston, Maine, couple, who have three children, had a solid marriage until Adam, a mail carrier, was called for active Guard duty in the wake of 9/11. Since January 2002 he has been with his unit—returning home full-time last March after seven months in Iraq. Now the relationship is fraught with tension, and they have sought counseling to bring peace. Here is their story.

STACY: We met in Boulder, where I was finishing my master's in psychotherapy at Naropa University. We were both from the East Coast, we were both Catholic. We were a couple that, if we got five minutes for someone to watch the kids, it was like we were right back to our honeymoon.

ADAM: We settled in Maine because it was affordable and close to our relatives. We absolutely loved hopping in a van and going to a town we'd never been to. Or we'd stay around the house and do remodeling projects together.

That's just what the couple were planning to do on the morning of 9/11.

ADAM: We were walking hand in hand at Home Depot, talking about the cool things we were going to do to our house. We were just putting sticks in our nest.

STACY: When the news of the airplanes came over the car radio soon after, we just gazed at each other. We knew our lives would never be the same.

The next day Adam was called up by his National Guard unit in Bangor. He drove home most weekends. The Knoblachs suddenly found themselves arguing over domestic and parenting chores.

ADAM: If her car was making a strange noise, the question became: Is two hours away too far for me to come home or is it easier for her to take it to a shop? I'd usually choose the latter, and she'd say, "I'm tired of asking people for help."

STACY: For the kids, weekends were like a festival: no homework, no cleaning up, no baths—Daddy's here! I was the Fun Police. Mommy's about school, behaving and stuff we hate; Daddy's about ice cream, movie rentals and fun. I got tired of being the bad guy.

Over a three-year period Staff Sgt. Knoblach lived at home a total of three months. In August 2004 he was deployed to Baghdad with the XVIII Airborne Corps, where his duties included coordinating VIP movement. He and Stacy stayed in touch almost daily by phone and e-mail.

ADAM: The hardest thing for me was being alone in the middle of Nastyland. I didn't know anybody. My office was in the Green Zone [the relatively safe seat of American occupation]. But I went out a lot. Every time you travel in Iraq, you might see suffering, wounded, dead bodies. Everyone gets a casual air about it all—John Wayne stuff, false bravado. I've had to fire my weapon. Once I was in a small convoy, and these three wackos ambushed us at a traffic circle. There were no enemy survivors that day.

STACY: How worried was I about his safety? It was the space between every word of every sentence of every paragraph of every day of every week of every month. I lived on Iraq time. I'd get up at 2:30 or 3 a.m. to check to see if there was an e-mail, to know he was alive. If there was, I could usually go back to sleep.

Once I was out in the yard talking to him on the cell phone. I heard a high-pitched sound—then I heard Adam scream and other men yelling, "Incoming!" and the phone went dead. I was hysterical for an hour until he called and said he was okay.

ADAM: That actually started a fight because I hadn't called sooner. I was like, "What the f—-'s wrong with you? Can't we have a normal conversation?" Stacy once called to say the heater was broken, and I'm thinking, I want to fix the problem, but Jesus Christ, I'm in Baghdad! I can't be calling repairmen!

Mostly, though, the frequent calls and e-mails were tender.

STACY: Who isn't in love with a man who's over in a war, right? They don't have dirty clothes on the floor, they're not leaving dishes in the kitchen, they don't smell bad. I loved him to death because he was in a terrible, terrible place and needed unconditional love and support.

Still, Stacy also loved her independence, and she juggled motherhood with a new career as a drug and alcohol counselor. But Adam's absence took a toll on children Rachel, now 11, Ben, 8, and Sarah, 7.

STACY: I'd sit in my bed at night and paint my toenails with these smelly chemicals Adam hated—just because I could. I also maintained the house, inside and out, so you wouldn't drive by and think a bunch of chimps live here.

ADAM: The kids' grades slumped. One teacher thought it would be a nice idea to make a card for Ben, with messages from his classmates to tell him how brave he was for having Daddy in Iraq. One child wrote, "For the Daddy who's in harm's way." Ben didn't know what that meant. Someone told him that means your daddy's getting shot at. It was a bad scene for him.

When Adam was welcomed home with banners and a party in March after seven months at war, the future looked bright. But Stacy had grown used to being a single parent. Adam felt like a stranger.

STACY: I'd tell him, Mondays we do this, Tuesdays we do this, these days I want you to do that. Shoveling snow, mowing the lawn—I just look at him like, "Are you gonna?" He's furious. I try not to get mad, but I do.

ADAM: It was almost like we were Internet dating; then when we met, weren't the cyberpeople we thought. While I was in Baghdad, she was a trouper, the strongest person I knew. Then I come home and she just exhales, collapses emotionally and is now a needy wife. If the boiler's busted, I'm expected to come home and fix it. The dull drudgery of marriage appears, and I'm still looking for my little trouper. When I came home, I didn't know my kids' teachers, didn't know that my daughter was off her asthma medicine. I took the kids out to a roller rink one day, and when I got back, Stacy realized that I took them out in their pajamas. I didn't realize they were pajamas, I thought they were outfits.

STACY: Paying attention to details about the children is just not on his radar. Sometimes it's stupid little things, like he didn't know that Rachel could take a shower by herself or the kids could pour their own milk. One big fight we had recently was when Sarah had a playdate that ran kind of late. I was very angry that he didn't offer to go pick her up, instead of me. I said some things that weren't very nice, but he just doesn't engage. He says nothing.

ADAM: When do we fight? Whenever we're together. Our MO now is just to get loud—we vent every chance we get. Neither of us has ever hit each other, and if the kids are around we'll keep things under control. But God forbid they're at school.

Still, the constant feuding isn't lost on the children.

ADAM: Stacy and I fight over something concerning the kids, and they'll say things like, "We're destroying our parents." They ask if we're getting a divorce. How do we handle it? We say, "No."

STACY: Rachel would rather us stay together and fight than divorce, which is heartbreaking. But there are good times too. We play card games and go to the beach. We bring lunch and sometimes the dog. And our problems have not spilled over into the bedroom. For 10 years I was married to the mailman, then all of a sudden I'm married to a soldier. Women are attracted to men in uniform, let's face it. And I do feel that way about him—even after all this.

Adam remains on temporary active duty, commuting 25 miles daily to Camp Keyes, but he expects to return full-time to his job as a letter carrier this fall. He and Stacy attend weekly therapy sessions offered through the postal service. Both say their relationship is on the line.

ADAM: In 10 years, me and Stacy? I don't know. Half of me says we'll see each other when I come to pick up the kids, and the other half says I'll find some way to understand we are who we were—I'm back, you're back, let's go out tonight. All the little fights will seem really unimportant, and all the big fights will be in the past, and it'll just be a normal marriage again.

STACY: The counseling sessions are very productive. There are angry, strained moments, but also tender moments. We're trying to save our marriage. Regardless, I'm so proud of my husband. He went over there wondering if he was really a soldier. Guess what? He knows now. And I know there are thousands of women out there who'd give anything to still be able to fight with their husbands. I am lucky to have Adam back. I have not lost sight of that.

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