Army makes married life less of a battle

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The Independent Online
Facing a recruitment shortfall of thousands, the Army is taking steps to improve life for its married soldiers. Andrew Buncombe reports on the latest move to make the military a happier place.

The Army is not a marriage guidance agency: anything done to try and make married life easier for soldiers has always been done on an unofficial basis. But concern over the shortfall of around 5,500 personnel has led it to take formal steps to stop trained soldiers leaving. The latest step has been to lengthen tours of duty, where requested, for soldiers with wives, husbands or partners.

"The old joke from lots of army wives is that they never have time to unpack properly," said a Ministry of Defence spokesman. "As soon as they start to get everything straight and put all their nick-nacks in place, they have to move on again. They say they seem to spend all their time with packing cases in the hallway."

Moving on every 18 months or so could add to the pressures of a potentially stressful job, said the spokesman. Not only did it affect relationships between soldiers and their partners, but it also seriously disrupted family life. "It is particularly hard if there are children to be considered," he said. "Some go to boarding schools but many parents prefer not to do this and have them living at home.

"It clearly cannot be helpful for children to keep having to move schools every couple of years.

"We also want our soldiers to be stable. A happy soldier works better. We would not want to have someone defusing a bomb if they were worrying about what was going on at home."

In an effort to deal with this, the Army's director of military operations is lengthening tours of duty to up to three years from the current average of between 18 months and two years.

The impetus for this shift has clearly come from the top. In an interview last year with the Army's magazine, Soldier, the Chief of the General Staff General Sir Roger Wheeler said it was essential to balance military needs with other demands. "I'm well aware of the fact that not only do we need to train to be competent, but we need to recognise a large proportion of Army is married," he said. "Those soldiers need time with their families, time to attend career courses and time to have some of the fun side of the Army."

The Army Families Federation, which represents the interests of 56,000 families, said last night that its own research had found longer postings were likely to lead to a more stable lifestyle. "In addition to areas such as children's education, longer postings make it easier for soldiers' wives to get jobs, which these days is very important," said a spokeswoman.

Between 1996 and 1997 the Army took on 15,522 new recruits, but 15,354 serving soldiers left. "We realise that we are now operating in a highly competitive market place for good recruits and we want to attract the best," said the MoD spokesman. "We also want to stop people leaving. We don't want good soldiers doing five or six years ... then going back to civvie street."