Spouses seek help for their families as strain on armed forces increases

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The Independent Online

There is widespread discontent among spouses of members of Britain's armed forces, the results of a survey published today show.

There is widespread discontent among spouses of members of Britain's armed forces, the results of a survey published today show.

Three quarters said they felt their own career prospects would improve if their partner left the Army, Navy or Air Force. More than half believed their children would be better educated and 57 per cent thought their housing would improve if they returned to civilian life. Forty per cent said they were "essentially dissatisfied" with the support given to them while their partner was away.

Recent statistics have shown that marriage breakdowns within the armed forces already run at double the national average, with those serving in the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force the most vulnerable. The pressure put on family life has led to a 22 per cent drop in the number of married personnel in the past five years, and they now represent less than half of those serving. The Army already has a 7,000 shortfall.

The statistics from the Families Continuous Attitude Survey, which questioned a 10 per cent random sample of predominantly female spouses, shed some light on why this may be happening.

"These figures suggest that service families are paying the price for overstretch," said Paul Keetch MP, defence spokesman for the Liberal Democrats. "The Army clearly has a problem. If the families are not onside then retention problems will clearly get worse and the Army will lose people who bring maturity and experience to the ranks.

"If we are to place increasing burdens on our armed forces, the MoD has a duty to ensure that their families receive the maximum amount of support available."

Forty-four per cent of spouses were unhappy with the time their partners spent away. For a third of Army wives this meant their husbands spent more than 150 nights a year away from the family.

Lizzie Iron, chairwoman of the Army Families Federation, said most spouses coped fairly happily with their lot but certain issues – such as housing and education – particularly worried them. The Government, she said, had made some progress in acknowledging the importance of families but now needed to back it up.

"There is a culture in the military community and it is very much a 'get on with it' culture," she said. "Whatever private concerns people have, in the end if there is a job to be done they do it. It is a positive community but it gets frustrated if that positive attitude is taken advantage of."

Certain issues – many of which might not have been a matter of concern 30 years ago – now caused discontent, she said. Housing, a second income and better education for their children were key problems as well as the difficulty in obtaining local services – such as dentists – when forced to move around so often.

"There has been a lot of recognition in the last three or four years of the importance of the family's position in a soldier's decision to stay or leave," she said. "But we are still awaiting the funding to turn that recognition into action."

Of the spouses who responded to the March 2002 survey, 70 per cent were living in the UK while 23 per cent were based in Germany. Three quarters had children while 68 per cent were working.