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Dual-Career Military Couples Face Struggles When Starting Families

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

These days, more and more couples meet at work and get married. That's also true of the military. Eighty-four thousand service members are in dual-career military marriages - a group roughly the size of everyone on the Coast Guard payroll. Military reporter Steve Walsh of member station KPBS tells us how that's changing the face of the all-volunteer force.

STEVE WALSH, BYLINE: Christina Upton and her husband, Chris - both Marine Corps majors - have made their dual-military career marriage work. Though, now that Christina is pregnant, she's leaning toward retirement.

MAJ CHRISTINA UPTON: There's a reason I just got married two years ago. I've been a very good Marine for 20 years, and I don't really know how to do something at half-speed.

WALSH: Chris has seen other military couples raise children.

MAJ CHRIS UPTON: Marines that are married to other Marines that do it and they do it very well, and they do it very successfully. And I know that we could do it as well, so if she wanted to stay in, I would definitely support her.

WALSH: Forty-five percent of women in the military are married to someone else in the service. Fifty-seven percent of married women in the Marine Corps are married to someone else in the Corps. It's a pool of future female leaders who are most at risk of leaving. And the Pentagon is taking note.

JANET WOLFENBARGER: It really is about national security to be able to attract and retain high-caliber individuals in this country who want to serve.

WALSH: Janet Wolfenbarger is a retired four-star Air Force general. She chairs a Pentagon commission on women, which has looked at dual-military couples. Data show that when a couple doesn't live together for long periods, they start talking about whether it's time for one of them to get out. Pentagon data show that up-and-coming millennials overall are less willing to sacrifice their own family life to serve.

LOREN MANO: It's really sad where, like, my friends, if they become mothers, and they feel really limited and they actually have to quit the service. But I'm going to try to go as far as I can.

WALSH: Seaman Loren Mano and her husband, Petty Officer 2nd Class Cody Litman, are just starting their careers in the Coast Guard.

CODY LITMAN: That's definitely something that we've discussed, actually, in great detail.

MANO: Yeah, for sure.

LITMAN: We want to do a full 20, but if we have kids and one of us is going to get stationed completely across the country, we would probably call it quits.

WALSH: Each couple says their service makes an effort to keep them together. In 2016, a Navy policy declared keeping couples together should be the norm. The needs of the Navy come first, but the rule is designed to encourage commanders to keep couples stationed at least within 90 miles of one another.

JENNIFER GABBARD: I've got a keep pile and a get-rid-of pile.

WALSH: A Navy nurse and chief petty officer, Jennifer Gabbard just drove from her last duty station in Boston to join her husband near San Diego. He also spent his life in the Navy, and Jennifer says that helps.

GABBARD: You don't have to explain things. People think it's harder, but it really isn't. You understand each other.

ANGELINA GABRIEL: You so silly. What are you talking about?

WALSH: Angelina Gabriel is a Navy chief petty officer in San Diego with three young boys. Today, she's home earlier than her husband, who is also a chief.

GABRIEL: His schedule is anywhere between...

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Do we have any cherries?

GABRIEL: No, baby. His schedule is anywhere between 4 or 5 in the morning to 8 o'clock at night.

WALSH: They've deployed individually while one of them stayed home. Once, they deployed at the same time.

GABRIEL: A lot of times, one of us is not here, and that's what's stressful. When my husband's not here, our children act a different way. I'm very - I'm more - I'm more lenient because I want to coddle the boys. I want to make sure they're OK because they're feeling the fact that their dad is not here.

WALSH: The Pentagon's commission on women recommends that the Department of Defense set a military-wide policy to cover all dual-career families. That would be especially helpful for the growing number of people married to someone in a different branch of the armed forces. Given the numbers, these couples say a policy the military could never survive is preventing service members from marrying one another. For NPR News, I'm Steve Walsh in San Diego. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.