Love In Far Off Lands

What Love and Sex Look Like When You’re Serving Your Country

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Zoe Mendelson is traveling the world, talking to friends and strangers about the messy, wonderful business of love. This series tracks her journey, highlighting the best of her encounters.

With the scandal surrounding Brig. Gen. Jeffrey A. Sinclair on my mind, I’ve been curious about sex, love and dating in the army. Control, regiment, hierarchy, and a whole lot of young people in peak physical shape, far from their loved ones, and all crammed together. It’s a recipe for an interesting dynamic. The darkest aspects of that dynamic that have been in the public eye as of late and it makes me wonder about the full picture. So on my way out of Alaska, I stop into Fort Richardson Army Base.

I sit down for a beer in the living room of [rank censored] B and his wife L. They have a huge new construction house on base. They are young newlyweds with not quite enough furniture to fill the space, which makes it feel even bigger. They both grew up in Army families and lived all over the world. The furniture they do have is gorgeous, mostly wood and doesn’t seem to belong in the white drywall and carpeted house.

B immediately remarks, “The Army is a weird culture. It is a complete subculture. It has its own customs, language jargon, everything.” L agreed, nodding, and raising her eyebrows emphatically.

I ask what was different about the culture of dating.

“I think it’s easier in the Army for people to have relationships that are more casual because you move every three years,” B tells me, “If you’re not married to a person, you’re probably not taking them with you. So, a kind of joke is when you’re asking someone if they’re serious about a relationship you say, ‘Well is she a take-along girl?’ It’s kind of the standard. Do I like this girl enough to take her with me to the next station? If you’re not married to her, you have to pay for her to go along.”

So I ask if it’s hard to sustain relationships with people outside of the Army if you’re not married.

“This is where the ‘Army Effect’ comes in of getting married quickly,” he says. “For the people that aren’t marrying just to get out of the barracks, people that are getting married just because they like someone, the whole courtship process is packed into three years. You meet someone – hopefully early in that time – you get to know them, you date for a while, decide to get married and you propose before you leave so that the Army will pay for them to come with you. So if you have a serious girlfriend there’s a lot of pressure to get married so they can come along.”

I had asked L earlier about her decision to marry B so young. They had dated for a few years, knew they were in love, and knew B would be going to Alaska. Alaska sounded good to her, so it just seemed like a sensible decision. I look to see her reaction to B’s explanation of the “Army Effect.”  She was looking at him, listening, and smiling. I ask him to elaborate on what he meant by “marrying just to get out of the barracks.”

“Living in the barracks is a super controlled environment with no privacy, so people really don’t want to live there. So they’ll just arbitrarily marry each other because you’re allowed to move out of the barracks and get a house if you’re married.”

L and I start laughing. “Not each other!” She disagrees.

“Yeah! No they will! Yes!” He was laughing. “Female and male soldiers will just arbitrarily get married as like a business agreement to get out of the barracks. That or they’ll just find some random broad.”

L says, “I knew a guy, he married one of his best friends from high school. She was actually a lesbian! And she had lesbian lovers on the side. And they lived in different states. She got health insurance; he got to live in a house.”

Pretty sweet deal. I ask why she didn’t have to live in the house with him and B explains that normally in the lower 48 your family would have to live with you, but Alaska is considered overseas.

B says, “But say a soldier finds a random person in town that he thinks is hot I guess, and they want health insurance they can just get married and the soldier gives them health insurance and he gets to move out of the barracks. Sometimes it’s for love or some sort of attraction—”

L butts in: “Yeah and sometimes it will last a couple years and then they get divorced. Like if they find someone like their true love then it’s like, ‘Hey, this whole marriage thing – hey, it’s gotta stop.’” This makes B chuckle.

“‘Well is she a take-along girl?’ It’s kind of the standard. Do I like this girl enough to take her with me to the next station? If you’re not married to her, you have to pay for her to go along.”

“I know a solider that when he was 23 years old he was married to a 54 year old Guatemalan woman! He said one day he woke up with her.” B tells us. L is shaking her head and smiling knowingly. I ask where that couple met and he says he didn’t know if the kid remembers – but probably in a bar. It was in South Carolina.

“They got married and her three kids got health insurance and they all lived together.” He continues. “Until… well… the reason they got divorced was because his step daughter started sleeping with his old roommate and she was not of age. So there was legal trouble with his roommate, and it all became a debacle.”

B also tells me a story about his cousin who was enlisted in Hawaii and posted a Facebook status reading, “I’m tired of living in the barracks. Who wants to get married?” The first comment was “No fat chicks.” And the second was “Ok yes fat chicks.” B and L are both laughing and shaking their heads. Then finally, because I had really started to wonder, I ask if female and male soldiers ever date just because they like each other.

“Enlisted soldiers can date each other as long as it doesn’t negatively effect the organization,” B says. “Someone with authority could not date someone that they’re in charge of. Officers cannot have any sort of nonprofessional relationship with an enlisted solder. If you hook up with one of your soldiers you can get kicked out of the Army. Even if you drink a little too much with your soldiers you can get kicked out of the Army. Anything that the Army thinks compromises discipline.”

I clarify my question:  “So how common is more normal dating?”

“There’s a lot of… um,” B sighs, “casual experiences. I know that when female soldiers show up to their first unit, especially females from small towns…well not just females, female and male soldiers actually… there’s tons of people in the same building as them and everybody wants to do stuff so they just kind of go on a binge until they get their first STD and then they’re kinda like, ‘Oh gosh.’ It’s a big issue. Every unit has a frickin’ giant jar of free condoms.”

“So they’re not trying to stop people from fucking,” I comment.

“Well like… how?” B asks, “No. Overseas you’re not supposed to have sex but they do it anyway. Because if you get pregnant overseas, you have to come back. Soldiers will have to leave the combat zone because they got pregnant. There’s a lot of adultery issues overseas too. Actually, for the Army, adultery is defined as vaginal intercourse only. You can have anal sex or a blow j[ob] all day!” He is laughing again. “Yeah it’s fiiiine!” He says, giggling. “It’s against the rules but the Army will turn a blind eye as long as it’s not real open. Because if you go overseas to places like Korea, the Philippines, Thailand, in all of the areas outside of where U.S. troops operate, there are brothels everywhere. So, it’s obviously a thing. Soldiers are not allowed to use prostitution, especially not if they’re married. But it happens.”

“What about meeting girls outside of the Army while you’re in the Army?” I ask.

“Oh that’s easy. Army guys have no issue meeting girls when they go out.”

“Yeah it’s the uniform, huh?” I thought wrong.

“No it’s the haircut! It’s recognizable,” B says. “We went out to a brunch, maybe eight of us in D.C. that happened to turn out to be a drag show. We were eating, hungover, and the lights dim all of a sudden and a drag queen comes out. And there was this audience participation thing and some lady’s like ‘I haven’t been laid in so long!’ and the drag queen turns and points to us and says, ‘Well there’s a whole bunch of Republican dick over there if you want some!’”

I ask, “So why do girls go for guys in the Army?” This makes L laugh, “Who knows?!” she jokes. My answer would be “muscles,” but who knows.

“Cuz they know we have a steady paycheck!” B says, and laughing again adds, “…and they know we know how to have fun.”

I’ve been avoiding the subject since the conversation had been so easy and fun but the subject seemed inescapable. I have to ask, “Why do you think the sexual assault rates are so high? What are the dynamics in play in the Army that you think contribute to this?”

“It was a huge issue,” B says. “But the military has now placed their SHARP (Sexual Harassment/Assault Response & Prevention) program as their ‘number one priority.’ Number one means that it’s an even higher priority than our actual mission; even soldiers deployed over seas continue to receive SHARP training.”

He explains that the more SHARP training the Army provided, the more cases were reported and convicted, which may be responsible for why the problem has appeared to get worse instead of better. Really, he argues that it is improving but becoming more visible. B also reminds me that this is not just an issue that affects women, “There are a statistically significant number of cases where men are sexually harassed or assaulted.”

He asks me to compare the sexual assault rate in the military to that of college campuses across the United States, or even just to the numbers in the U.S. in general. He states that “even though this is an issue cannot and should not be taken lightly, the military has taken more steps than, and seen more improvement than, many other institutions in the United States.” 

In obliging his request: according to the Department of Labor, 20 percent to 48 percent of females are sexually assaulted during their service.  According to the CDC, 19 percent of college students experience attempted or completed sexual assault during college. Ultimately, none of those numbers are acceptable, but hopefully increased openness about the topic will bring them closer to zero in the ranks and on campuses alike. The army is asking, so it’s time to tell.