I was in for a culture shock on my first day at the Air Force Academy. It was 1976 and I was 22 years old. My locks were sheared and I felt like a lamb headed for slaughter. Breakfast with knife and fork under the watchful eyes of the waiter, wearing a tie for the first time, and the nightgown, yes a nightgown; an alien culture was prescribing new habits.
Healthy ragging, coaching by seniors and guidance from the instructors, all these helped in the initial breaking in. Our DNA mutated by the year-end. That one year of training helped me adapt to the new way of life. In the Air Force, dignity and honour, value systems and respect for women became the watchword and they appealed to me.
We were of a generation which believed that marriages are made in heaven. The stigma of separation was a psychological deterrent too. Marriage was still a responsibility and it was one in which we adjusted to differences. We played our roles and our wives played theirs. Separations were rare.
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I believed and I continue to believe that the Air Force environment helps preserve the institution. It was a large joint family in which seniors and concerned families were willing to pitch in to cement any cracks. Air Force law was a deterrent too. Very early at the Academy, we were cautioned that ‘Stealing the affection of a brother officer’s wife’ would invite court-martial. The threat of risking one’s career tends to minimise such attempts.
I credited the environment for all the good in the marriages in the Air Force. I was in for a rude shock though.
One summer morning, the Commandant summoned me to talk about an Officer. I had known Flt. Lt. Dey (name changed) for some time. Affable and disciplined, he was always positive and willing to do more than his share – a fine human being who was alive to the problems of his subordinates. He had married recently and his wife had joined him at the Academy.
I couldn’t believe what my Commandant was telling me. There had been murmurs. The neighbours had been hearing raised voices late at night. The Commandant was asking me to inquire about how the Officer was conducting himself in his marriage. I couldn’t associate Flt. Lt. Dey with any of this.
I spoke to the couple individually and jointly and I pieced it together. I realised that my belief that the Air Force was conducive to building strong marriages was misplaced. The very environment which I held sacrosanctly may have played its part.
The lady came from a cultural background that was vastly different from that of the Air Force. This was true for most of the serving personnel, too, but the difference was that we had a year’s training to help us adjust. She was all at sea in the new environment. Innocuous things had added up too. A practical joke was played on them on her first night at the Academy. Flt. Lt. Dey’s colleagues hid alarm clocks in his house that went off every hour. What should have been something to be laughed at over a cup of tea shocked her out of her comfort zone. Before she could come to terms with this, a large group of bachelors arrived late in the night for coffee and a nightcap. The newly-weds were being given the standard welcome.
Then came the formal welcome party at the mess. I had noticed that she looked scared and I had put it down to the strangeness of it all and thought she would adjust to it in due course. I now realise that this was where she had been put to the real test.
She saw women drinking. She didn’t know how to react when officers asked her for a dance.
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Her world came crashing down when she saw her husband informal dance with one of the ladies. The culture of the Air Force was conflicting with her upbringing. Her psyche fractured and the environment had done it.
In other professions, we can choose to change our jobs in order to move out of the environment. Not so in the Defence services.
I recommended counselling for the lady. I was still at the Academy when her parents took her away. This was followed by proceedings for separation.
It was then that I realised that relationships can be affected by the environment. In addition to personal compatibility, couples need to be aligned with the environment as well to build a wholesome relationship.