By Chaplain (Lieutenant Colonel) Mike Strohm and Patricia R. Johnson
The Army has come to recognize that the well-being of the soldier is inexorably linked to the well-being of the soldier’s family – a far cry from the days when the joke was “If the Army wanted you to have a spouse, they would issue you a spouse.” The Army has increasingly grown in focused support to soldiers and families, reflecting that deliberate emphasis to the point of always capitalizing the words “Soldier” and “Family” in its official
Awareness of the link between the soldier’s strength and the family’s strength, though, is not enough. Led by Army Chaplains of all different faiths, the Army Strong Bonds program addresses the importance of resilient relationships to stabilize the stressful environment
of military service. According to an Army Reserve spouse participating in one of the earlier Strong Bonds retreats in 2004, “This is the best thing the Army has ever done for us.”
Unveiled without fanfare, the Strong Division Artillery Commander at Schofield Barracks, Hawaii, directed his chaplains to, “help our couples.” Since then, frequent deployments, an added stress to the Army family, have shaken the foundation of marriages. The divorce rate among enlisted families rose 53% between 2000 and 2004 and the divorce rate for officers also rose. Since more than half the soldiers are married and have children, the need for action was obvious. Commanders and chaplains formed a union against the toll of war caused by multiple deployments, failed relationships, and broken families.
Chaplains have long held an important role providing religious support in the Army, but
there is nothing more practical than the work chaplains do to equip families with the relationship tools they need to weather military life and deployments.
Chaplains are certified to conduct Strong Bonds retreats by nationally renowned
relationship trainers such as John and Jane Covey, and John Van Epp, who enhance the relationship training skills of retreat facilitators. Chaplains and Chaplain Assistants are intimately engaged in the lives of soldiers and family members who attend Strong Bonds events, ranging from couple and family events to retreats for single soldiers. Commanders in all components of the Army – Active, National Guard, and the Reserves – have planned more than 5,000 Strong Bonds retreats during this current fiscal year.
Administrators of the Strong Bonds program often receive letters of appreciation from attendees, with text such as this one:
“At the Strong Bonds retreat, I looked around the room and saw a lot of hurt in the marriages, especially with the spouses whose husbands spent a lot of time away from their family. However, towards the end of the Strong Bonds retreat, I saw something markedly different. There was hope.”
Hope was also shared in the lives of a couple who attended a Strong Bonds retreat just weeks before the husband was killed. In the middle of the tragedy of the soldier’s death, the surviving spouse publicly expressed deep gratitude for the opportunity to share her last weeks with her husband in the intimate and supportive setting of a Strong Bonds retreat. In her words, it was the best weeks of their marriage.
Military duty changes both the soldier and the family member! During deployment, the military spouse functions as a solo parent, taking on all the responsibility of decision-making, management and problem-solving. The reintegration of the soldier back into the relationship following a deployment is a huge adjustment. The challenges of role definition and role expectations sometimes feel scarier to the soldier than the deployment.
Even positive changes in the maturity of either soldier or spouse present a huge adjustment. The benefits of a greater sense of individual independence, increased problem-solving skills, confidence in decision-making skills, and increased networks of supportive resources outside the family can sometimes feel like a threat to the relationship.
Single soldiers are impacted by the stress of military service as well. The
Strong Bonds program helps single soldiers handle their unique relationships
with significant others, children, and their families of origin. The Army Suicide
Report published by Public Health Command in April 2010 produced
some startling statistics: the vast majority (82 %) of suicides from 2005 to
2009 had evidence of personal stressors, the most common being relationship
problems (56 %).
Some studies have shown this number to be even higher. At Single Soldier retreats, participants learn to better understand and handle love, forgiveness, anger, and the range of emotions involved in relationships. Currently, the University of Denver is conducting a five-year study focused on the foundational curriculum of Strong Bonds, called the Prevention Relationship Enhancement Program or (PREP), and the initial results are extremely encouraging. The divorce rate for those in the study who have received Strong Bonds training is 50% less than those who have not received the training.
The PREP curriculum, a research based program, has been used informally informally in all branches of the military for over 20 years and was the first relationship skills training curriculum used in Strong Bonds programs.
There is no silver bullet. With our best efforts we cannot save all marriages or prevent singles from making bad relationship choices. Army Strong Bonds, however, offers the best skills training design to bring soldiers and family members to the place of improved relationship resiliency.
Divorce is going to happen. Bad choices are going to be made. Men and women take their own lives because of the weariness of spirit when hope seems to disappear. But as that spouse reported about their relationship following a Strong Bonds retreat, “there was hope.”
Only 1% of the population in this country serves in the military and bears the burden of protecting all the rest of us. This small group from our neighborhoods and towns are the ones on whom we depend to assist our world in all kinds of stressful situations and who are called more often to leave loved ones behind to deploy to war.
Strong Bonds produces strong relationships which in turn support a strong Army. Army Strong Bonds has conducted thousands of events for the last thirteen years across all three components of the Army and has touched tens of thousands of soldiers and their family members.