Strong Marriages – Strong Army

Winter 2011
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.

What Family Ministers Share With & Can Learn From Military Chaplains?

By John Van Epp, PhD

It all began around ten years ago when Chaplain Colonel Bloomstrom from the Chief of Chaplains office approached my booth at a conference and ordered 50 of my relationship courses for chaplains to teach. Since that first encounter, I have had the incredible honor of personally training over 3,000 chaplains in my courses by traveling to most of the Army bases across this country and overseas. This has been a journey of inspiration as I have developed many close relationships with these chaplains and their families, listened to their stories of sacrifice, dedication, and love for fellow soldiers, and watched them care for the spiritual, personal, and relational needs of others. Let me take this opportunity to brag about them.

A typical chaplain’s closet is filled with many hats.
• The administrative hats of organizing activities, retreats and services;writing contracts, reports, and budgets; delegating to and managing their assistants and subordinates; and working under the authority of constantly changing superiors.
• The educational hats of taking annual classes, gaining certifications; teaching classes and conducting retreats related to spirituality, faith, marriage, child-rearing, dating and mate-choice; preparing devotionals and sermons, and running worship centers and services.
• The military hats of daily PT (physical training), deployments, PCS (Permanent Change of Station) every two or three years, promotions, battle wounds and deaths (chaplains conduct most of the services and family care for those who have lost their lives), and working within the chain of command.
• Finally, there is the counseling hat which deals with marriage preparation, helping service men and women with countless personal and marital struggles, healing broken trust, post-traumatic stress, and dealing with loss. Even this list hardly does credit for this most noble profession.

But what has moved me much more than their expansive work load is their expansive hearts. I have yet to meet a chaplain who was not driven by love, compassion, and sacrifice. I am sure there must be some out there who have lost this vision, but they must be few and far between because I have only come across those who genuinely care about those they serve.

One of my common experiences is to hear chaplains talk about conducting funeral services for those who lost their lives in battle, and the heart-wrenching task of caring for their spouses and families. Several months ago, I was teaching my programs to new chaplains in the Basic Course at Fort Jackson. An announcement was made that a convoy in Iraq had been attacked and among those killed was an Army Chaplain – the first lost in this war. There was an immediate hush as they interrupted our class to pray for the families involved. At lunch I spoke with numerous staff about this loss including the director of the basic course, and each one showed deep emotion as their eyes welled-up with tears.

On many other occasions I have had similar experiences with other chaplains. It usually would begin with a chaplain looking at me and saying something like, “We lost six from the 101st last week.” This comment would be followed by a long, silent stare as he fought back his emotions. I would have thought that “compassion fatigue” would have set in years earlier for some of these veteran chaplains; but for most, their hearts remain soft an receptive to the pain of those to whom they minister.

I am most familiar, though, with the Strong Bonds Program that the Army Chaplaincy initiated some ten years ago. Their mission is “to provide programs in weekend retreat settings that will strengthen relationships in marriage, family, and dating (for singles).” The Chief of Chaplains established the Strong Bonds Program and provided funding in order to improve the quality of family relationships among their soldiers.Chaplains become trained and certified in a number
of relationship courses and then take single soldiers, married couples, or entire families on weekend retreats and teach them one of these programs over the course of three days. The Strong Bonds budget provides the funding for the course materials, the lodging, any necessary childcare, and
the transportation. The weekend is balanced between class time and free time for relaxing, recharging, and reflecting on what they learn.

I have listened to hundreds of chaplains as they excitedly described these retreats and the positive impact they have had on dating soldiers, married couples, and families. The common denominator between these many stories has not been the specific programs taught, or the locations of the retreats, or even the activities of the weekend. Rather, it has been the love of the chaplains for the well-being of the soldiers and their families under their care.

Chaplains long to see better dating practices, stronger marriages, and happier families and have established a new “social structure” in their military culture to facilitate preventative programs in relationship education. Our society at large can learn much from this micro-society for there is a tremendous need to create social structures where individuals and couples take relationship courses long before the need for remedial intervention.

In fact, the Church should also consider following the example of the Army Chaplains and fund classes and retreats to their communities in non-church settings that specifically address the needs of dating, marriage, and family life.

Most of the courses used in the Strong Bonds Program have secular and Christian versions which allow chaplains to teach the secular version to those who would not usually attend a religious retreat in order to both benefit their relationships and to provide a bridge of credibility for the Chaplaincy. In the same way, Churches could provide these courses which would benefit the community by promoting Christian principles on dating and marriage in practical and non-religious ways while also providing an outreach to unchurched people.

The military has been a leader in many advances that have now become normalized in our public sector – satellite systems, the Internet, and energy to name a few. The Army Chaplaincy has now established an example for us to follow: creating new social and organizational structures where relationship classes are taught throughout the year in both Christian and secular settings in order to promote healthy dating practices, stronger marriages, and happier families.

“The Way We Get By”

By Kathy Beirne

Aging (as we saw in the Fall 2010 NACFLM Journal) is a challenge to the elderly person and to those around them. Aron Gaudet was concerned when he couldn’t reach his elderly mother on the phone. When he finally got her, she told him that she had been greeting the troops coming through the Bangor, Maine airport. She was part of a crew that meets each incoming troop transport plane, and wished departing soldiers well as they left for the war zones.

Aron, who had wanted to become a documentary film-maker, had found his subject. His film, The Way We Get By, describes the work these dedicated greeters do and was hailed as one of the best documentaries of 2009.

The greeters receive phone calls when a plane is due in. Many of them travel a long distance to get there. They provide cell phones to the combatants to call their loved ones. One volunteer told a story of a young soldier who was talking excitedly on a phone. It turned out he was coaching his wife through childbirth!

The film shows how people can support soldiers without being for or against war. More importantly, it is a wonderful tribute to the way a cause and a community can help older people feel vital and able to get up every day despite physical, emotional, and economic obstacles. It’s also a great example of ways ordinary citizens can become advocates for those who are in the military and for their families.

Just recently, a relative in Illinois had a neighbor whose son was being deployed to Afghanistan. “She’s a single mom, and Chris is her only son.” Gail told us. “The Bangor group’s kindness was as unexpected as it was overwhelming to her. They even posted his photo on their Website. There are just no words to express how grateful she was, getting to see his smiling face once more before he left the country.”

In March 2010, the Bangor group passed the one million mark for the combatants they had met. Representative Chellie Pingree of Maine said of them on that occasion, “The compassion and dedication of these volunteers is truly inspirational. Day and night, week after week, they work to make sure that the last thing our troops get before leaving home is a warm handshake and the first thing they see when they return is a smiling face.”

Through the Eyes of a Military Family

Mike Allen of the Journal Commission interviews
Gary & Jeanne Barnes

Editors Note:
For this “Serving Military Families” issue, we thought it would be helpful to talk directly with a Catholic couple who has experienced the military’s affect on family life. Gary and Jeanne Barnes of Gulf Breeze, FL, have seen a broad spectrum of military life. Gary spent 22 years in the Air Force and retired in 1993 with the rank of Lt. Colonel. Their daughter’s husband is an active Marine (deployed in Okinawa, Japan).

Mike: What are some of the challenges to marriage in the military?
Jeanne: First of all, just the separation. Gary was also in special ops, which meant that we didn’t know when he was going, for how long, and where he would be. The balance of power that goes back and forth was hard. When he’s home we share power, and then when he leaves, I would do it all my way (laughs). It was hard to readjust to that.

Gary: The military, for me, was exciting. I enjoyed the travel…though I don’t like to tell Jeanne that (both laugh) – but I could see the problems with the children. When I did come home, it was like “Dad’s home, he’s the #1!” And Jeanne would always feel like, “What
am I, chopped liver?”

I didn’t worry about dying –maybe Jeanne did – it was the uncertainty, the constant deployments, the movement, not being really a part of the kids’ lives that was hard. Now, as I look back, there were things that I didn’t do, didn’t have the time to do, or didn’t choose to take in – ball games, birthday parties, anniversaries.

Mike: Gary said that death was not on his mind. Jeanne, how about for you?
Jeanne: Yes, I always had it in the back of my mind. Gary’s very first assignment was at Westover, Massachusetts, where there were lots of bombers shot down, so I was familiar with the official car and the chaplain coming by and telling the wives. It was always, “Thank God it’s not me,” and then, “Oh my gosh, it’s my friend,” and then the guilt of “What can I do for them, because I feel so bad that it’s them and not me.” But our church family was always very close, so we could minister to one another. I was in a women’s group where we talked about those things, so just knowing that the other wives were feeling the same thing helped a lot.

Mike: What are some of the other challenges children face when a parent is in the
Jeanne: It was more an issue with discipline in our family. We have three daughters, and in my eyes, they could do no wrong, and in Gary’s eyes, they could do no right, so we were a good team (laughs).
Gary: The moving all the time – every two, three, or four years – was extremely hard on the kids. In fact, our middle daughter had written that they were so scared to go to school the first day, that they went to bed together and held each other’s hands.
Jeanne: But as traumatic as it was, all three say today that it made them stronger. They are very independent, strong women, and they do credit a lot of that with having to be the new kid.

Mike: As for the ministries on military bases, how were those helpful?
Gary: Our first real experience with military chaplains was on Guam. We would have a new priest every year. In three years, we had three priests. We’ve been lifelong friends with two of those priests; they come and visit us almost every year, and that was thirty years ago.

We were lucky that we had the Church. We found out from living in Guam, that since you’re thousands of miles away, the church is family. It pulled us together, and I think we are so much stronger for that experience, because of that isolation and the Church filling the need for family.

Jeanne: Gary was gone a lot, and the priests would come by and check – I had little children at the time – to see if everything was OK. They were just friends. Growing up in a Catholic family, if my mother had the priest over for dinner, it was linens, china, fancy stuff. So when our first priest stopped by, I thought, “I’ve got to do all this.” But as we got to be friends, it was “Here’s a paper napkin, just sit down and have a glass of beer” (laughs).

Mike: What are some things that local parishes could do to be helpful of military families?
Jeanne: Our church now has a lot of retired Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps, but not so much active duty. One thing I appreciate is a book we put on the altar every Sunday that has the names – anybody can write in it – of any military person or family that is deployed. It’s a symbol of how important it is to pray for our military families.

Another thing is just getting the families or spouses of deployed soldiers together. When our daughter’s husband went to Iraq, it was hard for her to meet other wives whose husbands were deployed. If the Church set up coffees, little gatherings, or something where they could initially get together; then they could take it from there. You need the support of someone who is going through the same thing.

Gary: It depends on the community. If you have a lot of families of deployed, you can do a lot, but if you have five families out of 800, they tend to fall by the wayside. We pray for them every Sunday in our intentions, and the book is there; but outside of that there wasn’t anything for them.
Jeanne: Something our priest does is when soldiers attend Mass, he takes time at the end to welcome them, and the church gives them a standing ovation. Our son-in-law laughs about being embarrassed, but it is good for the family and the children to see that the community appreciates what their dad does.
Gary: We always concentrate on the deployed, and pray for them, but we really need to establish a constant prayer for the ones left behind, because they need our prayers every bit as much.

Jeanne: A lot of enlisted personnel and their families really struggle financially. They may have enough money to live month to month, but their refrigerator goes out, and they don’t have anything extra. That’s another thing the Church can do, if you get to know the families.

Gary: It’s sad in America that our young airmen, in the first five ranks, are on food stamps.

Mike: What about childcare – just watching the children for a few hours – could that be helpful?
Gary: In most daycares, there’s no room for the two hour drop-in. That’s a big deal, if our Churches could step up, just that two hour “go get groceries”