A strong U.S. military depends on more than just high-tech equipment and highly trained soldiers; it also depends on soldiers having a stable marriage, according to military chaplains.
Strong Bonds is a program that began in Hawaii over a decade ago when a brigade chaplain and his commanders realized that soldiers needed a way to receive help with their marriages. Although it started at a grassroots level, Strong Bonds has helped over 160,000 soldiers and their family members through over 2,600 events last year.
"In order to have a strong army, we also need to have strong families," Lt. Col. Carleton Birch, a Strong Bonds chaplain and spokesperson, told CP.
A report released jointly by the U.S. Department of Defense and Department of the Treasury in February says there are over 600,000 civilian spouses of active duty service members. These couples have been married, on average, for just under eight years, and 72 percent of them have children.
But statistics show they are struggling to sustain their marriages. In 2011 approximately 30,000 military couples divorced, bringing the divorce rate up to 3.9 percent and its highest mark since 1999, the Air Force Times reports.
In order to strengthen these marriages the branches of the military have developed a number of different programs, many of them in the form of weekend getaways where military couples can focus on their relationships and learn the skills that are needed to have a successful marriage.
The Chaplains Religious Enrichment Development Operation (CREDO) is a program that began 41 years ago as a way to help Vietnam War veterans deal with substance abuse issues. Today the program has evolved to include a wide variety of services, including marriage enrichment, family, personal growth and pre- and post-deployment programs.
Lt. Earl Wilson III, a CREDO chaplain at the Marine Corp's Camp Pendleton in California, told The Christian Post on Friday that it is important for soldiers to make their marriages a priority, especially if they were deployed shortly after they were married. He pointed to a verse in the Book of Deuteronomy which says a man should not be deployed during the first year of his marriage, so that he can enjoy time with his wife.
While Wilson doesn't think a whole year off is necessary, he does say it is important for soldiers to lay a solid foundation for their marriage, which is why CREDO's marriage-enrichment curriculum is helpful.
There are "10 skills that we teach the couples throughout the retreat that focus on improving their communication while simultaneously bonding them together," said Wilson.
A typical CREDO marriage retreat involves about 20 couples who spend about two days in a hotel or camp setting. As spouses talk to one another and develop their marriage skills, facilitators are also on hand to help them work through any problems that might come up during their discussion.
For the most part there are two types of couples that attend CREDO events: those who want a free weekend getaway and those whose marriages are struggling to survive. Those who attend these getaways seeking serious help, Wilson says, have often said the event "saved their marriage."
Much like CREDO marriage retreats, Strong Bonds Couples retreats also allow Army couples to go to an off-site hotel where they can spend a day or two working on their marriages, and childcare is provided to those who are parents. During the chaplain-led events, couples learn marriage skills in a small-group setting where there are no military ranks or uniforms and they can have honest discussions about the issues in their marriages.
Among the difficulties unique to military marriages are the stresses of deployment and redeployment, Strong Bonds spokesman Lt. Col. Carleton Birch says, plus the added pressures during times of war.
"The mentality of being in a war zone is different from the mentality of going to work every day and coming home to your family," he said. "That's a huge transition for a soldier as well."
Over 500 Army families are currently participating in a pilot study that seeks to show the effectiveness of the Strong Bonds program. According to Birch, early results show a 50 percent reduction in divorces and an increase in marriage satisfaction for those who participated in the program.
Henry Childs, the pastor of North Bethlehem Missionary Baptist Church in Warner Robbins, Ga., is a retired U.S. Air Force Colonel who spent 30 years in the military before retiring in 2004. He and his wife, Vivian, both know how the military lifestyle can strain a marriage.
One of the things that can have the greatest impact on a military couple's relationship is the amount of travel involved and the constant separation from one another.
"The spouse, they have to take full responsibility of all the family cares, including the house maintenance, raising the kids," Childs said Friday. "It becomes a single-parent situation for the spouse, which leads to stress on families, and it takes a special woman to be able to do that."
Sometimes in a military relationship the husband is the civilian, however, and his unique needs should also be considered by programs designed to help the spouses of military personnel.
"Army family support groups mainly consist of female spouses, and a lot of the time male spouses may feel a little conspicuous in those types of groups," said Birche. The husband is the civilian in only five percent of military marriages, which is why Birch believes the military will have to work "especially hard" to ensure that civilian husbands have the type of support they need.
Childs commends the military for the services it provides to families, but says it still takes a strong person to take care of the home-front when her, or his, spouse is away serving their country. Strong marriages benefit our fighting forces, he says, because they allow personnel to focus on their duties rather than the problems in their relationships.
"In my experience as a commander, when my people are focused and there's no stress they're able to...get the job done."
Other programs, like the Air Force's Marriage Care, also offer marriage retreats to service members and their spouses.