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NEWS | Feb. 12, 2013

Illinois Soldiers, family members hone relationship skills at retreat

By Staff Sgt. James McDonnough Illinois National Guard

DECATUR, Ill. - Approximately 100 Soldiers and family members of the 766th Engineer Battalion in Decatur, Ill., learned relationship tools in a Strong Bonds weekend retreat Feb. 9 to 10.

Strong Bonds is an Army-wide program led by chaplains who provide relationship tools to married Soldiers and their spouses, as well as to single Soldiers who may be navigating the dating world.

Chaplain (Capt.) Vince Lambert of Chicago, director of the Illinois National Guard Strong Bonds program, said the program is not therapy, but takes a different approach to strengthening relationships.

"Strong Bonds is marriage and relationship education," Lambert said. "What we find is that so many people in their marriages, or in their relationships, are not necessarily equipped with the information and the education they should have. Strong Bonds is an attempt to enhance their relationship skills and give them some coping and communication skills to maximize the quality of their relationship."

Sandra Milner of Mascoutah, who attended the event with her husband, Staff Sgt. Jason Milner, readiness sergeant for the 661st and 662nd Fire Fighting teams in Sparta, said they were nervous they would have to share personal information with others, but they realized there was nothing to be scared of.

"It's not like you're in therapy where you have to tell them everything that's going on," Sandra said. "They give you the information and you can look at each other and know exactly which ones you're having issues with. We also enjoyed the group discussions and the fun group efforts."

Sandra said the retreat helped her and her husband recognize how they could make improvements in their own relationship.

"We just don't spend that much time together and they kept telling us we have to do that," she said. "We spend most of our time wrapped up with kids or work, but it's never just us. That's definitely something we will work on."

Spc. Jerry Radcliffe of Belleville, a firefighter with the 662nd, and his wife Lisa attended their second Strong Bonds retreat and were the longest married couple at the event, with 19 years of marriage. Radcliffe returned from Afghanistan in October and said a deployment makes events like this more meaningful.

"It's especially important for people like us," Radcliffe said. "Just getting back from a deployment, you don't get enough of that important time together, especially if you go straight back to work. But coming here lets you spend time together and your spouse gets to meet other spouses and the guys you deployed with."

While the married couples were focused on strengthening and maintaining marriages, nearly 30 single Soldiers were learning how to evaluate potential partners, identify warning signs in relationships and even how to avoid falling for a jerk or jerkette.

Chaplain (1st Lt.) Monty Bowers of Shelbyville, a Strong Bonds presenter, said it is important to include single Soldiers in these events because they require relationship skills just like their married counterparts.

"If they aren't in a long-term relationship, they are probably looking for one and this gives them the opportunity to think about what they are looking for and how to seek that out," Bowers said. "You know, the Army is pretty hard on relationships and if we can give them some knowledge that's going to help them build a strong relationship, then that's pretty significant."

Lambert said hosting a Strong Bonds retreat is something all commanders should consider.

"It may not seem like it at the time, but it will be a combat multiplier in the sense that you will have Soldiers and military families who are more committed to each other and more happy at home," Lambert said. "When they are more committed to each other and happier at home, they are more committed to their military role."