March 26, 2014
By Marshall Mason
GARMISCH, Germany (February 8, 2014) -- A group of senior leaders within 5th Signal Command left the confines of their duty stations and traveled with their families to Edelweiss Lodge and Resort, located in the mountainous region of Bavaria, to participate in a Strong Bonds family retreat.
Strong Bonds is a unit-based, chaplain-led Army program designed to increase individual Soldier and family member readiness through relationship education and skills training. Strong Bonds is conducted in an offsite retreat format in order to maximize the training effect. The retreat or "get away" provides a fun, safe, and secure environment in which to address the impact of relocations, deployments, and military lifestyle stressors.
This particular Strong Bonds retreat focused on educating senior leaders and their families. 5th Signal Command Chaplain (Col.) Carleton W. Birch, believes training senior leaders is a very important aspect of the program.
"In this program we often just send our junior families to Strong Bonds with the mindset that they are more high risk," said Birch. "Our junior families are often young, just getting started in their relationships and even have small children which can cause some unique stressors."
"But we see stressors in all marriages, even at the most senior levels," added Birch.
The program offers some scenario-based situations to teach families how to react and communicate within their own environments. These scenarios were presented to the families in a form of role play between Birch and his wife.
"The role playing between Chaplain Birch and his wife had an innate sense of reality, which seemed to appeal to everyone," said Command Sergeant Major Harry Mercado, 5th Signal Command.
Birch and his wife acted out many different scenarios. They also periodically stopped to replay the scenarios using different language so that each couple could see different perspectives.
"We use methods that involve skits, coaching and skill building," said Birch. "Skill building is the big part, because we want couples to know how to actually use the skills we are teaching them."
Birch insists that by instructing the classes with his wife, they bring a personal element to the training by sharing some of the skills and techniques, which have worked in their own relationship.
"Firstly, the role playing is very effective, but I think it's tough to do with someone who is not your spouse," Birch said jokingly. "But I also think it's important we demonstrate the skills we've used successfully in our own relationship," Birch said.
"I was really surprised by how many different ways the Chaplain and his wife were able to work through the scenarios," Mercado said. "They were extremely knowledgeable and creative."
While the preparation to teach Strong Bonds classes involves a lot of work for the instructors, all of the work involved for organizing a Strong Bonds event can be challenging. This work is primarily handled by the chaplain assistant.
"The chaplain assistant is the subject matter expert and the Strong Bonds primary care holder," said Sgt. Chaneeka Dunn, chaplain's assistant noncommissioned officer, 2nd Theater Strategic Signal Brigade. "We validate requests from units at all levels so we can schedule potential events."
"Our role is to teach, coach and implement the Strong Bonds program to help Army families," said Sgt. 1st Class Arthur L. Woods Jr., senior chaplain assistant NCO, 5th Signal Command. "As far as preparing for the event itself, we are where the rubber meets the road."
Because the program is run by Army chaplains, some people may think Strong Bonds is a religious event.
"The first time my wife and I went to a Strong Bonds retreat, I thought it was going to be a religious retreat, but it wasn't" said Lt. Col. Matthew J. Foulk, director, commander's initiative group, 5th Signal Command. "It was truly a great experience."
"This is not a religious event," added Birch. "This is actual Army training!"
There are four hours of training each morning. Afterward, couples are released to enjoy the rest of the day with their families.
"We like to take families out of their day-to-day environments, but we don't keep them locked in a classroom, said Birch. "This is training that involves the families interacting with each other.
"In essence, we really want our senior leaders to know how important relationship training is for the Soldiers and also how critical it is for them to set the example in their own lives so the Soldiers will follow," said Birch.