“Communication saves lives on the battlefield. It saves marriages, too.”
That was a major theme that Army Chaplain (Lt. Col.) Antonio Daggett stressed at the National Guard Strong Bonds Marriage Seminar in Old Town Alexandria, Va.
About 20 Guard couples attended the retreat, which was geared to strengthen marriages through improving communication skills. Daggett, who works in the National Guard Bureau’s chaplains’ office facilitated the seminar that equips families with tools to combat the stressors of military service.
On the first day of the seminar, Daggett explained the danger signs of marriage communications, such as “escalation,” and demonstrated them through videos of actual couples discussing their marital issues.
In one video, a conversation that started with household cleanliness escalated into talk of separation. The chaplain delved into other communication no-no’s, such as withdrawal — “Yes Dear, whatever you say, Dear” - and “invalidation,” which he called a $10 word for name-calling.
“Our communications are pretty good, but could use a little tweaking,” said Cynthia Cole, wife of Army Lt. Col. Reyes Cole of the National Guard Bureau’s counterdrug office, who attended the weekend retreat.
By their own admission, it’s been a stressful year for the Coles and their four young children. Along with recent deployments to Iraq, Afghanistan and Kyrgyzstan, the colonel suffered a massive pulmonary embolism last year that almost ended his life.
“This has been a great way for us to decompress and reconnect and find out what we have been doing right and what we can improve on,” Cynthia Cole said.
These seminars, held around the country for married Army and Air National Guard couples, are part of the Strong Bonds Program, which began in 1999 and was formerly known as Building Strong and Ready Families.
Army Chaplain (Lt. Col.) Ron Martin-Minnich of the National Guard Bureau’s chaplain’s office said Strong Bond events are expected to take place at 110 Air National Guard and 285 Army National Guard units in 54 states and territories.
As fiscal 2008 wraps up and numbers are still being tallied, his office expected about 8,000 troops and their families to attend Strong Bonds events in the fiscal year. The program is funded at about $8 million annually and includes events for singles and families as well.
“This shows the major success we have made in expanding and increasing support to our families, just like the active duty,” Martin-Minnich said.
Martin-Minnich credited the Guard’s general officers for supporting his office through the Army Family Action Plan and their support of joint funding requests with the active duty, the Army Reserve and the Army Chief of Chaplain’s Office.
He also credited Air National Guard Director Air Force Lt. Gen. Craig McKinley for supporting his office in expanding Strong Bonds to the Air Guard.
Daggett’s seminar cost couples just a small registration fee and included two nights at the hotel, all meals, handouts and the book “12 Hours to a Great Marriage,” as well as a dinner cruise on the Potomac River.
All agreed that Daggett’s dynamic speaking style brought the subject matter to life and encouraged participation. Practice makes perfect: He has facilitated nine seminars, including several in the Virgin Islands. “Every time I help a marriage, I help my own,” he said.
“Chaplain Daggett can take this material that was designed for civilians and make it mesh with our culture as soldiers and soldiers’ families,” said Virginia Guardsman Army Lt. Col. Barry Davis, who attended the weekend with his wife.
The animated, soft-spoken chaplain gripped the microphone with his left hand while his right moved like that of a New York City traffic cop, confirming what he said.
He illustrated many of his points with humor, citing the change in the mindset of the importance of the military family: “If any of you came into the military when I did in the early ‘80s, you remember how it was: You’d go up to your sergeant and say: ‘Sergeant, I need to take my wife to the hospital.’ Your sergeant would say, ‘Soldier, the Army didn’t issue you a wife.’”
To start the seminar, Daggett asked couples to stand up and introduce themselves and explain what made their marriage unique. The replies drew nods, smiles and some laughter: Some responses included: “We’re best friends.” “We’ve been married 37 years.” “We’re very competitive.” “We seem to overcome every challenge thrown our way.” “We’re not TV people. We like to burn some candles and listen to music.”
The chaplain then reciprocated and introduced his wife of 26 years and pointed out that one of the ways his marriage is unique is that the couple has 10 children - “80 percent boys.” He described their marriage as a launching pad for his kids into a global and competitive world.
With his pleasant voice and warm smile, he asked couples for expectations they may have had going into the marriage.
He got many replies up to and including; “We were so in love and thought it would always be like that.” “She would stay home while I go to work.” “We didn’t have any expectations. We were young, and just wanted to get married.” “I expected a fairy tale forever.”
“So we all have expectations,” Daggett said, wrapping up the lesson. “Some are subtle and unsaid. Some we take as a matter of fact [like] ‘Surely he or she is going to be loyal to me.’”
The cuddly body language between Davis and his wife, Trasi, said they’re happily married, so why was this couple, married just 15 months, at a marriage enrichment seminar?
“This is [preventive] maintenance,” the colonel said. Trasi Davis echoed the thought: “Our marriage, I feel, is really strong, but as our pastor said, ‘Marriage is like a house you plan on living in the rest of your life - both need constant maintenance.’”
Both have children from previous marriages. They keep their marriage fresh by laughing a lot and having game nights with the kids - complete with Dad’s homemade pizza. They also have date nights, minus the kids.
“It was nice to get a weekend away and have it be with other couples that feel the same way we do about our marriage,” Trasi Davis said.
The Coles enjoyed the chance to learn ways to improve their marriage as well. “I think one of the most important things the instructor said today was that the ultimate goal is to save the marriage, because the kids and society require it,” Colonel Cole said.
He and his wife renewed their wedding vows with several others in the hotel’s atrium on the second day.
“It teaches you that you’re a team and in a team there isn’t any right person or wrong person,” Colonel Cole said. Trasi Davis agreed. “The seminar teaches you to resolve conflict in an amicable way,” she said.
“The course is not ‘Death by PowerPoint.’ It’s interactive: you watch a video and everyone talks about it,” Colonel Cole said.
To find an upcoming Strong Bonds retreat, visit www.strongbonds.org.