<b><i>Part one of a three-part series, explores local chaplains' services like Strong Bonds for couples</b></i>

SCHOFIELD BARRACKS, Hawaii - Military life can be overwhelming, challenging and demanding without the right information and support networks.

For example, going, returning or reintegrating from the combat environment can be the emotional stressor that pushes a Soldier to commit suicide.

As well, circumstances like living and working in the Pacific, far from a mainland home, while a spouse is deployed, can be devastating for families.

"We need to re-double our efforts to let Soldiers know we are concerned about their well-being, " said the Army's Vice Chief of Staff, Gen. Peter Chiarelli, in a letter to Army leaders. "Look each and every Soldier in the eye. Convey the message that each one is valued by our Army, their families and friends, and our nation.

"Remind Soldiers that their Army remains committed to help support and assist them to meet hardships head-on, no matter the struggle, stressor or challenge," Chiarelli said.

According to Army.mil statistics, Army suicide rates have been on the rise since 2004. In 2007, 115 Soldiers committed suicide. In 2008, that number jumped to 140, and then rose again to 163 in 2009. But in 2010, the Army has seen a significant reduction in suicides among active duty Soldiers. As of June 10, 62 suicides have been reported, compared to the 89 that had occurred by the same time in 2009.

In order to combat Solider suicides, the Army has responded by taking preventative measures, which include offering Soldiers and families more training and programs than ever before.

"The Army has come a long way in the past 20 years in terms of providing Soldiers with resiliency training and developing programs and resources to help prevent suicide," said Chaplain (Maj.) Damon Onellion, the North Community Family Life Chaplain, who has been in the service for 25 years. "Active duty Soldiers have access to two or three times as many resources as their civilian counterparts, so there is really more than ample opportunity for people to seek help."

In addition to traditional chaplain services and counseling, Soldiers and families have access to Strong Bonds, a unit-based, chaplain-led program that assists commanders in building individual resiliency by strengthening the Army family.

"Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem," Onellion said. "The suicidal person is balancing between the desire to live and the desire to end the pain. Our goal as chaplains is to restore hope to a person going through a crisis, thus tipping the scales back in favor of life."

The Strong Bonds mission is to increase individual Soldier and family member readiness through relationship education and skills training.

"Chaplains are the only helping agency where a person can confide in someone without it going any further," Onellion said, adding that 70 percent of his job consists of counseling those in need. "We take it very seriously that we see everyone who needs us."

Formerly called Building Strong and Ready Families, Strong Bonds began in 1997 with the 25th Infantry Division, here.

Initially, 90 active duty couples participated in four events.

During the past year, more than 160,000 Soldiers and family members have participated in more than 2,600 Strong Bonds events Armywide. The program's success has led to increased funding, expansion and more training options.

New programs have grown to meet Soldiers at different phases of the relationship cycle. Specific training is offered for the single Soldier, couples, families with children, and Soldiers and families facing deployment.

"The average weekend is worth about $1,700 per couple and costs the participant nothing," Onellion said. "We have about seven to eight retreats, per month, somewhere within the military community here in Hawaii. If (couples want) to attend a retreat they should contact their unit chaplain, who can not only advise them of the next event within their own unit, but can also find out about any unfilled slots in sister units."

The Strong Bonds website emphasizes that healthy relationships contribute to the maintenance of a healthy Army and a secure future force. With increasing demands placed on Soldiers, couples and families, to include both frequent deployments and duty relocations, intimate relationships are fully tested.

"The hardest nut to crack is how best to reach out to those who don't understand how to seek help on their own," Onellion said. "We are happy to receive calls from anyone who needs us."

For additional information on the Strong Bonds program, contact your unit chaplain or visit <a href="http://www.strongbonds.org">www.strongbonds.org</a>.

For more information on health promotion, risk reduction and suicide prevention, visit <a href="http://www.preventsuicide.army.mil">www.preventsuicide.army.mil</a>.

<i>(Editor's Note: This series focuses on suicide prevention programs available, locally. Look for next week's article that details local risk reduction programs.)</i>

Page last updated Thu July 15th, 2010 at 21:15