By Sgt. Michael T. CrawfordAugust 6, 2014
SAULKRASTI, Latvia (Aug. 6, 2014) -- Paratroopers with the 1st Squadron, 91st Cavalry Regiment, 173rd Airborne Brigade, and Latvian soldiers spent a day away from practicing tactics, techniques and procedures, to focus on self-improvement at a Strong Bonds retreat here, Friday.
"We're here to build partnerships, increase friendships and build relationships of trust with the Latvian people and military for Operation Atlantic Resolve," said Chaplain (Capt.) David "Luke" Sprinkle, a native of Grapevine, Texas. "That means you're going to go out and meet people. Soldiers are eager to learn the culture, eager to learn what Latvia's like and what people do. Just because there's a language barrier doesn't mean you can't meet someone."
Approximately 600 paratroopers from the brigade are in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland, in support of Operation Atlantic Resolve, to demonstrate commitment to NATO obligations and sustain interoperability with allied forces.
Strong Bonds is a unit-based, chaplain-led program that assists commanders in building individual resiliency by strengthening the Army family. The program's mission is to increase individual Soldier and family member readiness through relationship education and skills training. The Strong Bonds Single Soldier program is designed to help establish relationship goals and help make good choices when picking a partner.
"Evaluating someone's character is the same everywhere," said Sprinkle, who has been participating in Strong Bonds events since 2009. "People are the same everywhere you go. There are some cultural differences, but people are still people - you still have to treat them right and you still have to live for the right things."
With universally-applicable lessons, Sprinkle invited Latvian Soldiers to join paratroopers for the session.
"We have some classes with our chaplains, but I've never had one like this before," said Latvian Pfc. Gunars Licis, a native of Riga. "It helps to analyze when you are meeting new people. We should understand that we're all wearing a mask to impress someone when we are meeting them. We're not acting naturally."
Pfc. Michael Pomes, a native of St. Louis, seconded his Latvian colleague's thoughts.
"You can't get to know someone over two drinks," said Pomes, a unit supply specialist for the 1st Squadron, 91st Cavalry Regiment. "It's a lesson in life."
Over the past year, more than 160,000 Soldiers and family members have participated in more than 2,600 Strong Bonds events Army wide, according to the Army's Strong Bonds campaign website. Specific training is offered for the single Soldiers, couples, families with children and all Soldiers and families facing deployment. While the training for single Soldiers is traditionally focused on romantic relationships, Sprinkle wanted to show how the same lessons can be applied to everyday interaction.
"We're going to ask people's experiences: what are the problems you've had, what are the problems you've seen other people have and how can we use this idea to help you navigate your life?" Sprinkle said. "Not just as a decision when it comes to finding a partner, but also how do you use these tools to figure out what's going on at work? What's going on with my team? What's going on with my battle buddy? Applying that training to platonic relationships is a great way to round out the Soldier."
Like evaluating character, friendship transcends nationality.
"From what I've seen, there aren't many differences between American culture and Latvian culture," he said. "I think the lessons are going to be universal across the board. Everyone wants a good, solid relationship. Everyone wants to find somebody they love. Someone who will take care of them, and someone they want to take care of and spend the rest of their life with."
Pomes recognized those lessons.
"I think this will help us," said Pomes. "Being friends with Latvians, learning about their culture, we put our trust in them and they put their trust in us."
Sprinkle hopes helping to make Soldiers well-rounded individuals will set them up for a successful life.
"The Army owes young Soldiers more than just the G.I. Bill and tuition assistance," Sprinkle said. "We owe them a vision. We owe them a profession, leadership, guidance and a lot more intangible lessons. We need to be about that. If you can teach these skills right here - help focus people's relationships - they can focus on choosing a good person to be with and being a good person to be with."