FORT DRUM, N.Y. - While competitive isn't a word typically used to describe an Army chaplain, it would be impossible to define Lt. Col. Tony Petros without it.
Sgt. Seth Field, chaplain assistant with Headquarters and Headquarters Battalion, 10th Mountain Division (LI), said he found Petros' approach to the chaplaincy unique and refreshing.
"He really believes in families and building bonds through recreation," Field said.
That belief led to Petros' final Strong Bonds retreat last weekend before he moves on to his next assignment.
He teamed up with Capt. Sean Kitchens, 548th Combat Sustainment Support Battalion chaplain, 10th Mountain Division Sustainment Brigade, for a singles Strong Bonds retreat at the Split Rock Resort in Lake Harmony, Pa., with training sessions on the 5 Love Languages for Singles (by Dr. Gary Chapman) for those who attended. The close proximity to the Pocono Raceway was no accident.
An avid NASCAR fan, Petros contacted Chaplain Monti Self, Motor Racing Outreach chaplain, to arrange for Soldiers attending the retreat to get onto the racetrack. MRO provided pit passes and an invitation for the group to attend the drivers' meeting.
Everyone looked forward to the race, including Petros' three teenage daughters.
The spirit of competition is strong in NASCAR, and it's no wonder Petros is a fan. He builds time for recreation into all of his Strong Bonds events and encourages participants to take advantage of the opportunity.
"He's got quite a competitive streak, especially on the tennis court," said Tricia Petros, who taught her husband to play the sport after the couple met as students at Liberty College in Lynchburg, Va., during their freshmen year.
That competitive streak became evident while the Petros family warmed up for a doubles match on the Split Rock courts.
"It took me a while to be able to beat (Tricia); she's really good," Petros said while pulling up a photograph from those days gone by. "So now I can hang with her really well. I honed my skills and found the finesse."
Tony Petros isn't the only competitive one, though.
"Tricia and I are both very competitive. Sometimes it will be quiet on the drive home," he said, smiling. "Even in croquet; she's a vicious croquet player."
Besides their competitive sides, they share many personality traits, namely an ever-present smile and "glass is half full" outlook on life.
"We are both pretty positive people, which might shoot us in the foot sometimes because we'll be thinking 'oh yeah, this will work out,' and then it doesn't, but we don't let it change our outlook," Tricia Petros said.
Even though the old saying that opposites attract tends to ring true, Tony and Tricia Petros make their relationship work.
"We were really close friends for a year or two until our sophomore or junior year of college. Then I had this confirmation," Tony Petros said, recalling their early days together. "Tricia ... she's it. There's no doubt about it."
The conviction in his voice spoke to the bond these two share. Tricia Petros remembered the proposal, and she looked every bit the college junior as she told the story.
"Tony is such a romantic," she said.
A dedicated planner, Petros wrote a poem and sealed it in a bottle. Later that day they "found" it on the beach. She wasn't expecting a proposal, but that is exactly what she discovered in the bottle.
"It was quite cool," she said with a smile.
During a break in the tennis match, Tricia Petros shared how her husband came to be an Army chaplain.
Petros was in high school when he received his calling, deciding on youth ministry for his path.
"When he told me he wanted to be an Army chaplain, I was scared," she said.
The couple sat down with a chaplain who leveled with her, explaining that Petros would be gone frequently and that communication would be sporadic at best. As frightening as that thought was, she supported him on his path.
"The gentleman we talked to scared me to death ... but our experience has been so much better than we could have imagined," she said.
Petros' dedication to his religion was a major draw for her 22 years ago.
"He's always in prayer about what our family should be doing next," Tricia Petros said.
Soldiers and family members of the 10th Mountain Division have seen that benefit throughout Petros' tenure.
Col. Thomas D. Macdonald, 10th Mountain Division chief of staff, spoke about Petros during an informal farewell last month. Macdonald told those gathered that, thanks to Petros' hard work and dedication, the Strong Bonds program has seen dramatic improvement and has built a strong resiliency model for the division.
Petros worked hard to build resiliency in the division, as well as in his own four children. Sports and outdoor activities have helped to keep the Family close through his five deployments.
Seventeen-year-old Mandi, 14-year-old twins Megan and Marissa, and 8-year-old Mitchell all enjoy playing tennis, and thanks to their family's active lifestyle, they have seen great success.
"Mandi was first seed at Watertown High School this year," Tricia Petros said, with motherly pride that extended to Megan and Marissa, who were second and third seed, respectively.
It wasn't just sports that kept this family strong during Petros' last deployment to Afghanistan. With three teenagers in need of occasional discipline, he made a concerted effort to stay in touch.
"What really helped us through this last deployment was that Tony stayed involved with the kids' lives. He would text them on their phones," Tricia Petros said.
"We used Facebook Messenger," Megan cut in.
"Yeah, that really helped a lot," Petros added, grinning at her daughter. She continued, saying the bond a family forms in the military often seems stronger than in the civilian sector.
Petros' ministry with Soldiers and family members has strengthened his fellow chaplains and their families as well.
"Chaplain Petros has been an inspiration for me in my ministry; I know we'll all be sad to see him and his family leave," Kitchens said as he squeezed his wife's shoulder while they watched their own twins play nearby.
For the Petros household, ministry is a family affair.
The three girls started at Watertown High School the past school year, and they quickly discovered they were a little different from their classmates, but they were accepted just the same.
Tony Petros said the girls realized within their first week that they were somewhat unique in their beliefs and dedication to their faith.
"At Watertown High School especially, they've really been able to see, more than ever, just what their testimony means," he said.
Their personal pledge to their faith has rubbed off on some of their classmates.
"Some of their friends have come to youth group here on post," Petros said, shaking his head.
"We took 27 of them to a youth rally in New York City and even dared a trip to Times Square on a Saturday night," he continued with a laugh, saying the subway ride into the city was interesting as well, but it was a good experience for all of the kids.
After the NASCAR race on Sunday, everyone was tired in the van headed back to Fort Drum. With the older Petros girls and the younger Kitchens children sleeping in the back, it was the first truly quiet moment of the past few days.
It was a fitting close to the weekend and to Petros' time as the division chaplain. He sat back and reflected on his time with the division as his change of stole ceremony draws near.
"I'm just so happy we could all do this together. What a great finish to my time here," Petros said as the gates of Fort Drum loomed closer. "We are all truly blessed."
U.S. Army Chaplain Corps on Twitter