By Tech. Sgt. Erich B. Smith | National Guard BureauJanuary 17, 2017
ARLINGTON, Va. -- For many National Guard members, training, deployments and other events may strain relationships with spouses and families, hampering the member's ability to remain mission-focused. One way Soldiers, Airmen and their families can lessen that strain is through the Strong Bonds program, a chaplain-led initiative that teaches relationship resiliency skills and helps build greater relationship sustainment.
During Strong Bonds events, participants engage in a variety of hands-on activities, ranging from team-building exercises to group discussions -- facilitated mostly by military chaplains -- all with a focus designed to open communication lines, prevent toxic relationships and enhance established relationships.
According to Army Col. Kenneth Brandt, a staff chaplain at the National Guard Bureau, the program serves the Guard by "building families, strengthening couples and guiding singles," while providing positive and effective ways to manage stress and maintain an open dialogue among spouses and families.
The ultimate objective, said Brandt, is to build healthy relationships. With frequent deployments, a high operational tempo and sometimes dangerous duty assignments, Guard members and their families often face unique challenges.
"All of this places [a lot of] stress on family relationships," said Air Force Lt. Col. Jefferson Taylor, chief of plans and programs for Air National Guard chaplains. "By building strong military families, we build the resiliency and effectiveness of our Airmen and Soldiers."
While program events are designed to build stronger and more resilient relationships overall, many events are geared specifically toward issues that may arise as a result of deployments and returning from deployment. During events, participants are exposed to possible inter-personal barriers to communication, followed by exercises stressing that a greater understanding of their own issues and concerns can improve overall communication skills between spouses, family members and others.
While many parts of the events are geared toward couples and families, the program also caters to single Guard members as well.
"Singles events provide our Airmen [and Soldiers] with communication skills that not only enhance relationships at the personal level but also in the military environment," said Taylor. "The events also provide the opportunity for singles to network and support one another."
Strong Bonds events typically take place outside of military installations, said Taylor, which provides "a separation from work pressure and daily life."
The nearly 20-year-old program -- initially developed by the Army and adopted throughout the Guard -- is not a mandatory command directive, said Army Maj. Kurt Geib, chaplain and Strong Bonds program manager at the Army National Guard Readiness Center. Rather, the need for an event at the unit level is determined through assessments from unit chaplains.
Soldier and Airmen participation in program events is strictly voluntary, said Geib
"Soldiers [and Airmen] come to these events because they want to be here," he said.
The Strong Bonds program has grown considerably since its inception.
In fiscal year 2016, more than 23,000 Guard members and families participated in 812 Strong Bonds events, an increase of nearly 4,500 total participants and 191 events from the previous fiscal year, Guard chaplain officials said.
"When families, couples and singles learn actual skills they can implement into their lives, word of mouth spreads about the value of the program," said Taylor.
Those interested in Strong Bonds events should contact their unit chaplains, said Geib, adding that chaplains may be able to provide referrals to other available resources and services if no local events are scheduled.
For Geib, Strong Bonds brings about lasting, positive changes.
"This program really changes lives and gives people essential tools to make significant adjustments in how they communicate in a relationship and see the world," said Geib. "Strong Bonds is essential to preparing a ready Soldier and Airman to serve their state and our nation."