Thirty couples from 3rd Heavy Brigade Combat Team gathered May 12-14 in Panama City Beach, Fla., for Strong Bonds, a program that encourages Soldiers and spouses to reflect on and strengthen their marriage before returning to the rigors of daily life.

“As a chaplain and as a family member, I’m very thankful the Army is taking seriously its goal of helping Army families be resilient,” said Chaplain (Capt.) Bruce Duty, Brigade Special Troops Battalion, who led the retreat. “The Strong Bonds program is about helping Army families be strong and steady.”

“It’s important to have a strong foundation because a couple never knows what they’re going to face later on,” said Duty, who has been married for 27 years.

“If they build a strong foundation early, it teaches them to rely on each other, trust each other and (be) able to withstand life’s challenges.”

Strong Bonds retreats come in a variety of formats. Duty modeled the brigade’s retreat after The 8 Habits of a Successful Marriage workshop, focusing on three key factors: character, communication and companionship.

“A good marriage is a learning marriage,” he said, “and cooperation requires that each spouse remains in an environment of learning. The Strong Bonds program is able … to strengthen an already healthy marriage, but it’s also designed to help marriages that might be hurting.”

“It couldn’t have come at a better time,” said Crystal Lopez. She and her husband, Spc. Carlos Lopez, are in the middle of moving, a time when stress levels are high, she said.

Carlos said knowing his marriage is stable helps him keep things in balance at work.

“That makes it easier to do your job because you’re not worrying and you can actually focus on your job when you’re at work,” he said.

“It makes you look at things differently,” Crystal said of the program. “The most important thing (the chaplain) said would be that you can’t change each other; you have to change yourself in order for your marriage to succeed. In order to have it, you have to work hard for it.”

Duty said the program is geared toward all marriages " young and old, healthy and struggling.

Sgt. Lonnie and Sari Tucker attended the retreat at the suggestion of a chaplain. They were high school sweethearts and have been together for 15 years, but the three days gave them time to refocus on their marriage, Sari said.

“Things will fall apart if the union of the husband and wife is not strong. The foundation is where you build from first,” she said. “If you come to one of these and you learn these (concepts), maybe you can prevent some of the things other couples have been through. I’ve learned a couple things.”

Lonnie said he recommended other couples consider attending a Strong Bonds retreat.

“A lot of things bother people " they don’t speak about it until they’re at a marriage retreat,” he said. “Everybody thinks their marriage is so perfect until something happens and then next thing you know it’s a hard-core reality. This puts the idea in your head of what you should always stay focused on and pay attention to.”

While there’s a lot of learning at a Strong Bonds retreat, there’s relaxation, too. Duty led group games and activities to let the couples get to know each other. He awarded door prizes and allowed the couples free time to explore nearby attractions and enjoy the amenities of the Bay Point Marriott Golf Resort & Spa. Child care was provided.

Strong Bonds retreats are free for active-duty Soldiers and their spouses. For more information on the program, visit or contact your unit chaplain.