By CHERYL RODEWIGAugust 1, 2012
FORT BENNING, Ga. (Aug. 1, 2012) -- During 10 days at Callaway Gardens, 20 Soldiers have the opportunity to not only disconnect from their day-to-day obligations but also reconnect with their Families. It's part of the Callaway Homecoming Initiative's second installment, which began July 25 and wraps up Sunday.
"Programs such as this provide an opportunity for Soldiers and Families to break away from routine, bond in a pleasant environment, and learn together how to deal with recent and upcoming challenges," said Col. Emmett Schaill, director of Training and Doctrine, who helped coordinate Fort Benning's involvement in the events.
The initiative includes a variety of recreational activities, such as beach volleyball, scavenger hunts, tennis, acrobatics, astronomy, a treetop obstacle course and nature walks. Scheduled group lectures covered issues ranging from marriage and lifestyles to post-traumatic stress disorder and redeployment.
While geared toward Soldiers in transition, the program engages Families throughout, featuring guided discussions on relationships, free time and a "date night."
"It's certainly one of the aspects of Comprehensive Soldier Fitness to develop a tighter Family," Schaill said. "From personal experience, it's not only the Soldier who has to reintegrate and transition, it's the Family, too. Whether you're transitioning from theater or another job or out of uniform into the civilian world, the Family goes with you, so it's good to learn together."
With a program like the Callaway Homecoming Initiative, the learning process builds more resilient Soldiers and Families, Schaill said.
"Resilience itself is you fall down and you get up," he said. "If we can make the Soldiers more resilient … (we'll have) more effective Soldiers, better adjusted, more capable. They are better leaders and better Soldiers, and then as they transition out of uniform, perhaps better citizens."
The pilot was held in April, with a program of instruction developed by Emory University. The School of Medicine provides Soldiers surveys at the beginning and end of the 10-day stay to assess how to improve the program.
"This is probably the best transition program I've ever undergone, and I've done two combat tours," said Staff Sgt. Andrew Sperry. "It's not just a vacation. When you really just don't have to worry about spending money … that's huge. If every Soldier returning from a combat zone would do some program like this, I honestly think it would reduce the effects of PTSD."
"And the stress on the Family," his wife added.
"When he got back from the last deployment, it was hard," Alison Sperry said. "You go a year apart; you get set in your ways. It's really difficult. You have to have a strong Family. You have to really be keen on communication. If you don't have that solid core Family structure, then it's going to fall apart."
That's part of the reason why the Army wife of five years thought the Callaway Homecoming Initiative "seemed too good to be true."
"So far, it's been nice to just relax with one another," she said. "When you're at home, even when he has time off, you're in the routine. Here, it's like we're forced to have a good time, you're forced to relax -- and that's not a bad thing."
Even after his most recent deployment and the Family's PCS to Fort Benning, Andrew Sperry said it's been "nonstop" since he joined his unit, 3rd Squadron, 16th Cavalry Regiment, but the program offered him a chance to slow down and spend time with his wife and daughter.
"There couldn't be a better location," he said. "This has got to be the most peaceful and serene and surreal location in Georgia. It's a great facility."
Barry Morgan, Callaway Gardens' chief financial officer, said the nonprofit got involved to help Soldiers returning from theater, particularly in light of recent statistics on divorce, suicide and joblessness among active and former military.
A veteran of the Vietnam War, Morgan said he was glad to help coordinate the program.
"Callaway Gardens is thrilled to be part of this. We have a long history of working with the military and working with Fort Benning," he said. "I know from my experience that these Soldiers need this time with their Families to reconnect. They've told me over and over again how much they appreciate being together. Having this chance to be together with their Families with no stress has been remarkable. We hope we would be able to continue this in the future and expand it to more Families."
So far, both Morgan and Schaill have heard good feedback from participants.
Staff Sgt. Timothy Locklear, an Airborne instructor who works between 12 and 16 hours each day during a training cycle, said he believes he will return to his regular duties "regenerated."
Sgt. Raul Torres said he found his time with the Callaway Homecoming Initiative "peaceful," full of opportunities to be in nature and build better communication within his Family.
"If you don't have a stable life with your Family, how are you going to have a stable life at work?" he said. "Here, you don't have to worry about anything. It's just you and your Family. It's a great thing."
For more information on the program, visit www.callawayhomecominginitiative.org.