Chaplains step up 'Strong Bonds' to halt suicides

By Gary SheftickSeptember 27, 2012

Chief of Chaplains
(Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL

WASHINGTON (Army News Service, Sept. 25, 2012) -- As part of a push to prevent suicides, Army chaplains want 50,000 Soldiers and additional family members to attend their "Strong Bonds" retreats over the next three months.

Relationship problems are a leading cause of suicides, said Army Chief of Chaplains Maj. Gen. Donald L. Rutherford. He added that research has found that couples who attend the weekend retreats have fewer divorces, two-thirds fewer, in fact, according to a 2010 University of Denver study.

A relatively new emphasis of the Strong Bonds program, however, is teaching single Soldiers how to properly end bad relationships.

"Young troops need to know how to break up and start over again," Rutherford said.

It may seem counter-intuitive to some at first, he said, but bouncing back from breakups with resilience is key to preventing depression and even suicide.

Strong Bonds now offers customized programs for single Soldiers and for families at different stages of their relationships.

For instance, this week's Strong Bonds program at Fort Benning, Ga., is titled "Laugh Your Way to a Better Marriage." The sessions are being conducted by famous speaker Mark Gungor, whose daily radio show "Better Marriage Minute" is carried by more than 250 stations.

At Fort Eustis, Va., the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command is hosting Bob Delaney, a former National Basketball Association referee who lives with post-traumatic stress derived from years of undercover work with the mob while a member of the New Jersey State Police. Delaney will provide a speech titled "Finding a way out of the shadows of PTSD," as part of the command's Sept. 27 suicide stand down.

An Army-wide suicide stand down was ordered for Sept. 27 by Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III following the release of July suicide figures, the highest month for the Army in years with 38 potential suicides.

Chaplains worldwide are participating in the suicide stand down by taking part in workshops, speaker panels and command "terrain walks."

Terrain walks involve unit leaders stopping at installation support activities and visiting caregivers. As one of the service providers, chaplains will impart advice to leaders on how to help Soldiers and family members who are at risk.

In fact, chaplains should be the place to start when it comes to suicide prevention, said Rutherford. One reason is that chaplains are non-judgmental, he said. Another is they are sworn to confidentiality.

"I've never seen a chaplain who has not been able to go out and talk with a Soldier," Rutherford said. He said chaplains are in unit motor pools every day talking with the troops.

Many deployed chaplains are about the same age as company commanders, Rutherford said, and can easily relate to small-unit leaders and offer them advice.

Chaplain interventions with young Soldiers in theater are also paying big dividends, Rutherford said. For instance, chaplains are embedded with combat stress teams and help Soldiers deal with PTSD.

"We are resilient because of what we have within ourselves," Rutherford said.

Three years ago, the Army started embedding family life chaplains with divisions. Family life chaplains undergo 14 months of specialized training.

Chaplains support families following the loss of service members. They work with Survivor Outreach Services coordinators and periodically check on families, even months after a burial.

"The Army's commitment to walk with families through their grief is sincere and genuine," said Col. Kenneth W. Stice, a chaplain in charge of strategic communications with the Office of the Chief of Chaplains. "Those efforts cannot bring back their loved ones, but it really makes the difference to help them start the healing and growth necessary to go on with their lives."

In response to the Army vice chief of staff and his Health of the Force assessment this summer, the chief of chaplains ordered the surge in Strong Bonds programs for the remainder of this year. Additional funding is going toward the program with more than 1,000 events scheduled for the quarter.

Some retreats will be geared toward single Soldiers; some toward young couples; and others for families with children. Some sessions are for those preparing to deploy and others for those redeploying home.

"Classes don't prevent suicide," Stice said. "They prepare the battle buddy."

He explained that classes can teach Soldiers and family members how to recognize signs of risk and how to react in order to save lives.

Related Links:

VIDEO: Gen. Lloyd Austin addresses suicide prevention

Strong Bonds

Army News Service

Suicide prevention tools, resources

Suicide prevention stand down set for Sept. 27

Old Guard Soldiers stand together against suicide

SMA on suicide: 'It's okay to seek help' Inside the Army News

STAND-TO!: National Suicide Prevention Month

Army Suicide Prevention Program

ARNEWS on Facebook

Army Suicide Prevention

1-800-273-TALK (8255): National Suicide Prevention Lifeline

Military Crisis Line