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Retreats Offer TLC For Military Marriages

The U.S. spends billions on hardware to protect our troops in Afghanistan and Iraq.  What you may not know is how many millions the Pentagon is spending to protect a softer target here at home. 

This year, the Army alone has budgeted $40 million to strengthen the defenses of military marriages.  Divorce rates in the U.S. Army and Marines jumped sharply – by more than a third – after the start of the Iraq war. 

Marriage retreats are a centerpiece of the military’s response.  Correspondent Tom Banse sat in when a McChord Air Force Base squadron learned how to preserve marriages under fire.

Daniel Tercero married his college sweetheart Katie nine years ago.  Shortly thereafter, the western Washington native joined the Air Force. 

Marriage 1Their marriage has survived four relocations, the birth of two kids, and frequent separations.  But the Tercero’s say Daniel’s most recent deployment to Iraq seriously strained their bonds.

Katie Tercero: “A lot of these guys can’t tell their wives where they are.  They can’t tell what they’re doing.  It’s all, ‘none of your business,’ not necessarily in a mean way, but I got very resentful towards him.”

Daniel Tercero repairs radios for a Special Forces unit where secrecy is paramount.

Daniel Tercero: “The best way to explain it, if it’s worth mentioning, we probably can’t mention it. So what ends up happening is every day is the same.”

Katie Tercero: “So after a while your conversations get old.  With young children, it just got to the point where I was, ‘Yadda, yadda, yadda. Ok, I love you, bye.’  Because I had things that I had to take care of.  For him, I think it left him feeling very unappreciated.”

This is a common refrain and it’s why the Tercero’s, Lt. Col. Bryan Cannady, his wife, and nearly two dozen other couples from the 22nd Special Tactics Squadron are here, at the Great Wolf Lodge south of Olympia.  It’s an Air Force all-expenses-paid marriage retreat.

Bryan Cannady: “I’m investing in this because it is building up the homefront.  That really is the rock that every guy and gal stands on out there.  They look back. If that is stable, they are stable.”

Organizing a marriage retreat was one of Col. Cannady’s first goals when he took command of this Special Forces squadron last year.   He invited married couples in the unit to come to the retreat.

The family-friendly lodge has childcare and an elaborate indoor water park.  This frees up the parents to discuss intimacy, fighting fair, and differences in how the sexes communicate. 

BalloonsThe meeting room is decorated as if it’s Valentine Day. Dozens of heart-shaped red balloons adorn the room.

Air Force chaplain Gerry Hogue says the retreat is presented as preventive maintenance so there’s no stigma in attending.

Gerald Hogue: “This is not counseling.  This is training.  What we had this weekend was training, giving tools for their toolkit to make their marriages better.”

Houge says the challenge is to get those hardened by training and war to open up and be vulnerable.  The Army chaplain leading this retreat is keen on audience participation.

Chaplain Jeff: “…How many of the guys are glad we talked about the ‘nothing box’ last night?  You bet, you bet.  Wives get an understanding that everybody has a nothing box and we like to go to it and if you’re there, it’s not ‘nothing’….”

A bit later, Katie Tercero speaks up.  Her husband stares at his shoes.

Katie Tercero: "…His input of ‘Maybe you should try it this way.’ I go psshaw, you don’t know what’s going on.  But that’s not true….”

The body language loosens up over the course of the two day/two night retreat.  Crossed arms unfold to reach for a spouse’s hand or caress a knee.

Katie and Daniel Tercero say they cleared the air of mistaken assumptions and resentments.

LodgeKatie Tercero: “I think we got a lot more out of it than we expected. It turned out to be a deeper experience.  Originally, I think we were just stoked to come to Great Wolf Lodge.”

Army and National Guard units at Fort Lewis dangle weekends at Skamania Lodge in the Columbia River Gorge to get soldiers to go on marriage retreats. 

In 2003, the Army’s program — called Strong Bonds — cost one million dollars.  This year, it’s budgeted for $40 million.

The chaplain corps and the military are convinced the curriculum works.  They’ve launched an independent tracking study to confirm it. 

The military divorce rate has fallen from its peak in 2004, but it’s still well above pre-war levels.  Military wide, the divorce rate stands at about 3.5 percent per year.  Last year, that added up to more than 25,000 failed marriages.


Strong Bonds marriage retreat program

A separate track of the Strong Bonds program helps single soldiers choose mates wisely and build lifelong relationships.

Department of Defense - 2008 military divorce rates