“I was an Army brat. All told, I have 61 years as part of an Army family. We have come a long way in that time – believe me. My mother’s motto was ‘Make the best of it,’ and that’s the thing that still strikes me. We are asking so much of our families.”
General George Casey, Jr.
Speaking to Fort Campbell Spouses
by Seth Eisenberg
Edgard left for his fourth deployment shortly after the PAIRS Valentine’s Weekend Marriage retreat for the Army’s 101st Airborne Division stationed at Fort Campbell, Kentucky last February.
Since the retreat, Edgard and his wife, Mary, had a second child, Elizabeth. Mary and Abigail, 11, have had to adjust to long periods with dad away during deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan that typically last 12 months or more. While some soldiers have the chance to return home for a brief visit during the year, almost all of their contact is through video chats, text messages, phone calls, e-mails, and letters.
The skills Mary and Edgard learned in the PAIRS retreat helped them have conversations they’d been putting off. They became closer and stronger as a couple and, as they shared the skills with Abigail, as a family too. Beyond helping them better understand themselves and each other, the training gave them new ways to stay connected as they approached Edgard’s departure for Afghanistan.
Many have said that the stress of combat deployment is as difficult for loved ones who stay behind as it is on the solders themselves. The 101st is regularly at the center of major operations in Afghanistan. On Saturday, Staff Sgt. Juan Rivadeneira, 27, of Davie, Florida, became the 83rd member to lose his life in Afghanistan since March. He is survived by his wife, Melissa, son, Juan, and his mother, Yenni, who lives in Venezuela.
When we opened a recent online PAIRS Essentials class to military couples and veterans, I was happy to see Mary be one of the first to register. Following daily news of the 101st and still mourning the death in September of a member of our class, I was eager to help Mary reinforce the skills she and Edgard learned in the February retreat and hear how they were handling deployment and their new baby.
When participants went around at the opening of our virtual class to introduce themselves, I was delighted to hear Abigail’s voice. At 11, Abigail was by far the youngest member of our group. Mary wanted her daughter to have a chance to learn directly what had made a difference for her and Edgard. Over the course of four three-hour online classes, Abigail was likely the most active, engaged participant. Even during moments when Mary took a break to care for Elizabeth, Abigail was always there following each word, sharing insights into the exercises, and confiding about how she and her mother were using the skills with each other and dad.
After the course itself ended with the fourth online session, Mary and Abigail continued to participate in additional online classes to become certified PAIRS Essentials instructors. Throughout the program, Abigail talked about how much the experience was helping her personally and also her family. She said she wanted to help other kids and their parents learn to be closer too.
When we practiced the five steps of the Daily Temperature Reading (DTR) during classes and checked-in about experiences between sessions, Abigail shared many deep appreciations for her mother and clearly listened intently as her mother acknowledged her. Abigail said the DTR, Talking Tips and Emptying the Emotional Jug exercises made a difference helping her understand herself better, feel better, and get along with others. Mary and Abigail follow the DTR’s five steps (appreciations, new information, puzzles, concerns with recommendations, and wishes, hopes and dreams) to stay connected each day. The DTR also helps them make sure they’re actively appreciating dad, and he’s appreciating them, while staying up-to-date during their voice and video chats, asking questions they may be wondering about, confiding concerns, and expressing their individual and shared dreams for the future.
When I invited participants to talk about their experiences with the Fair Fight for Change, a process for negotiating differences, Mary quickly offered an example of Abigail’s recent request.
“Something that could have been upsetting didn’t even feel like an argument,” Mary said. “Abigail approached me with a request that I listen to her. She shared how she felt when I told her to do things instead of asking. She said that felt like she was being bossed around. We talked about times I could ask instead of tell.”
“Afterwards,” Mary continued, “we shared our agreement with dad. He agreed with what we’d worked out and said he’d participate too.”
“It felt very good,” Abigail said. “I got to express myself and also let mom know I understand how it is for her. It will help us be closer.”
In marriage retreats for hundreds of veterans after combat deployment, one of the first challenges is to re-open lines of communication, to make it safe to confide, be vulnerable, and release the energy of pent-up negative emotions to make room for joy, connection, and love. Significant research shows that recovering from combat stress is closely related to being able to confide in a close friend or family member. Soldiers returning to strong marriages and families are much better able to continue their lives away from the field of battle. Those without someone they can confide in and the support of resilient marriages are more likely to continue experiencing symptoms of post traumatic stress long after they return home.
Thousands of miles from the battlefield, Mary and Abigail are on the front lines of their own campaign to help families stay strong, connected, and supportive of loved ones during long periods of absence. Long after the stress and images of war have faded, their efforts will make a lasting difference for many.
To learn more about the skills that Mary, Edgard and Abigail discovered to strengthen their family, contact PAIRS Foundation. While many have participated in classes through VA Hospitals and elsewhere, much more is needed to honor our sacred trust to the nation’s military families. If you’d like to help other military and veteran families have access to these services, please contact PAIRS Foundation to learn how you can make a difference.
Seth Eisenberg is President of the nonprofit PAIRS Foundation, an industry leader in relationship and marriage education.