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Training Helps Veterans Succeed in New Mission


President Obama told America’s servicemen and women today, “we’re going to keep your family strong and secure.” A two year study of 160 couples participating in marriage enrichment retreats following combat deployment shows a significant, positive impact on family resiliency and offers a promising national model.

formerly homeless veteran in marriage retreat
A formerly homeless veteran learns skills to improve communication, understand emotions, and solve problems at a PAIRS class in Miami.

“I want every service member who’s deployed to know that when you’re over there taking care of the country that you love, your country is back here taking care of the families that you love.  I want every military wife and husband to know that we’re going to help you keep your family strong and secure.  I want every military kid to know that we’re going to be there for you, too, to help you grow and to live your dreams.”

~ President Barack Obama, 1/24/11

by Rachel Schindler

One of the urgent challenges service members and veterans face after combat deployment in Iraq and Afghanistan is reconnecting with spouses, family members and other loved ones. Research conducted by the Charlie Norwood VA Medical Center in Augusta, Georgia showed that while nearly 90% of veterans said their marriages were average to excellent pre-deployment, slightly more than one in three felt the same way after returning home.

In response, Charlie Norwood’s chaplain team linked up with the nonprofit PAIRS Foundation two years ago to begin offering weekend PAIRS Essentials marriage enrichment retreats to returning veterans and their spouses. Early retreats were sponsored by contributions from the CSRA Wounded Warrior Care Project. Executive Director Lori Ott, a former television news anchor and reporter for CBS affiliate WDRW, raised funds for the program to make sure local couples impacted by combat deployment received the support needed to keep their marriages and families together after returning to the community.

Research on 160 couples who have participated in the retreats show the brief, educational approach is making a big difference. While just 14% of the couples rated their communication skills prior to the retreats as positive, the percentage jumped to 93% afterward.

Participants have included many veterans affected by traumatic brain injury (TBI) and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

After seeing the positive impact retreats were having on veterans, the Veterans Administration recognized the program as “Best Practice in Marriage Enrichment,” provided money to expand services in Georgia, and funded the launch of a similar program in California through the San Diego VA Healthcare System.

Chaplain Ron Craddock, Chief of Chaplain Services at Charlie Norwood, said the program is working. “PAIRS is changing the lives of returning combat veterans and their spouses,” he said.

VA leaders in California agree. Chaplain Dick Millspaugh, Chief of Chaplain Services in San Diego, said retreats deliver “a safe, loving environment to help you build even more loving relationships to those you care about with tools you can use every day.”

Ott, the former two-time “Personality of the Year” of the Georgia Association of Broadcasters and “Best TV Reporter,” is grateful the program she helped launch through the CSRA Wounded Warrior Care Project is making a difference.

“PAIRS is exactly what we were looking for in terms of real relationship skills for combat-returned and wounded warriors and their spouses. Our survey before and after PAIRS shows a profound impact on both couples’ perception of their relationship and hope for the future,” she said.

PAIRS CEO Seth Eisenberg said the program’s positive impact is a result of teaching couples to re-connect with each other and understand emotions.

“PAIRS works for most couples, including those affected by trauma, because it gives them training and skills to be healing to one another,” Eisenberg said. “It’s a very different paradigm from therapy or counseling which involves a third party. When couples have practical, usable skills that make it safe to confide, understand emotions, and solve problems directly with each other, they generally do very well. That’s much less expensive, less time-consuming, and, for many, far more effective than going to a third-party counselor or therapist for ongoing weekly sessions. In effect, PAIRS teaches couples to be their own therapists.”

Commander Cartus Thornton, U.S. Coast Guard Chaplain in Miami, was impressed with the results of the Charlie Norwood program and his personal experience in a recent four-day PAIRS professional training.

Coast Guard Air Station Miami
In April, Coast Guard couples and chaplains will learn skills to strengthen family resiliency in a PAIRS training at the Coast Guard Air Station Miami.

The highly decorated Navy leader is now partnering with PAIRS Foundation to host a weekend retreat in April for Coast Guard couples followed up by facilitator training for chaplains and counselors at the Coast Guard Air Station Miami in Opa Locka, Florida. Chaplain Thornton expects the training will make an important contribution to active duty, auxiliary, and retired members of the Coast Guard.

“By empowering couples, PAIRS training alleviates some of the stress on chaplains, psychologists and social workers created by the high number of returning active duty and veterans needing urgent support by giving couples the skills to re-connect with loved ones and succeed in their new mission,” Eisenberg added. “That helps clergy and behavioral health teams focus on where their efforts can make the greatest contribution and free up resources while knowing soldiers, veterans and family members have the training needed for family resiliency that is so important to the future of our country.”


I Am ME: Helen Gallen, Charlie Norwood VA Medical Center, Augusta, Georgia

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