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Photo by William Buchanan.

A military couple hold hands during a From Warrior to Soul Mate retreat.

Veterans learn skills to strengthen marriage

A UMNS Report By Kathy L. Gilbert
7:00 A.M. ET Feb. 20, 2013 | NASHVILLE, Tenn.

Marriage is never a walk in the park, but when you add in long deployments to dangerous, remote locations, for military couples it can feel like a walk in a war zone.

After all, if your spouse is in Afghanistan when the car breaks down, your child comes home with the flu or your boss needs you to work overtime and you don't have any backup, it can feel pretty lonely.

The Rev. Dick Millspaugh, a United Methodist pastor and Veterans Affairs chaplain, sees the effect that kind of stress has on families. He is offering relationship roadmaps to military couples in a course called "From Warrior to Soul Mate."

"The focus is on how we communicate under stress ... on different styles of communication," he said.

"From Warrior to Soul Mate" started in a VA hospital when Millspaugh and others recognized caring for the nation's wounded also means helping them repair crumbling intimate relationships. The program is based on the nonprofit PAIRS Foundation, which offers educational programs to strengthen marriages and families.

"Unfortunately, military service often challenges healthy communication for couples who face lengthy deployment separation, financial stress and role changes in their relationships," Millspaugh said. "Spiritual, emotional and physical injuries further challenge couples' ability to bond, to listen well to each other, to deal with conflict and to understand how each person's unresolved wounds may interfere with constructively solving current stressors."

Millspaugh said churches could be instrumental in helping veterans and active duty couples repair and address those issues by hosting retreats using the PAIRS model taught by certified instructors.

A PAIRS retreat usually takes place in a group setting of 30 to 60 people. Instructors can teach the nine-hour curriculum over a weekend or in several class sessions. Couples are given lots of time to reflect on what they have been taught and are given assignments to complete together. Millspaugh said it is education, not therapy.

First offered only in VA hospitals, the program has grown to include more than 20 sites across the nation, Millspaugh said.

In a report on the program, Millspaugh reflected, "How can one measure the lives literally saved from suicide, the children not touched by divorce, the costs not incurred by stress-borne illnesses or homelessness?"

Chaplain Ronald Craddock, chief of chaplain services at Charlie Norwood VA Medical Center, said 70 percent of combat veterans experience marital problems and 20 percent decide to divorce before they even return.

Letters from military couples who have been offered a chance to go through the retreat, free of charge, are filled with gratitude for the difference that the program has made in their relationships.

"I was very impressed with the things that I learned at the PAIRS retreat.I learned more this weekend on how to effectively communicate in my relationship than I have in 12 marriage counseling sessions. Seventy-five percent of what I learned this weekend is very critical to my marriage," wrote one couple.

For more information on VA's marriage retreat program, contact Chaplain Dick MIllspaugh, PAIRS/VA Trainer, by email or at (888) 724-7748 x834.

*Gilbert is a multimedia reporter for the young adult content team at United Methodist Communications, Nashville, Tenn.

News media contact: Kathy L. Gilbert, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.