By Sgt. Robert Yde
2nd BCT, 1st Cav. Div. Public Affairs
FORWARD OPERATING BASE FREEDOM, Iraq - Developing life skills, a chance for spiritual growth and a much welcomed break from the daily grind of life as a deployed Soldier in Iraq were all on the agenda for Soldiers assigned to the 1st Cavalry Division's Special Troops Battalion during a spiritual retreat sponsored by the division's chaplain's office March 19-22.
The retreat, which was held at Freedom Rest in the International Zone, focused on personal development based upon a faith-based foundation.
"We've crafted a program where we have some time for instruction about basic life skills and spiritual readiness programs. This includes conflict resolution, purpose and goal setting in life, setting priorities, as well as financial wisdom and developing basic personal wisdom," explained Chaplain (Capt.) Christian Magnell who led the retreat.
Magnell, who is with the 118th Chaplain Detachment Team from Des Moines, Iowa, which is attached to the 1st Cavalry Division, said that although the retreat was held by the chaplain's office, the focus was not solely on religion, but described it as a spiritual retreat focused on developing life skills for the Soldiers involved.
"It's good that they said 'spiritual retreat' and not 'religious retreat' because when you say religious it puts a cap on you. Spiritual means that you get to focus on the inside of yourself," Little Rock, Ark. native Spc. Derrick Gilbert said. "It was good to be able to reflect and relax and I'm having a good time."
Reflecting, relaxing and having a good time is what the retreat was all about, according to Magnell, who said that the retreat was designed to coincide with the numerous activities that Freedom Rest has to offer.
"The goal was to integrate with the Freedom Rest program, a retreat that allows the Soldiers to come here to recharge and relax and also have some spiritual and personal growth as well," he explained.
The retreat ran for four days and three nights, just like any typical stay at Freedom Rest, and outside of their morning sessions when the group would come together for study, the Soldiers were integrated with the rest of the Soldiers at Freedom Rest.
"What we wanted to do was have the best of both worlds and to integrate what we're doing with the regular Freedom Rest program," Magnell explained.
Every morning the Soldiers would gather together for a couple of hours and discuss topics such as conflict resolution, managing their finances, the purpose and importance of setting goals in their lives and developing basic personal wisdom.
"This is outstanding for the Soldiers," Sgt. Sherri Davis said. "We've been studying and have just taken some basic life skills out of the Bible to help us, whether we're in Iraq or back at Fort Hood."
Davis, a native of Evansville, Ind., who works in the division's supply office, said that she was particularly thankful for the personal finance session.
"It was good to learn about managing my finances and retirement, as far as putting back money for the future and also learning scriptures from the Bible that coincide with finances and being a better person," she said.
During the final session of the retreat, Magnell talked to the Soldiers about the importance of matching up their natural personality with their goals and aspirations in life.
"They need to understand that they're purpose in life is a mixture of their beliefs, personal moral convictions, as well as, their personality, the gifts and talents that they have, and the goals they have in life," Magnell said. "Sometimes people put themselves in situations where their job or relationship doesn't match up with their personality.
To help the Soldiers learn more about themselves, Magnell gave them an abbreviated version of the Meyers-Briggs personality test.
"The Meyers-Briggs has four different subsets that make up the personality inventory so there are 16 personality types and exploring and knowing their type helps them to better plan their own life goals and how their personality matches up with those goals," Magnell explained. "So if you got somebody who hates speaking in crowds and doesn't like those types of social, extroverted type activities, pursuing a career as a teacher or public speakers isn't going to be their thing. The Meyers-Briggs allows them to go deeper into that."
Most of the Soldiers said that they had never taken a personality test before or really put much thought into how their personality should help define their goals.
"Today's session was good, especially the personality part. Focusing on goals and looking at where you're at right now and what you want to accomplish when we go back to the states and get out of the Army is important," Pvt. James Hughes, a radar repairman from Angleton, Texas said.
While, Magnell said his hope was that the Soldiers would be able to gain some knowledge from the morning sessions, he stressed that the retreat was also about relaxing and allowing the Soldiers to enjoy the Freedom Rest experience.
"I love it here," Gilbert said of Freedom Rest.
As a member of the 1st Cav.'s band, Gilbert said he had visited Freedom Rest in the past to perform, but wasn't fully aware of everything it had to offer.
"The pool, of course, was obvious, but I didn't know about the games and everything that they do here," he said. "The staff is wonderful because they get involved right with you."
According to Freedom Rest's noncommissioned officer-in-charge, Sgt. 1st Class Stephen Sanders, this is a pretty typical reaction when Soldiers arrive to Freedom Rest.
"A lot of people don't know what Freedom Rest is until they get here," the Williamstown, Ky. native explained. "They think it's just going to be sitting around a barracks room."
However from the moment a Soldier arrives at Freedom Rest, he quickly discovers that nothing could be further from the truth.
"We have the pool to swim in. They have a sauna and a nice gym. They have a lot of magazines and books to read inside. There's a theater inside. There are a lot of movies and DVDs. It's been very relaxing and very fun. They have done everything for us and made sure we had plenty of activities," Davis said.
These types of activities are only a small sample of what Soldiers can do at Freedom Rest.
Wireless internet is available throughout the entire compound as well as two internet cafes, free MCI phones that Soldiers can call home from, a movie theater, an X-Box and Playstation room with over 250 games to choose from, a music room and what Sanders described as the "finest gym facility in Baghdad" are just some of the opportunities that are available to Soldiers.
There are also 13 shops run by local nationals, as well as an AAFES on the compound where Soldiers can purchase civilian clothes, tennis shoes or anything else they might need to be comfortable.
"My staff is here to work for the Soldiers," Sanders said. "Once a Soldier gets here he doesn't carry his weapon. He doesn't carry his Kevlar or his body armor. We secure it for him and my Soldiers are responsible for their security and their safety."
Once they arrive, Soldiers are assigned to villas, which are separated by rank and gender.
"Our rooms were great," Davis said, "and they said if there were any problems with the rooms, which there weren't, they would be taken care of right away."
Sanders also noted that each group's stay is documented with photos and video, which is put onto a DVD and given to the Soldiers on the day they depart.
With all that it has to offer, it is surprising that the number of Soldiers who take advantage of Freedom Rest is relatively low.
Sanders said that his staff can accommodate up to around 150 Soldiers, but they usually have somewhere between 40 and 70 Soldiers on pass at any given time.
"So far the most I've had is 71 and the least is 26," Sanders said. "It's not very many, but it's 26 Soldiers who got R&R. So, that's good."
Sanders said that he is aware that the mission of Multi-National Division-Baghdad takes precedence over facilitating the full numbers of Freedom Rest, but he hopes that more Soldiers will have the opportunity to go on pass.
Another issue that Sanders said he faces is that when given the opportunity to send Soldiers on leave, many times their command will choose to send them to Qatar.
"I would tell commanders that if they sent their Soldiers here instead of Qatar they would only lose them for four days, five at the most. Where as if you send them to Qatar you're going to lose them for nine days due to travel," Sanders explained.
After spending four days at Freedom Rest, Magnell said that he was very impressed by the entire experience.
"The Soldiers who are running it are doing a great job. It's well organized and they care about the Soldiers comforts and relaxation," Magnell said. "They have excellent organized activities and if a Soldier comes hear with an open mind there are a lot of things that they can get involved in."
Magnell said that the division's chaplain's office plans to make the retreat a monthly event and that it will be open to 10 to 15 DSTB Soldiers each month.
"After doing this I'll be more fit to go back and finish out the tour with a more positive outlook on it," Gilbert said. "If you can get all the Soldiers out here, get them out here."
This work, Soldiers focus on personal development, relaxation at Freedom Rest, by SGT Robert Yde, identified by DVIDS, is free of known copyright restrictions under U.S. copyright law.