WASHINGTON - As one spouse tried to navigate the other across a room and through a minefield of foam toys, the games had begun at the Army's "Strong Bonds" marriage retreat near Baltimore.
"What these workshops do is it helps us to understand that communication is an ongoing process," Army Cpl. Paul Garzon, a retreat participant, said. "It never ends."
And that's precisely what the game at last month's retreat was about -- spouses learning to communicate with and listen to each other despite outside distractions. In this case, the distraction was an immense hoopla created by the other retreat participants.
Founded in 1997 as the "Building Strong and Ready Families," the Armywide program was renamed Strong Bonds in 2005 and expanded to include programs for families and single soldiers. The unit-based, chaplain-led program helps soldiers and their families build strong relationships.
With more than half of today's soldiers married, the stress of deployment and frequent relocations also can stress intimate relationships.
Strong Bonds provides training not only in communication skills, but also in intimacy and conflict management. A better grasp of these skills has been shown to increase marriage satisfaction and reduce rates of family violence, according to the Strong Bonds Web site.
Though it's not all fun and games, the retreats also provide couples a chance to escape the stresses of everyday life.
"The beauty about these workshops is that it gives you opportunity to actually sit and talk about certain things," Garzon said.
He and his wife, Army Staff Sgt. Jennifer Garcia, both with the 704th Military Intelligence Brigade from Fort Meade, Md., agree that the program is beneficial.
"I think that all married personnel should go through it whether they're in the military or not," Garcia said. "It brings you back to the basics of why you're together and how to remain together peacefully; and if you do have conflicts, how to resolve them the best way."
That is especially true for Garcia and her husband, who have been married just two-and-a-half years, but have been together for four. The separations in those four years haven't been easy, they said, but the Strong Bonds program, firmly rooted in learning communication skills, has helped.
"It always felt like starting over every time we got back to see each other," Garzon said.
"We need to learn how to communicate again," Garcia agreed.
To date, the Army has provided this kind of training to more than 60,000 soldiers from the active and reserve components. The service takes healthy personal relationships seriously, acknowledging that solid personal bonds make for a better soldier.
"I think that strong relationships at home clearly make a stronger unit," Army Col. Robert Taylor, commander of the 704th Military Intelligence Brigade, said. "I think that the strength of our organization is not only with the soldier, himself, but their family is part of ... making our unit successful."
The program, while run by the Army, is open to servicemembers from all branches.
The 740th Military Intelligence Brigade Capt. Bill Killough, chaplain, runs the unit's Strong Bonds program with his wife of 17 years, Holly. They take turns guiding participants through a workbook with exercises on topics such as determining whether a person is an introvert or an extrovert, and what time of the day is best for each spouse to sit down and talk.
"It gives soldiers and their spouses an opportunity to do something that's intentional about increasing their marriage wellness, their intimacy," Killough said. "If a soldier's happy at home, they're going to be happy at work."
This statement has received validation by way of increased support from commanders who are responsible for ensuring the Strong Bonds program is adequately resourced and is given time on the unit's training calendar, according to the Web site.
It spoke volumes to Killough that not only did the 704th commander lend his support and make time for his soldiers to attend, but attended the retreat himself.
Strong Bonds retreats are held throughout the United States and in locations overseas. Visit the Web site to find local events.