Wisconsin National Guard Program Works To Strengthen Families, Relationships

Strong Bonds Program Gives Service Members, Families Tools To Handle Stress Of Deployment

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Wisconsin National Guard (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

For families and loved ones of those serving in the U.S. military, the stress of deployments can be difficult to manage.

A Wisconsin National Guard program is working to help service members and their families be prepared for those stresses through relationship education.

Lt. Col. Douglas Hedman, a chaplain in the Wisconsin National Guard, said that the Strong Bonds program gives families and soldiers the tools to strengthen their relationships before problems arise.

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When they’re separated for that long, when they come back together, you need something to bind them back together,” he said.

“What I always tell couples is, it’s really maintenance on the relationship,” he continued. “It’s like with your car. You bring it in you get a tune up, you change the oil and you’re good to go for another 100,000 miles.”

Strong Bonds is a free, chaplain-led program available to all servicemen and servicewomen and includes a mix of first-time deployers and repeat deployers, Hedman said. Starting in 1997, the program has grown from 90 military families to more than 130,000 nationally last year.

The program hosts multiple weekend retreats each year for service personnel and their families and can also connect members to outside resources like financial planning or counseling if they need it, he said.

“The most important thing is we work on all kinds of relationships skills like communication,” he said. “We talk about finances, how to work through issues that they might be having, and we just set the stage for a good, positive communication.”

Hedman emphasized the civilian nature of the program — for example, military members wear civilian clothes during the retreats — which is intentional for adjusting back to civilian life and connecting with family members after deployment.

“Probably the biggest thing is communicating every day, if possible,” he said. “And it can just be the small stuff, just to know what’s been going on in each person’s life.”

Strong Bonds repeats popular events year to year, but also incorporates new events like this year’s “Laugh Your Way to a Better Marriage” and “The Speed of Trust.”

The most important thing, Hedman said, is helping families and service members feel like they can handle any challenge they run into.

“We want our families to be prepared,” he said. “Strong Bonds is one of these programs where we get them together and we work through a lot of things so when the call comes they’re ready.”

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