Many military veterans will say that they couldn’t have made it through long deployments without the support of a spouse.
Despite the impression that these deployments would be fertile ground for divorce, 2015 Defense Department statistics cite a military divorce rate of 3.1 per 1,000 vs. the civilian rate of 3.6 per 1,000, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
As a retired Air Force chaplain, I can testify that military marriages are different. They’re different because long involuntary separations are forced onto them. They’re different because few jobs require the spouse’s career to play second fiddle to the other. They’re different because civilian spouses don’t ordinarily stand on the front porch wondering if a passing car brings a death notification team and the worst news imaginable.
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I witnessed these differences most profoundly during my deployment to Beale Air Force Base in 2011 as I counseled young airmen after they’d worked shifts on top-secret drone missions. From Marysville, these airmen would watch people die in real time, both insurgents and coalition forces. When they returned home each evening, their spouses knew better than to ask, “How was your day, honey?”
With sealed lips, there was no way to subtly imply that they’d seen guys killed in a firefight or that they’d personally killed a dozen people that day. Beale mental health professionals labeled this inability to talk about classified trauma “the silo effect.”
Scenarios like this convince me that our vets need special places to talk to one another about the difficulty of military-spouse relationships. That’s why I walked into the Sequoia National Park last month to lead a marriage retreat with 11 veterans and their spouses.
The retreat was a pilot program hosted by Nature Corps, an environmental organization led by Mark Landon of Templeton. The group normally sponsors “volun-tours” to reforest national parks, using participants who’ve made a monetary contribution. Landon has launched dozens of these reforestation tours, but this time he assumed a mission to replant military marriages affected by multiple military deployments. Thanks to a generous grant, the weekend was free for veterans.
As with other Nature Corp retreats, we began with a dinner and brief introductions. We did an early morning hike through the sequoias, where each couple planted several saplings. Retreat leaders used the planting as a not-so-subtle, maybe trite, hyperbole to make a point: Like giant sequoias that begin small, we can grow a strong marriage through nurturing work.
Vets often approach retreats like this armed with caution, so I deployed a disarming military-focused curriculum called “Laugh Your Way to a Better Marriage.” The four 90-minute sessions use videos from Mark Gungor, part pastor and part stand-up comedian.
Gungor began his first video by warning his audience that “100 percent of divorces start with a marriage.” That remark began nearly nonstop laughing. My wife Becky and I watched the vets’ reactions from the sideline. We saw that the laughter was relaxing them, refueling them, but most of all rekindling their love for their spouses.
The videos highlighted the differences between men and women, much like John Gray’s approach in his “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus” series. Gungor used humor to push the limits in all topics, such as communication and sex, until finally on our last session, he spoke about forgiveness.
With that closing inspiration, we assembled on Beetle Rock, looking over the vast foothills of the Sierra Nevada. We’d come for a ritual Gungor calls the “Reset Button Ceremony,” which calls for each person to seek forgiveness from his or her spouse.
After asking forgiveness and support on that cool morning, even the rock-hard vet melted just a little.
Norris Burkes is a Sutter hospice chaplain and the author of “Hero’s Highway.” He retired from the Air National Guard in 2014. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Twitter @chaplain.