VICENZA, Italy — When members of the Southern European Task Force (Airborne) head to Afghanistan in a few months, they’ll be facing hostile conditions thousands of miles from their families.

But if local military leaders have their way, those soldiers won’t be worrying about potentially hostile situations within their families.

“A soldier who is confident in the state of their marriage is a better soldier,” says Chaplain (Maj.) David Beauchamp of the 173rd Airborne Brigade.

“From a chaplain’s viewpoint … what’s going to last longer: the Army career or the marriage? Hopefully the marriage is going to last longer.”

But in today’s Army, where long deployments seem to be a never-ending prospect, marriages are thought to be more at risk. However, neither the 173rd — which spent a year in Iraq before returning last spring — SETAF, nor U.S. Army Europe keeps statistics on divorces to prove or disprove that theory.

Chaplain (Maj.) Leon Kircher, chaplain for the 22nd Area Support Group, which includes Vicenza, counseled some of the 173rd’s couples who were having trouble during and after the deployment. He said some relationships did end in divorce.

“Not as many as I thought there could be,” he said. “To say it was epidemic? No.”

Both chaplains attribute that to a strong effort by the various agencies at Caserma Ederle charged with supporting families while troops are away. And both think the effort will be better for the upcoming deployment.

Chaplains will lead 300 couples — representing about a quarter of those married in the brigade — on overnight retreats at Lake Garda before the deployment. Col. Kevin Owens, the 173rd commander, allocated thousands of dollars from brigade funds to pay for the retreat. Younger enlisted soldiers and their spouses will get most of the spots.

“It’s expensive,” Beauchamp said. “But if we can save marriages, it’s worth it.”

Those participating will focus on communication, forgiveness and commitment, he said. Each partner will be given a commitment coin to carry during the deployment.

“It’ll be a reminder to them that they’ve got responsibilities toward another person,” he said. “Not only for the soldiers, but also their spouses.”

In fact, Beauchamp said every married couple in the brigade would get a chance to participate in a commitment ceremony and receive a coin. Those not on the retreats can participate at the base chapel. The Protestant Women of the Chapel is sponsoring an event targeting couples Jan. 21-22 that’s called “Battle Proofing Your Marriage.”

During the deployment, Kircher said chaplains will be working on both ends to help couples in need. He said it will be possible to arrange phone sessions to counsel both partners together or separately.

The chapel plans to hold weekly gatherings for spouses with free child care so moms — and dads — can get together to eat, talk, shop or visit local sights. Kircher said he hopes the informal gatherings will give spouses a chance to share problems and solutions with one another.

The chapel also will sponsor monthly retreats for spouses during the deployment, focusing on potential problems and solutions.

“It’s like tuning up a car,” Kircher said. “Sometimes you don’t even realize it, but something could be wrong.”

In the field, Beauchamp said he’ll be leading a 40-week course using the best-selling inspirational book, “Purpose Driven Life.” Kircher will be sending out concurrent messages to the community, so those on both sides can follow along.

After the deployment, couples can participate in the Army’s “Building Strong and Ready Families” program. Dozens participated after the last deployment, Beauchamp said. And the chaplains hope there will be more opportunities this time if there’s a need.

Kircher said commanders realize that helping soldiers keep good relationships with their spouses has become a key part of the deployment process.

“One thing that weighs on a soldier’s mind is if their family is being taken care of,” he said. “When they’re out on a patrol or inspecting something, you don’t want that to be the first thing on their minds. They’ve got to be focused on the job at hand.”

A look at what's available ...

U.S. Army Europe doesn’t have an overall program that specifically targets marriages during deployment.

But an array of new measures initialized while many of the Europe-based soldiers served in Iraq contain elements that could help couples in need.

Counseling is available during the command’s mandatory reintegration program. And block leave is designed to give families time to readjust.

Chaplains are available in each community and a dozen marriage and family therapists are spread out among the largest Army communities in Germany and Belgium.

Area support groups and individual communities are tasked with most of the responsibility for creating and maintaining marriage-enrichment programs, which vary by location.

— Kent Harris

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Kent has filled numerous roles at Stars and Stripes including: copy editor, news editor, desk editor, reporter/photographer, web editor and overseas sports editor. Based at Aviano Air Base, Italy, he’s been TDY to countries such as Afghanistan Iraq, Kosovo and Bosnia. Born in California, he’s a 1988 graduate of Humboldt State University and has been a journalist for 40 years.

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