As a retired Air Force chaplain, I can testify that military marriages are different.
I witnessed those profound differences during my deployment to Beale Air Force Base in 2011. Inside a windowless room, I often stood with airmen as they remotely worked top-secret drone missions over an Afghan battlefield. These airmen observed both insurgents and coalition forces die in real time.
When the airmen finished their 12-hour shift, they’d attempt to re-engage normal life with such things as attending their kid’s soccer game or mowing their lawns.
Yet they often found normalcy elusive. There was no way they could tell their spouse what they’d seen or who they’d killed. Beale mental health professionals described this isolating condition of silence as “the silo effect.”
Scenarios like this convince me that our veterans need special places to talk to one another about the difficulty of military-spouse relationships. That’s why last weekend my wife, Becky, and I drove to Sequoia National Park, four hours north of Los Angeles, to lead a three-day marriage retreat for 10 veterans and their spouses.
The retreat was hosted by Nature Corps, an environmental organization led by Mark Landon of Templeton, Calif., who typically leads volunteers on what he calls “volun-tours” to help reforest national parks.
Landon has launched dozens of reforestation tours for corporations, but this time he assumed a mission to replant military marriages affected by multiple deployments. Thankfully, outside contributions paid for the retreat.
As with other Nature Corp events, Friday evening opened with a dinner and brief introductions. Vets came with a natural aversion for the word “retreat,” so I deployed a disarming curriculum called “Laugh Your Way to a Better Marriage.” The four 90-minute sessions use military-focused videos from Mark Gungor, part-pastor and part-stand-up comedian.
Gungor began with a facetious warning that “100 percent of divorces start with a marriage.” His remark launched nearly nonstop laughter. Gungor’s program humorously pushes the limits in all topics, such as communication and sex. The laughter seemed to relax the couples, refuel them and rekindle their love.
On Saturday morning, we emerged from tents into cooler temperatures and hiked through the forest to plant wild blue rye grass, goldenrod and coneflower. These native plants provide a natural competition for aggressive weeds.
After the last goldenrod was planted, we prepared one final hole for a sequoia sapling. Before plating the sapling, we gave the vets a slip of paper and asked them to write a growth goal for their marriage. Finally, with sacred intention, we dropped those slips one-by-one into the hole and buried them beneath the sequoia.
A few hours later, we hit the showers, and returned for lunch and the obligatory talk of every marriage retreat: sex. The veterans advised me that the discussion details were “highly classified,” so I’ll just say, “mission accomplished.”
On Sunday morning, our last video challenged us to bring forgiveness into our marriages.
On Beetle Rock, overlooking the vast foothills of the Sierra Nevada, I led vets in a ritual Gungor calls the “Reset Button Ceremony,” which encourages each spouse to seek forgiveness from the other.
The husbands recited lines that began:
- I’m sorry for not always being the kind of husband I should be to you.
- For not giving you the attention you deserve.
- For being too caught up in my own world instead of “our” world.
- For demanding too much and not giving enough.
- For not loving you like I should.
- Please forgive me.
- With your love, your support, your patience and your prayers, I will strive to be the kind of husband God expects me to be.
The wives’ part differed by three middle lines:
- Honey, I’m sorry for not always appreciating all that you do.
- For not always being the lover I know you need.
- For not always believing in your hopes and dreams.
As I said, military marriages are different sometimes. But during this closing ceremony, I was privileged to witness the human side of those rock-hard vets as they watered the mighty sequoias with their tears.