In the film Brothers, Director Jim Sheridan brings to the big screen a compelling juxtaposition of the horrors of war against the fragility of marriage. The movie tells the story of a devoted soldier (Tobey Maguire) torn apart with each combat deployment and the ultimate impact on his marriage (wife is played by Natalie Portman) and young daughters.
Brothers offers a powerful glimpse into the difficult challenges faced by hundreds of thousands of American families affected by combat deployment.
Last Valentine’s Day, in cooperation with the Charlie Norwood VA Medical Center, Morehouse School of Medicine, and the CSRA Wounded Warrior Care Project, I led a weekend PAIRS retreat in Augusta, Georgia for a group of men and women – together with their spouses — who served on the frontlines in Iraq and Afghanistan. Many returned with significant visible and invisible wounds, including Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Traumatic Brain Injuries. Like Sam, the character whose story is portrayed by Maguire in Brothers, the group included soldiers deployed one to three times, many of whom experienced hand to hand combat, killing non-combatants, being targeted or witnessing IED, RPG and sniper attacks.
Our survey of the group prior to the retreat showed a 26 percent increase in the number of couples reporting high levels of marital distress following combat deployment with the far majority reporting difficulty communicating with their spouses. Following the two-day intensive training, the percentage of participants reporting that they were able to effectively communicate with their spouses increased from 26 percent to 79 percent.
Nearly a year later, we continue to receive regular reports confirming the lasting impact on retreat participants.
Comments shared by participants after the retreat included:
“We now have a knowledge base to build on to be a better couple.”
“Learning how to communicate again! How to solve problems that come up the correct way. Done so we are not out to hurt each other.”
“One of the highlights is when I found out some of my wife’s fears.”
Laurie Ott of the CSRA Wounded Warrior Care Project works closely with the team from Charlie Norwood and Morehouse School of Medicine to make this and other retreats possible for couples impacted by combat deployment. Following the retreat, she wrote:
“PAIRS is exactly what we were looking for in terms of real relationship skills for combat-returned and wounded warriors and their spouses … Our survey before and after PAIRS shows a profound impact on both couples’ perception of their relationship and hope for the future. Thank you for helping our heroes and their families reconnect after combat, and for giving them the skills to improve their relationships and communication.”
Chaplain Ron Craddock, Chief of Chaplain Services at Charlie Norwood VA Medical Center wrote:
“PAIRS is changing the lives of returning combat veterans and their spouses.”
For hundreds of thousands of American families, relationship skills and marriage education built on empathy and emotional expression is a powerful tool to help our returning heroes restore, reconnect, and rekindle relationships that are the foundation of their lives.
This Valentine’s Day, a team from PAIRS Foundation will travel to Tennessee to deliver training to nearly 300 participants, including 150 active duty military facing deployment within 30 days of the retreat. Our hope and prayer is that by teaching these couples to understand emotions in themselves and others, along with skills to create an environment where it is safe to confide, release the energy of negative emotions, and address differences and conflicts in ways that bring them closer as couples before deployment, they will soon return to each other with the greatest opportunities to continue experiencing love, healing and strength from their marriages and families.
During this holiday season, PAIRS Foundation is also offering a series of free webinars to help individuals and couples impacted by combat deployment learn practical skills for confiding and beginning to release the energy of negative emotions to allow increased feelings of relief, pleasure, connection and love to develop. A calendar of upcoming events is available on the PAIRS website, by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org, or calling (877) PAIRS-4U.
As our sons, daughters, husbands and wives courageously serve our nation, we must honor our sacred trust to serve them.
Seth Eisenberg, is President and CEO of the PAIRS Foundation.