Ralph and Michelle Lynn’s marriage was floundering until, at Michelle’s urging, they attended a VA marriage retreat three years ago. Now things are different.
A Veteran and his wife learn how to reconnect at a VA marriage retreat.
A Retreat for the Visually Impaired
In August 2011, the Charlie Norwood VA Medical Center in Augusta, Ga., held its very first marriage retreat for blind and visually impaired Veterans and their spouses. One of the instructors at that groundbreaking event was Deborah Lovell, a counselor at the medical center’s Blind Rehabilitation Center who is blind herself.
Eleven couples attended the retreat.
“Blindness is something they’ve had to deal with as a couple,” Lovell said. “In most cases, these Veterans weren’t blind when they got married. They were blinded in Iraq or Afghanistan, earlier conflicts, or through eye-related conditions. A lot of them are very angry or frustrated. You can imagine what that will do to a relationship. ”
Lovell said some of the communication skills she teaches at the marriage retreats have actually been useful in her own relationship.
“My husband and I communicate pretty well, but there’s always room for improvement,” she laughed. “For example, there’s a technique we teach called ‘The Daily Temperature Reading,’ or DTR for short. It’s where a couple sets aside a few minutes each day to talk to each other, face to face, about whatever’s on their mind. They share their thoughts and feelings about something. They listen to each other.
“So, during the course of our DTR sessions, my husband and I discovered something important,” she explained. “We discovered that it takes me a while to process information. I have to think about stuff for awhile. Sometimes he would tell me something, and I wouldn’t respond right away, and he’d get frustrated. Now we both realize I just need to mull things over before I get back to him. So now he doesn’t get upset anymore…he knows I just process information differently than he does.”
The VA currently has marriage retreat programs for all Veterans up and running at two locations: the VA San Diego Healthcare System and the Charlie Norwood VA Medical Center in Augusta, Ga.
Retreats have also been held at VA sites in Indianapolis, Ind., Hampton, Va., Atlanta, Ga., Columbia, S.C., Manchester, N.H., and Loma Linda, Calif.
The Department of Veterans Affairs is trying a new path when it comes to caring for and healing the Nation’s wounded Veterans. Now, in addition to repairing their damaged bodies and minds, VA is attempting to go one step further and repair their crumbling marriages.
The Damage Done
“Research shows that 70 percent of our combat Veterans are experiencing marital problems,” said VA Chaplain Ron Craddock. “Twenty percent of them decide to divorce before they even return from theatre. This is staggering. The toll on the individual Veteran is staggering. The toll on his family is staggering.”
That’s why Craddock and another VA Chaplain, Ed Waldrop, launched VA’s very first marriage retreat three years ago at the Charlie Norwood VA Medical Center in Augusta, Ga. The retreats are conducted by VA chaplains, social workers, psychologists, and counselors who have been certified as instructors for teaching better communication skills, relationship skills, and emotional literacy skills to couples.
“We started out doing three or four retreats a year,” Waldrop said. “We got a lot of positive feedback, so now we’re up to about 11 a year. We’ve done two- or three-day retreats for over 400 couples. We’re here in Georgia, but we’ve had couples come here from as far away as Pennsylvania, Oklahoma, and Florida…all over. The retreat is free, so their only expense is transportation. If they can make it here, we get them into the program.”
The idea is gradually catching on at other VA sites across the nation. The VA San Diego Healthcare System now has a marriage retreat program up and running, while about 20 other VA medical centers are in the beginning stages of establishing their own programs.
So what exactly goes on at a marriage retreat, anyway?
Talk to Me
“We spend about 70 percent of our time helping couples with their communication skills,” Craddock said. “When these Veterans come back from overseas, they don’t have the communication tools to talk to their spouse about their pain, their frustration, their grief. And we’re seeing this in both males and females…even the females returning from Iraq and Afghanistan want to seclude themselves. Just like the guys, they don’t want to be around crowds…they don’t want to go on family vacations or outings…”
“When we went to that first retreat, I had PTSD so bad I couldn’t even sit with everybody.”
— Ralph Lynn, former Army sniper
Both Craddock and Waldrop point to one troubled couple in particular as the perfect example of how effective their program can be at healing broken relationships.
“Ralph had been an Army sniper in Iraq,” Waldrop said. “When he and his wife, Michelle, first came to our retreat, they sat in the back of the room and wouldn’t join the group. We couldn’t get any response from them…”
“But they completed the retreat,” said Craddock. “Then, they signed up for our advanced retreat. Now they’re both certified instructors in our program. For two years they’ve been helping us teach other couples how to reconnect.”
Up Against the Wall
“When we went to that first retreat, I had PTSD so bad I couldn’t even sit with everybody,” Ralph acknowledged. “I had to sit in the back of the room, against the wall, so I could see everybody. Michelle sat back there with me. She was the only one I could trust. I didn’t trust anybody else.”
Ralph said it was his wife who convinced him to try out the VA marriage retreat. Up until then, he’d never really thought of himself as a ‘marriage retreat’ kind of guy.
“Michelle knew something was going on long before I was ready to do something about it,” he admitted. “Usually the one closest to you bears the brunt of the mess.
“I thought I was the only one going through what I was going through,” he continued. “But at the retreat I saw other couples going through the same thing…having the same problems Michelle and I were. Mainly, it was communication. We didn’t talk to each other, we talked at each other. At the VA retreat I learned that marriage is a separate entity that has to be nurtured, like a child. You have your day job. You have your spouse. Then you have your marriage…it has a life of its own.”
I Wanna Hold Your Hand
“They taught us how to listen to each other,” said Michelle. “Now we can talk to each other about what we’re feeling inside. When that happens, it brings you closer together. It feels really, really good.”
“We see some remarkable transitions at these retreats,” Ralph added. “We see couples who won’t hold hands. They won’t touch each other, or put their arms around each other. By the end of the retreat, all that changes. They’re holding hands. They’re hugging.
“Without the VA, I wouldn’t be where I am today,” he concluded. “Anything that can keep people from going through what I and my wife went through, I’m all for it.”
Michelle agreed. “These people are coming back from war zones,” she said. “They’ve shut down. They’ve experienced things no human being should experience. They don’t know how to communicate anymore because they’re used to being given commands…
“Before we did the retreat, I could talk to Ralph all day long and not get a response. I might get a nod out of him. But now we can actually have a normal conversation. That’s pretty awesome.”
When VA’s marriage retreats first began, only Veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts were being accepted into the program. Since then, VA has opened the program to anyone who’s ever worn the uniform.
For more information on VA’s marriage retreat program, call 706-733-0188, extension 6118, 6114, or 6172.