Air National Guard Chaplain Corps creates ‘Strong Bonds’

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U.S. Air National Guard photo/Master Sgt. Julie Avey

What do the words strong bonds mean to you? Some of us may think about significant others, family, friends, neighbors, co-workers and many others, but we probably don’t associate them with an acquired skill or a classroom topic, as in the Strong Bonds program.

Recently the 163rd Attack Wing, California Air National Guard, in conjunction with the ANG Strong Bonds program manager, retired Command Chief Master Sgt. Ed Brown, hosted chaplains from all over the country for a week-long training course to broaden their knowledge of the Strong Bonds program.

The classroom training aimed to arm chaplains and their assistants with new information to take back to their fellow Airmen, as well as their own families.  Students were assigned to a course consisting of LINKS (Lasting Intimacy through Nurturing Knowledge & Skills), Prep Got Your Back, 7 Habits of Highly Effective Military Families and Laugh Your Way to a Better Marriage. These classes certified them to teach the Strong Bonds courses.

During training, the ANG Chaplain Corps had the opportunity to meet Dr. John Covey, and his wife, Jane. Covey’s brother, Stephen, wrote the best-seller, “7 Habits of Highly Effective People”— the inspiration for the class “7 Habits of Highly Effective Military Families.”

The class focuses on the development of specific habits in one’s life that can assist an individual in more effectively putting his or her life values into practice, and provides a framework for applying universal principles which, in-turn, enables  family members to  communicate better for successful conflict resolution.

“As chaplains, we get a lot of training and relationship info,” said Chaplain Jose Martinez, 139th Airlift Wing, Missouri ANG. “Looking at leadership here in the military, we get different tactics and techniques. What ‘7 habits…’ has done is look at the historical documents of leadership and relationship building, breaking it down into seven habits to make it easier to put in steps,” he said. “That is what makes it productive, as you can articulate in a logical pattern on how to do things and hit the marks.”

Martinez went on to say that chaplains use many tools in many different ways, but that the ‘7 habits’ training is universal.

“You can use it for a family, a couple, or an individual. This training broadens my tool box in sharing with others, and some may be able to relate better to the Covey’s principle based training versus another more spiritual training.”

The Coveys shared that families do not fall because of poverty, deployments and so on.

“Families fall when they stop nurturing each other from within,” Covey said. Spend one-on-one time together, eat together, making it a happy time, (and) spend at least one half per week to go do something fun.”

They Coveys urged participants to  hold fast to family traditions because they give families their identities.

“For example, this is what we do as a family in the winter (and) this is what we do as a family on the holidays,” Covey said. “Continue adding to the traditions. Family traditions help children have an identity.”

“Dwell on strengths in your family not your weaknesses,” added Jane. “Everyone has both. Every child in your family brings something to the table, and we need to remember to recognize strengths.”

“Learn to know how to believe in people,” suggested Covey. “The leadership philosophy of a family is to communicate their worth and potential so clearly they begin to see it in themselves.”

Geoff Rodgers, an instructor for the organization “Laugh Your Way America,” was also on hand to teach a class. Founded by Mark Gungor in 2003, the program maintains that laughter is one of the greatest avenues to reach people’s hearts and stimulate them to open up to fresh, new ideas. A Christian organization that believes helping marriages and families is the foundation of a successful society, the founders maintain that laughter is an effective tool that lowers defenses and opens minds.

The organization also presents a marriage seminar that offers practical, nuts-and-bolts ideas on improving a marriage, and provides a chance for couples to laugh together as they use every available means to entertain those in attendance.

“We’ve always felt we had a very strong relationship, and stronger than other folks we know,” said Staff Sgt. Josh March, 193rd Special Operations Wing, Pennsylvania ANG, about his wife. “We thought it was because we’re so similar, although the class revealed we are exact opposites.”

His wife is neat and organized, and he is more fast-paced with a dump it and move on to the next project attitude, he said.

“ I know with her, if I can just take two minutes to put all that stuff away she will feel a lot better about it,” March said. “ We figured out the keys to working with each other and what each other needs. It’s knowing the why behind (those) needs.”

March said he learned that opposites can complement each other.

“I think it is important to be open-minded, even in business, surrounding yourself with people who are better than you in areas you are weak is the way to go,” he said. “Why should life be any different?”

The magic to making a marriage work, Rodgers said to the participants, is hard work and learning. “There’s lots of good curriculum out there to do the right things. Ours caters to the humor approach to things.”

Dr. John Van Epp, the author of “How to Avoid Marrying a Jerk,” taught a class on the LINKS program, which teaches couples the skills they need to nurture a lasting love. The program shows how to regularly revitalize the dynamic links in their marriage with the Relationship Attachment Model, which illustrates how couples grow closer by meeting one another’s needs for an open trusting and fulfilling relationship.

“These classes are only a handful of what Chaplain Corps can offer,” said Chaplain William Yates, an ANG colonel. “There are over 13 blocks in the Strong Bonds training for singles, couples and families, and evidence-based research that shows these programs achieve goals.”

Divorce rates are lower in couples who have attended Strong Bonds than those who have not, Yates said.

“It is important to me to know if the programs we provide Airmen are actually working.”

Jeff Erlacher, writer and master trainer, was also on hand to teach Got Your Back, a relationship intelligence program from PREP (Prevention and Relationship Enhancement Programs),  focusing on experiential learning to build self-awareness, promote mindful choices, and emphasize relationship skills.

“We have had good success before with our Strong Bond classes, but this is going to translate well with the ‘can do’ attitude of our Airmen,” said Technical Sgt. Jeremiah Henderson, a New York ANG chaplains assistant. “We will continue to build on the skills that our individual Airmen have. We are hoping this program will be the bridge to help even more as we reach out to Airmen with new knowledge.”

The week was not only full of bonding for couples but for the whole Chaplain Corps Team. They discussed new thoughts and shared experiences in class. One evening, the team hiked to the top of Mt. Rubidoux, in Riverside, California, and as they reached the peak at sunset they sounded off the Air Force Song, capturing the attention of those around them.

Other evenings, the corps took the opportunity to tour different mission sets at March Air Reserve Base, including the C-17 Globemaster III, the Air, and Marine Operations Center (AMOC), and the ANG’s Piloted Aircraft. The tours were offered to provide a better perspective on various skill sets in the total force.

“As we reflect upon the entire week’s worth of training, we walk away with the satisfaction knowing we have been empowered,” said Chaplain David Sarmiento, a major with the 163 ATKW. “Empowered with new tools to reach out to our men and women in uniform, regardless of the season (in which) they find themselves.”