This Blog Almost Died

This blog almost died. Like every house plant I’ve ever owned, I have ignored it until it has become a sad, dehydrated shadow of its former self. But I like this blog more than any house plant and I’m not ready to let it die that easily.

It is amazing how quickly memories fade without writing things down. I try to write about my travels within a few weeks of a trip, but life got busy. I moved across the world and changed jobs and have neglected writing anything for months. I was tempted to let this whole thing fall by the wayside and just be something I used to do.  “Hey, you guys remember that one time when I had a blog? Yeah, good times.” But, no! I shall persevere! I still have places I’ve been about which I have not written! France! Croatia! Kansas (really, Kansas?)! Oh yeah, I’ve moved to Kansas.

This blog is my photo album. I can go back, look at pictures and read stories and remember. I want to be able to show my children the places they’ve been and tell them stories about their adventures. I don’t want to just know that I went somewhere, I want to be able to recall everything I did saw and felt.

This blog is my creative outlet. Some kids wanted to be firefighters or astronauts when they grew up. I wanted to be an artist. But then I realized I’m not really that great at art. I can’t paint my feelings or the places I’ve been, but I can write about them and somebody else might even want to read what I write. Maybe I even inspire somebody else to go see something new.

So I can’t quit. I just took a hiatus. I’m transitioning from my green period to my blue period. Or something else that an artist would do when their life changes.

Army, you may have taken Europe from me, but you can’t take my adventurous spirit! I can find something interesting here in my new home. I’m sure I’ve seen a poster in a dentist’s office somewhere that says “travel is a state of mind”. Maybe not, but it sounds like something I would have seen in a dentist’s office, and who can deny the authority of a dentist? Not someone with a smile like mine!

I’m back. And now that all the dust has settled from my move, I’m going to write. I’ll write about all the places I’ve been and all the new places I find and the way they looked and smelled and sounded and felt! I will sculpt my memories with words into something that I can go back and touch any time I want. When my kids get old enough to think that I’m just some dull, boring mom they can read my words and realize that, yes! I am a dull, boring mom, but I’ve been some really interesting places! And I think that’s something worth not giving up on.

Getting in on Strong Bonds Marriage Retreats

If you’ve been married and in the Army or have been an Army spouse for a little while you may have heard of the elusive Strong Bonds marriage retreat. A magical event where you get to stay at a resort for free in exchange for giving the chaplain a few hours of your life to work on your relationship skills. No work for a few days, great locations, free childcare, perhaps breakfast and dinner are thrown in… It’s kinda like a unicorn – we’ve all heard of it but nobody’s actually seen it.

Guess what, guys? They’re real. I know because I’ve been on dozens of them because I plan, organize and execute these events because I am a chaplain assistant (yes, it’s a real MOS. Don’t hate). Today is your lucky day because I’m about to explain to you how these things work, how to sign up, and how to increase your likelihood of getting on one of these events.

If you’ve been married and in the Army or have been an Army spouse for a little while you may have heard of the elusive Strong Bonds marriage retreat. A magical event where you get to stay at a resort for free in exchange for giving the chaplain a few hours of your life to work on your relationship skills. No work for a few days, great locations, free childcare, perhaps breakfast and dinner are thrown in… It’s kinda like a unicorn – we’ve all heard of it but nobody’s actually seen it.How these things work

Once upon a time Soldiers deployed every other year, usually for 12-18 months at a time for their entire enlistments. It pretty much sucked. Wives weren’t happy. The Chief of Chaplain (among other people) recognized that this kind of schedule was taking a toll on families and for marriages to survive they needed to invest in teaching Army families some basic relationship skills. Thus, the Chief of Chaplains set up funding for the Strong Bonds program.

Strong Bonds events traditionally last three days and two nights. They are usually at a nice hotel and meals and childcare are usually provided. This is a training event so there are a number of pre-determined curricula a Chaplain can choose from (he or she must be certified in whichever curriculum he/she chooses to teach) and they teach at least 12 hours out of this 3-day span.

In recent years deployments and funding have slowed down significantly. Each unit used to do multiple Strong Bonds events per year. Now they may be lucky to get one. Similarly, not all events are three days anymore, some are only single-day events, or events that are multiple days but near post so that hotel rooms are not necessary. It is harder and harder to get funding for childcare and meals. Even in units that still do overnight events the number of rooms available may have dropped down from 30 to 15.

How to sign up

This may sound discouraging but retreats do still happen, and somebody has to be on them, so why not you? You can at least try to register and the worst thing that will happen is that you don’t make it.
So let’s learn how to register.

• Go to http://www.strongbonds.org
• Click on “Events”
• Click on “Find an Event”
• Click on either “Active”, “National Guard” or “Reserves” depending on your unit
• Click on “Strong Bonds Families” or “Couples” (your unit chaplain should have told you which type of retreat this is, but if you are just browsing you can try looking at both to see what is available. Family retreats generally involve kids in the curriculum and have childcare, couples retreats may or may not have childcare available)
• Now you can browse by dates, unit or event number (if you know it) to try to find a retreat that will suit you
• Click on desired event
• Click “Register” and fill out the form
• Click “Submit”

Once you are registered you should get a system-generated email saying that you have registered. At that point the chaplain assistant will be able to see you in the system. They then have to go through all the people registered online and either approve or deny them.

If you get approved the system is supposed to send you another email. Sometimes it doesn’t. This is because it is an Army website and the last time it was updated was 2009 so it is terrible and I loathe it. Also, if the chaplain assistant denies your registration or just leaves it as “pending” you will never know. If you haven’t heard anything by two weeks before the event you should just call your chaplain assistant to see if you are on the confirmed list. They have to have the final list to the hotel two weeks before the event so they should know who is confirmed by then.

How to increase your likelihood of getting on one of these events

The last retreat I did we only had 15 rooms available. The Chaplain needed a room and so did his assistant (me), so now we were down to 13 rooms. We had a large family on the retreat that required two rooms. So we had 12 families on this retreat. The day I opened registration, the list was full. I had over 30 families on the wait list. I got a few angry emails from people who just could not believe that even though they signed up the week the retreat was announced they didn’t make the final list.

If you want to get on a retreat, you need to either have incredible luck and just so happen to log on to strongbonds.org the day your desired retreat registration opens or talk to the Chaplain or Chaplain Assistant so you are absolutely sure when registration starts. Then register as early as you can on the day registration starts.

Note: If you don’t know who the Chaplain Assistant is, look at the retreat you want to go to on the strongbonds.org website and it will have a POC. Start by calling them and they should be able to lead you in the right direction.

When you do go online and fill out the registration form, make sure you put in correct information. In the “Special Needs” category, type in the name of your unit. I give priority to families that belong to my unit, but there is no way I can know every family in my unit. I usually try to call or email to make sure the person registered is in the unit, but if telephone numbers or email aren’t correct I would be likely to just move on to the next registrant who I know is in my unit. Or, you can always just go talk to the chaplain assistant to let them know you will be registering so they know not to skip over your name.

Don’t have too many issues. Okay, I know this may be a little touchy and I get that a lot of these things maybe you can’t help, but I’m trying to be honest here. If you are difficult to deal with I might be less likely to put you on the retreat. Things that constitute issues are: insisting you get on this retreat even though you just went on one last month, insisting your dog stay in the pet-free hotel, insisting your un-vaccinated child stay in childcare provided by Army Child and Youth Services, trying to bring along relatives (granny, grandpa, cousins, etc.) who are not sponsored in DEERS, having 12 kids, not having any transportation to or from the hotel, telling me that you think the training is stupid and you don’t want to participate, etc. If you have special circumstances and are willing to come to a compromise, usually I will work with you and do my best to accommodate you. Again, go talk to the chaplain assistant.

Even if you doubt you will get on a retreat, still register online for every retreat you can once you get to a unit. When I have a waitlist, I send the people on my waitlist an email the next time a retreat comes around so they can register before I announce registration to the public. Not every chaplain assistant does this, but at least if they keep seeing your name they will know you really want to go and may try to help you out. Also, people do drop off of retreats last minute so if you are flexible you may be able to get a spot last minute.
Bottom line, go talk to the Chaplain Assistant ahead of time. Then you can know when these things are happening and make sure they know you want to participate.

I hope this was helpful and wish you the best of luck trying to get on a marriage retreat!
Have you been on a Strong Bonds retreat? How was it? Let me know in the comments below!

Where to next?

This one has little to do with where I’ve been and everything to do with where I’m going. I’m very behind on posting about our adventures around Europe, but hopefully this will help you understand why and where my mind has been lately. Plus, I really just need to process some stuff and writing helps me with that. If you’re not interested, I totally understand. Feel free to go check out any of my other posts instead!

I set my dominoes up in a nice, neat row. I did everything I was supposed to and I got selected for a job that would not only provide me with the opportunity to promote within the military, but it would set me up for success outside. I was ready to work in an environment where I would be respected, where my education would be valued, and where the things I thought I was good at would get put to use.

And then because somebody overlooked my DEROS (Date of Expected Return from Overseas) it got taken from me. After I had already reenlisted for the required five years. After I had been given a spot in school. After I had told my family what (I thought) my future held. After my work submitted my PCS award and my final NCOER. After I had my heart set on doing the job I though was perfect for me the Army told me to “reapply next year”.

Just so you understand why I’m so frustrated, let me give you a little timeline:

August 2015 – I found out about the 51C (acquisition, logistics and technology NCO) MOS, Started putting a packet together

October 2015 – Submitted my packet

December 2015 – A board was held to decide who would be accepted into the 51C MOS

February 2016 – I got a letter of acceptance! Out of 135 applicants, I was one of the 8 they selected

February 2016 – I got slotted for a spot in school in August

April 2016 – I reenlist for the 5 years time that is required to transfer to my new MOS

March – June 2016 – With no assignment orders for where I am supposed to go after school I start making phone calls and emails. I need orders to start out-processing and to make preparations for my family to move.

June 2016 – I get told “Oops! We didn’t notice your DEROS was December 2017! Your reclass is now annulled. You can reapply in December”. I panic. I cry. I wonder what the hell I’m supposed to do for the next five years if I don’t get reselected?!

I was heartbroken, outraged, frustrated, disappointed and I felt helpless. At least my chain of command supported me and tried to help me get a new school date before my letter of acceptance expired. Paperwork for a curtailment (to make my DEROS closer) went through in record time. I was elated. Things were starting to work in my favor, at least now I knew I would be leaving Germany sooner rather than later.  Now we just needed to find a school date close to my new DEROS.

I sent emails, I talked to my schools NCO, I talked to my branch manager, I talked to retention and I waited… and waited… and waited. I sent more emails and made more calls and was told to wait some more.

I prayed to God that if it was his will, he give me a school date, or at least let me know if this just wasn’t meant to be. You guys. I’m exhausted. For a year now I’ve been wondering where I will go next. For a year I have been waiting to find out what will happen to me. I get super excited when things look like they’re progressing and then come crashing down because my dreams just keep seeming to get taken away right when they were so close.

At least once a week friends, family, coworkers are asking me if I know where I’ll be going next or if I know anything else about my next assignment, or when I will know, or can’t I call so-and-so to ask? I. Don’t. Know. I’ve asked everybody. I feel like I literally have no control over my destiny. All I can do is continue to pray for a school date.

Finally we arrive at yesterday morning. I have two emails in my inbox. One from the 51C branch that basically boils down to “there aren’t any available school dates near your new DEROS, better luck next year!” and one from the Department of the Army saying I do have a school date… in February… to Drill Sergeant School!? What. The actual. F***.

So on one hand, I got an answer to prayer. On the other, I repeat, what the actual f***.

Should I keep trying to get a new school date for 51C school? Should I just accept that this is my destiny whether I like it or not? I don’t know. Drill Sergeant Stokes sounds pretty bad-ass and I’d look really good in that bushmaster hat, but have they met me? I’d be the worst drill sergeant ever!

I really, really want to be a 51C, but I also really, really just want to know what I’m doing next. I don’t know. There’s a comment section below. Seriously, if you know what I should do, please tell me.

I do have faith that whatever is meant to be will happen. I know God will take care of me and send me where I am most needed. I know that I can accomplish what I need to and succeed if I do have to go to Drill Sergeant School. I just really hadn’t planned on this one. I think I need a hug.