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.
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!