War on Terrorism Takes Toll on Military Families Robin Urevich talks with a military couple that nearly separated. The couple received marriage counseling from an unlikely source: the California National Guard.   

War on Terrorism Takes Toll on Military Families

War on Terrorism Takes Toll on Military Families

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Robin Urevich talks with a military couple that nearly separated. The couple received marriage counseling from an unlikely source: the California National Guard.   

ED Gordon, host:

Any long deployment can take its toll on a relationship. As Major Holcombe said, marriage counseling has become a key component of the California National Guard's mental health strategy. Reporter Robin Urevich recently visited the wife of a soldier who found her husband's return from Iraq almost as hard as life without him.

ROBIN UREVICH: Last November, Shannon Valenzuela's(ph) husband, a sergeant in the National Guard, returned from Iraq after a year and a half. By March, Shannon says their 12-year marriage was on shaky ground.

Ms. SHANNON VALENZUELA (Military Wife): We were coming to an impasse. We'd become two different people. He had fought a war.

1st Sgt. DWAYNE VALENZUELA(ph) (California National Guard): I think it was a little withdrawn, a little quiet.

UREVICH: That's Shannon's husband, 1st Sgt. Duane Valenzuela on the phone from his new deployment on the U.S.-Mexico border.

1st Sgt. VALENZUELA: You're not used to dealing with the day-to-day family things, and you have tendency to close off a little bit.

UREVICH: Shannon says her husband came home to a different household from the one he'd left. She'd been a single parent to their ten-year-old daughter, finished her nursing degree, and handled the family's finances.

Ms. VALENZUELA: I was almost finished - to start a new career that I didn't have when he left. I had new skills, new abilities. I was running the house that he was no longer a part of. I had new friends. He felt completely left out.

UREVICH: Shannon says the two of them have stopped communicating all together, at least about important things. So when it came time to attend the workshop, she thought...

Ms. VALENZUELA: You know, we're going and this is the last resort. A lot of people I've talked to went into it knowing that if that this didn't spark something, it was over.

UREVICH: The weekend-long seminars are designed to teach couples to talk to each other again and prepare for future separations. National Guard chaplains used a curriculum called PREP, or Prevention and Relationship Enhancement Program, developed at the University of Denver. The key is learning to listen.

Unidentified Woman #1: It helps a couple move their conversation from this:

Unidentified Man#1: I hear how you feel.

Unidentified Woman #2: Well.

Unidentified Man #1: That's about it.

Unidentified Woman # 2: I know, that's how it's always been. That's about it.

UREVICH: This clip from a DVD by the curriculum author shows a real couple not in a military before they've practiced the communications techniques. Here they are afterwards.

Unidentified Man #1: So you're saying that it's more comfortable for me to watch television than it is to be with you?

Unidentified Woman #2: Yeah.

Unidentified Woman #1: Notice how Della(ph) responds with yeah, which to us indicates that she is delighted with the fact that her husband understands her.

UREVICH: Military couples also learn to share their lives during long absences and during tense situations. For example, Dwayne says when he was Iraq, he tried to protect Shannon from the realities of the battlefield, and Shannon kept problems at home to herself.

Ms. VALENZUELA: We have a saying: A distracted soldier is a dead soldier.

UREVICH: Because they didn't really talk, Dwayne says, he didn't fully understand how hard it was for her to manage everything at home while worrying about his safety.

1st Sgt. VALENZUELA: I never said it and I never really honestly thought that, but you still kind of struggle with that in the back of your mind. Yeah, it was heard, but you know what? You know, your life wasn't at stake.

UREVICH: The Army is investing nearly $10 million a year on programs to help marriages. Commanders are urging soldiers to attend, and other branches of the service offer similar programs.

Mr. BENJAMIN CARNEY(ph) (Behavioral Scientist, Rand Corporation): The saying in the military used to be: If the army wanted you to have a wife, we would've issued you one.

UREVICH: That's Benjamin Carney, a behavioral scientist at the Rand Corporation in southern California. He's conducting an Army-funded study of marriage enrichment programs. Carney says there's one major reason for the shift.

Mr. CARNEY: Those whose marriages are suffering tend not to reenlist; they're less likely to reenlist. So whatever the military can do to make it easier to be married in the military will also improve retention and allow the military to get a better return on the investment of training they put into each recruit.

(Soundbite of answering machine message)

MACHINE: Shannon Valenzuela, hello, you have one new message...

UREVICH: At the Guard office where she still volunteers, Shannon Venezuela says the National Guard's marriage enrichment program saved her relationship. With Dwayne gone again, both say they're applying the lessons they learned. For example, recently the air conditioning went out in 100-degree heat and Shannon had no time to take care of it. In the past, she says:

Ms. VALENZUELA: I would've said, no, I'll suck it up and drive on. But I said, no, I need you to come home and help me take of this. I don't try to protect him from my feelings, and he doesn't try to protect me from his. We're just having an open and honest dialogue.

UREVICH: Researcher Benjamin Carney says no one really knows just how effective these programs are and which ones really work, especially in the long-term. That's something that he hopes his study will reveal in the coming years.

For NPR News, I'm Robin Urevich in Los Angeles.

(Soundbite of music)

GORDON: Coming up, the president says detainees held in secret prisons will get their day in court, and another King takes on the fight against poverty. We'll discuss these topics and more on our Roundtable.

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