- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 29, 2004

HOPKINSVILLE, Ky. (AP) — When Sgt. Jose Bermudez returned from Iraq early this year, he came home to a new baby and a troubled marriage.

“We were on the brink of divorce,” Mandy Bermudez said as the couple ate lunch recently with their three children, all younger than 3.

The Bermudezes were among 300 couples with the Fort Campbell-based 101st Airborne Division who have attended “marriage enrichment” seminars provided by the Army in hopes of saving war-ravaged relationships.

With studies showing divorce rates as high as 21 percent among couples where one spouse has been sent off to war, the Army is spending $2 million on a variety of marriage programs, including vouchers for romantic getaways to places such as the Opryland Hotel in Nashville, Tenn.

“I’ve been in the Army 20 years, and I’ve never seen the Army pay for programs like this,” said Lt. Col. Chester Egert, chaplain for the 101st.

One program being implemented Armywide teaches couples forgiveness and the skills to communicate. It includes a 40-hour course with lessons on the dangers of alcohol and tobacco and how to recognize post-traumatic stress. Soldiers who complete the course are rewarded with promotion points and a weekend retreat with their spouse.

“If you learn those skills, you can make an impact on the number of divorces, and the number, we think, of reports of physical violence,” said Col. Glen Bloomstrom, director of ministry initiatives for the chief of chaplains.

To make the program more desirable, commanders are encouraged to give their soldiers time off to attend. Baby-sitting often is provided.

“What we’re trying to do is change the culture, that it’s OK to work on your marriage and take some time, and invest in your lifelong relationship — especially now when we’re asking so much of your military spouses,” Col. Bloomstrom said.

Sgt. Bermudez said it seems as if everyone he knows at Fort Campbell is either getting a divorce or contemplating one. Many couples want decisions to be made because the division has been alerted that it could return to Iraq as early as mid-2005.

At Fort Campbell and elsewhere, many couples got married right before one spouse left for Iraq. Others, like the Bermudezes, have been married longer but have spent little time together.

The Bermudezes met in 2000 and married six months later. Sgt. Bermudez was sent off to Kosovo and Iraq. “We didn’t know each other that well. That’s part of the problem,” Mrs. Bermudez said.

Sgt. Bermudez is 26, and his wife is 25. Their second child was born while Sgt. Bermudez was in Iraq, and Mrs. Bermudez became pregnant with the third while he was home on a two-week leave.

Mrs. Bermudez said part of the problem with their marriage was that Sgt. Bermudez had trouble adjusting to the routine she had established for herself while he was in Iraq.

Col. Egert said the Army’s effort doesn’t just make for stronger families, it makes for better soldiers.

“Soldiers will come apart in Afghanistan and Iraq. They’ll absolutely collapse if they think their wife is going to leave them or their husband is going to leave them,” he said.

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