NEWS | Aug. 30, 2021

Putting first things first at 2021 Strong Bonds

By Capt. Cody Stagner, Kentucky National Guard Public Affairs

"Family is the most important organization in the world."
-Dr. Stephen R. Covey

The Kentucky Army National Guard chaplains hosted Soldiers and their families at Great Wolf Lodge for the 2021 Strong Bonds event Aug. 13-15.

More photos: https://www.flickr.com/photos/kentuckyguard/albums/72157719755054126

According to Chaplain (Capt.) Greg Granderson, who organized this year's event, Strong Bonds is a program the Army implemented to improve communication skills which build, sustain, and repair relationships within the armed forces community.

"Research shows that a healthy marriage and strong family bonds help build resiliency and reduce the stressors that can endanger Soldier and Airman readiness," said Granderson, the state's chaplain support officer.

Strong Bonds has changed over the years to improve its learning environment. It was developed in 1999 under the name, "Building Strong and Ready Families" and overseen by the Army Chaplain Corps. Strong Bonds events are typically conducted annually, based on budget availability, and coordinated with various agencies which assist in location retreats and curriculum provision.

For many years, the Strong Bonds offered this training to either single Soldiers or Soldiers and spouses. This year, Granderson took the initiative to integrate the whole family.

"Last year, I deployed with the 206th Engineers as their chaplain," said Granderson. "After talking to many of our Soldiers, I could see gaps in training and skills that could have helped our men and women on that deployment, so I thought the seven habits curriculum would be most appropriate overall."

The seven habits he mentioned come from the self-help book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Families, written by Dr. Stephen R. Covey, which provided a foundation for the instructional material at this year's event.

The seven habits learned during the course were:
1. Be Proactive
2. Begin With the End in Mind
3. Put First Things First
4. Think Win-Win
5. Seek First to Understand, then to Be Understood
6. Synergize
7. Sharpen the Saw

All seven habits were taught by a team of chaplains, former chaplains, and their spouses qualified to teach the material. The primary instructors were Dr. Dallas Kratzer, a retired lieutenant colonel from the Air National Guard, and his wife, Ralene, with Kentucky Guard Chaplains Granderson, (Maj.) Joshua Stine, (1st Lt.) Cody Zimmerman, and (1st Lt.) Paul Kauffman with his wife, Sara.

Staff Sgt. Vincent Willingham, a member of Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 1792nd Combat Sustainment Support Battalion, 75th Troop Command, was eager to bring his wife and son when he heard about the curriculum for the family event.

"My wife, Holly, and I were introduced to the Strong Bonds program many years ago," said Willingham. "The program we attended was a great experience, but it focused only on relationships. When we learned this year's event would allow our son Eli to participate, I loved the idea of getting the whole family involved."

With all members participating in the event, the Willinghams now have additional tools from 7 Habits to keep their family bonded.

"Prioritizing was one of my favorite lessons we learned as a group that I can immediately apply at home," said Willingham. "I know when I focus my energy on the priorities most important to my family, our home will stay more connected, and we will make time for the most important things in our lives."

Learning to prioritize comes from the third of the seven habits taught over the weekend, called "Putting First Things First." Strong Bonds instructors played a video to demonstrate the concept.

In the video, two people talk about what would happen to significant priorities, such as family, education, and careers, if too many non-significant daily activities like spending too much time on social media get in the way. Two actors in the video used a large tub of different sized rocks as a visualization tool. When small rocks are placed inside the bucket first, there is not enough room for larger rocks. However, if the larger rocks are placed in the bucket first, the less significant, smaller rocks fall to the side of the bucket instead.

Willingham said the metaphor was clear to him: focusing on top priorities and placing them in the bucket (of life) first ensured completion or enhancement of the quality of those priorities.

Learning this skill is also helpful for deploying Soldiers who might find little time to prepare the family before being away.

One deploying Soldier claimed this event allowed a break in the mold on how he and his wife communicate with one another. He said the remaining few days together are more valuable than ever, so learning robust communication techniques which bring them closer has been instrumental for keeping his family positive and productive. He then expressed his gratitude for the unique training opportunity and experience while enjoying family time at the lodge.

According to Granderson, the Kentucky Guard has multiple training courses with curriculums tailored to single Soldiers, couples, or families.

Kentucky Guard chaplains also teach the Speed of Trust and the Prevention and Relationship Education Program (PREP 8.0) at similar events.

"Next year, I want to offer a variety of events to make sure single Soldiers, families, and marriages are separated," said Granderson. "Not every Soldier fits in one category, so varying the Strong Bonds program provides communication tools that will improve healthy habits in relationships on all levels."