VNG couples laugh their way to stronger marriage

Couples who attended a Virginia National Guard-hosted Strong Bonds weekend retreat pose together Sept. 12, 2020, in Williamsburg, Virginia. (U.S. Army National Guard photo by Staff Sgt. Lisa M. Sadler)

WILLIAMSBURG, Va. — Approximately eight Virginia National Guard couples attended a Strong Bonds weekend retreat Sept. 11-13, 2020, at the Kingsmill Resort in Williamsburg, Virginia. The event focused on using humor to strengthen their marriages and improve communication skills.

“As you can see, this is not an Army PowerPoint presentation,” said Capt. Will Cochrane, a chaplain assigned to the Virginia National Guard’s Joint Force Headquarters. “This is an entertaining, funny presentation and you can hear folks laughing and enjoying themselves, interacting and connecting and having a good time.”

The Williamsburg Strong Bonds event curriculum centered around Mark Gungor’s book, “Laugh Your Way to a Better Marriage.” While first intended for a civilian audience, the curriculum was retooled to address the specific challenges faced by military couples and aims to address those issues in a fun and lighthearted manner.

The Virginia National Guard regularly hosted Strong Bonds events from 2009 to 2014 and recently refocused efforts to bring the program back following renewed interest from senior leaders, according to Maj. Jonathan Goldwire, chaplain for the Fort Belvoir-based 29th Infantry Division.

“The emphasis at that time was focused on the Recruiting and Retention Battalion and taking care of the recruiters and their families,” Goldwire explained.  

The events are coordinated in areas throughout the state and can focus on singles, couples, families or those pre or post-deployment. Locations are chosen specifically for their tourist appeal and Strong Bonds events range in duration from half-a-day to two-and-a-half days and typically include a date night so couples can spend quality time together.

The Williamsburg event focused on Soldiers assigned to the Petersburg-based 276th Engineer Battalion, 329th Regional Support Group.

Goldwire explained that the weekend retreats are not necessarily designed for families or couples in crisis, but are aimed toward those couples looking to strengthen their marriage.

Strong Bonds events can cover a variety of topics and include several curriculum choices. Chaplains and their assistants attend certification courses prior to teaching a specific curriculum.

“‘Laugh Your Way’ is only one type of curriculum you can do at a Strong Bonds event,” said Spc. Brittany Engels, a religious affairs specialist assigned to JFHQ-VA. “You have to be trained in the curriculum to teach it.”

Many of the couples who attended the event said they picked up a lot of pointers to strengthen their marriage during the event, like how to accept the differences between them and their spouse and understanding themselves better.

“This weekend has been such a success; the speaker was funny and relatable,” said Spc. Donte Govine, assigned to the 276th Engineer Battalion. “Being a new couple, it’s always good to know different techniques to practice in order to have a successful marriage.”

“Discovering more about each other and understanding how we both operate is beneficial,” said Maya Govine, Spc. Govine’s wife. The two have been married for less than two years. “Learning what we may not have understood about each other is something we can now recognize, and not something we need to change. It helps us to appreciate each other better.”

Engels said getting to see the variety between the couples who attended the event was fascinating. She said one topic that would stand out to the newlyweds might be completely different from a couple married for a few decades.

“After listening to the speaker, we were not aware of how many things we both have in common,” said Glorybell Ramirez. “Instead of always looking at our differences, this awareness placed us on the same page of working together as a couple.”

Ramirez, who has been married to Sgt. 1st Class Raymond Ramirez, Jr. for 23 years, said they both had an awakening at the Strong Bonds event. They knew what they wanted to focus on during the retreat, but after listening to the speaker, all of that changed.

“I really wish we had attended this 10 to 15 years ago,” she said.

Cochrane said it was great to witness those “ah-ha” moments when the couples hear something from the video or a conversation among themselves and relate to their spouse with a new perspective.

“The essence is that the Strong Bonds marriage retreats are an opportunity for the Soldiers and their spouses to have an awesome get-a-way weekend,” said Cochrane. “They get to enjoy themselves and grow in their marriage relationship.”

For more information on upcoming Strong Bonds events, contact your readiness NCO or your unit’s chaplain for more information.