FAIRBANKS - It's a cool Wednesday morning in September in Fairbanks, the type of fall morning on which you might see soldiers at nearby Fort Wainwright out for a run.
But instead of training their bodies, 19 soldiers from Task Force 49's 6th Squadron, 17th Cavalry and their wives are at the Alpine Lodge, training for better marriages.
For the past three days, Lt. Col. Jack Woodford, chaplain for Task Force 49, has been going over tips for a successful marriage at the Strong Bonds Training for Couples retreat. In the closing hour of the session, he reminds the couples, none of whom are in uniform, to "sharpen the saw," to work every day to improve their marriage, and he leaves them with a parting word about intimacy.
"Intimacy is more than sex," he tells the group as they sip on coffee and enjoy a continental breakfast. "Intimacy is being open and honest. It's a free exchange of trust."
This is the new face of the Army after a deployment, a reintegration process that focuses on the family, the mind and the soul just as much as the toll combat can take on the body.
"When a soldier deploys, the spouse has to be both mom and dad," said Woodford, who has 25 years of Army chaplain experience under his belt. "A healthier response might be to move into a new pattern and not assume things are the same."
The Army begins marriage retreats and classes about six weeks after a unit has returned from deployment, past the so-called "honeymoon stage" that comes right after a return home. It's a time when couples are past the point of just being happy, and problems can begin to develop in a relationship.
"The analogy I like to use is scuba diving," said Major Dwight Broedel, another chaplain on post. "You come up too quickly and you're going to get the bends."
At the 6-17th's retreat, another fellow chaplain performed vow renewals for couples seeking to recommit to each other. As they filtered out of the hotel, most of the couples were all smiles, especially after Woodford told them to avoid work on post for the rest of the day and to focus more on their families.
"It's a pretty good class," said Staff Sgt. Randy Pullen, who attended the retreat with his wife, Natasha. "It shed light on a lot of subjects. There's a lot of things you can do to keep the fires going."
From combat to comfort
More than 600 troops from Task Force 49 returned to Fort Wainwright during the summer. And another group of more than 4,000 soldiers from the 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division, returned to post in September after a yearlong mission in Iraq. The Stryker brigade deployment was the largest in Alaska military history.
The Army, now used to a heavier deployment rotation after eight years at war, has set up a reintegration process for soldiers that starts even before they set foot back in the United States. With soldiers going on yearlong deployments to Iraq or Afghanistan every 18 months or so, the Army now offers everything from marriage retreats to classes on economic responsibility to help troops make an easier transition from combat to the comforts of home.
"This one's a little easier," said Melanie Terrill, a Family Readiness Group leader for Charlie Company, 1-24 Infantry while her husband, Capt. Dale Terrill, was deployed to Iraq. "Sadly, it becomes more normal the more they're gone."
This past year with Fort Wainwright's Stryker Brigade was Dale Terrill's second deployment to Iraq. For many soldiers in the brigade, it was their second or even third deployment. He agrees this mission was easier, mostly because it was less focused on combat. Troops spent more time training Iraqi forces and rebuilding the country's infrastructure than in years past.
Melanie Terrill and other FRG leaders also play a crucial role in helping soldiers reintegrate into life on post. Such groups prepare food and rooms for single soldiers returning to the barracks, and even months after a unit returns home, FRG spouses continue to meet to share their common experiences and offer each other support.
'Soldiers are individuals'
Deployment Cycle Support, or DCS as it is commonly called, begins with a brief online health assessment when soldiers are overseas. Each soldier is expected to fill out the survey about his or her physical and mental condition after months at war.
The day after soldiers returned to Fort Wainwright, they began half-days of actual reintegration training, mostly short evaluations with doctors, nurses and mental health professionals. It's during this time that health care workers might discover specific health problems and can refer soldiers to the specialized care they need.
One of the major health concerns for soldiers returning from Iraq is post-traumatic stress disorder, an anxiety problem that can manifest in symptoms from insomnia to combat flashbacks.
The severity of PTSD cases in a brigade varies based on its experiences in combat, Bennett said. The 1-25th's commander has described the recently completed mission as "less kinetic" in nature than that of the brigade's predecessor, the 172nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team.
Hard numbers are not yet available on how many 1-25th veterans might suffer from PTSD, but Bennett said he would put the number at less than 10 percent.
There's a lot to complain about being stationed in Iraq for a year, but ask any soldier about the best part of a deployment, and combat pay is sure to be at the top of the list.
Finance has become a key part of reintegration training for soldiers, as many find themselves flush with cash after a year of raking in tax-exempt combat pay and having few expenses while in combat.
Army Community Service at Fort Wainwright offers advice on how to go back to living on a standard soldier's wage and use the extra money to pay off bills.
"Everybody has debt, and everybody wants out of debt. It doesn't matter their rank," said Denise Mitchell, Army Community Service division chief.
Troops who have spent the past year in a war zone and have taken weeks readjusting to life at home are now making time for a well-deserved vacation. Most soldiers with the 1-25th are on leave throughout the United States and won't have to return to post until early next month.
"It is strictly enforced," said Capt. Dale Terrill. "You don't have to tell guys to go home."