Van Zandt offers couples retreat

Military deployments can corrode habits needed to nurture family relationships back home, while those relationships are critical for neutralizing psychic corrosions inflicted by deployments.

Accordingly, the Van Zandt VA Medical Center chaplain, Air Force Reserve Col. Klavens Noel, will conduct the hospital’s first-ever couples retreat for 10 veterans and their spouses today at the hotel next door.

Relationship deficiencies are “the No. 1 issue” causing problematic behavior among veterans, Noel said Friday.

Healthy relationships, conversely, are the “No. 1 protective factor” against post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury and substance abuse among veterans, he said.

“What they learn in war is not conducive to relationships,” Noel said, adding that even deployment without combat is disruptive because it separates service members from their families, places them in unfamiliar foreign lands and deprives them of ordinary society, he said.

To help veterans reacclimate, “We have to teach them new skills,” he said.

Those new skills come into play in interactions with veterans’ wives, children and pets, he said.

It doesn’t bode well for marriages when servicemen come home and “order their wives around,” he said.

It works better to be “romantic and loving.”

Relearning can take many years, as veterans can internalize problems for a long time, according to Van Zandt spokesman Shaun Shenk.

One of today’s participants is an older veteran dealing with issues that include verbal abuse.

The retreat can be a way to help veterans and their spouses learn “robust conversation,” Shenk said.

The safe, comfortable setting, among other veterans familiar with such problems helps participants talk freely, just as the presence of those others helps all the participants realize they’re “not alone” in having the problems, Shenk said.

The spouses of veterans often have a hard time understanding the issues, which is one of the reasons their participation today is important, Noel indicated.

For problems that surface needing further professional help, the chaplain will make referrals, he said.

The couples range in age from 35 and 40 to 80 and 76, Noel said.

Noel is ready to touch on abuse, communications, children, debt, decision making, health issues — including PTSD and TBI — finance, housing, in-laws, romance, loss, loyalty among couples, mutual entertainment, one another’s needs, past relationships, religion and sex, he said.

He’ll use a PowerPoint, but plans to let participants take the lead in determining what to focus on, through questions they may ask.

While Noel hasn’t moderated a veterans couples retreat before, he’s conducted “Yellow Ribbon” sessions in Pittsburgh for veterans heading for and returning from deployment, sessions that he expects will have much in common with today’s event, he said.

He already knows most of the couples participating today, he said.

The VA got the word out about the retreat through Facebook, flyers posted in the hospital and letters to veterans already receiving relationship care.

The VA has been conducting couples retreats for about 10 years, according to Noel.

Such events differentiate the VA from other health systems, Shenk said.

It shows how the VA takes “care of the veteran as a whole person,” he said. “Outside the physical, medical side, we support the spiritual, emotional, relationship (components).”

The retreat will take place in a conference room at the Fairfield Inn & Suites. The hotel is offering the accommodations for free, Shenk said. Van Zandt’s Veterans Canteen Service is providing lunch.

Ultimately, the retreat is designed to help the veteran couples restore “balance” in their lives, Noel said.