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17th Fires Brigade retreat offers single parents quality time with children

Building Strong Bonds program lets parents recharge

Photo by Ingrid Barrentine Sgt. William Smith gives his son Nathan, 4, a ride on his shoulders during a visit to the Seattle Center March 4. Smith was participating in a two-day Strong Bonds retreat for single-Soldier parents in Seattle.

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Sergeant William Smith plays many roles in his life, but he considers being a father the most important. It is also the most challenging.

"It's hard, after working all day, coming home and trying to get ready for work the next day when it's just you and your kid, and you want to have some quality face-to-face time with him," said Smith, 17th Fires Brigade.

Smith is one of more than 35,000 single parents in the Army, according to Department of Defense 2008 statistics. He balances the demands of raising his son, Nathan, 4, with the heavy demands of being an NCO - something from which he rarely, if ever, gets a break.

Last weekend, for the first time in a long time, Smith was able to take off both hats - at least for a little while.

Smith and seven other Soldiers from Joint Base Lewis-McChord took advantage of a little rest and uninterrupted quality time with their children - both rare commodities for these single parents - thanks to a Strong Bonds retreat hosted by 17th Fires Brigade in Seattle March 3 through 5.

Strong Bonds is a chaplain-led program designed to build resiliency by connecting family members through relationship education and skills training.

Last week's retreat focused on challenges Soldiers endure daily as single parents, while giving them an opportunity to bond with their children in a fun environment relatively close to home.

"We wanted them to get away and do something they wouldn't normally have the opportunity to do, but that's still close enough to home that it doesn't cause a burden to the parent," said Staff Sgt. Caroline Keller, 17th Fires Bde. unit ministry team NCOIC.

Families stayed at a hotel in downtown Seattle minutes from the Space Needle and Pike Place Market. Chaplains' funds paid for lodging and meals. Admission to The Children's Museum of Seattle was also paid, thanks to a grant given by the museum.

Private 1st Class Nikita Irvine, 17th Fires Bde., said she was glad the event's location took children into account, incorporating activities for her 5-year-old son, Caleb. Irvine had wanted to attend previous single-Soldier events, but couldn't arrange child care in the past.

A majority of retreats focus on couples. families or single Soldiers without children, leaving out single-parent Soldiers, Keller said. She and Chaplain (Maj.) Michael King, 17th Fires Bde. chaplain, want those Soldiers and their children to know they are not forgotten and that the Army values their service.

In addition to having ample free time, parents attended classes on how to establish boundaries, encourage their children and problem solve. King said the training was designed to enrich skills they already possessed, while sharing parenting experiences and ideas with one another in a comfortable setting.

"They need to know that they're not alone," King said. "It just takes energy to find resources, and then put those things into place - and maybe gain some new skills that some of them did not have before they came here."

Some of the more valuable skills came by way of connecting with other parents, as Staff Sgt. Denella Strader found. Strader, 2nd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, is concerned that her 5-year-old son, Eli, sees himself as the male leader in the house.

"My son thinks he's more of an equal, and I know I have a lot to do with that, so I'm hoping he gets more of the fact that I'm in charge," she said. "I need to enforce that it's my house, my rules - something I plan to work on."

Finding time is another struggle for Strader. Her days are full as it is, and with her second child due next month, Strader is taking in all the resources she can to help prepare her for what lies ahead.

"I come home late as it is, then have to make dinner and get everything ready for the next day, plus I'm trying to spend time with my son," said Strader, who is currently going through a divorce that forces her to parent alone. "Something has to take precedence, and as a single parent, you're trying to do your job and be a parent."

King said everyone who attended the retreat was grateful and looked forward to more like it in the future. He said the retreat is just one example of the Army's ongoing efforts to build resiliency in Soldiers reaching all demographics.

"Beyond retreats, there are a lot of things Army Community Service offers," King said. "The Army cares and wants to provide resources, but the Army also has a mission to do, so sometimes it seems like they don't care. But the Army really does care about its families - all of them."

‘Strong Bonds' span all command levels

The Army introduced "Building Strong and Ready Families" in 1997 to emphasize the importance of family support. The Armywide program has grown from 90 couples in its first year to more than 160,000 Soldiers participating last year in more than 2,600 events.

Today, the "Strong Bonds" program focuses on single Soldiers, couples, families with children, and families facing deployments among others. The program is supported by commanders and led by chaplains at all levels. Soldiers and their families participate in activities that address wellness issues, from routine through crisis.

For more information, see a chaplain or someone from your unit ministry team, You can also visit the program's website at

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