"We were on the brink of divorce," Mandy Bermudez acknowledged as the couple ate lunch recently with their three children, all under age 3.
The Bermudezes were among 300 couples with the Fort Campbell-based 101st Airborne Division who have attended "marriage enrichment" seminars put on by the Army in hopes of saving war-ravaged relationships.
With studies showing divorce rates as high as about 20 percent over two years among couples where one spouse has been sent off to war, the Army is spending $2 million on a variety of marriage programs, including vouchers for romantic getaways to places like the Opryland Hotel in Nashville, Tenn.
"I've been in the Army 20 years, and I've never seen the Army pay for programs like this," said Lt. Col. Chester Egert, chaplain for the 101st.
One program being implemented Army-wide teaches couples forgiveness and the skills to communicate. It includes a 40-hour course with lessons on the dangers of alcohol and tobacco and how to recognize post-traumatic stress. Soldiers who complete it are rewarded with promotion points and a weekend retreat with their spouse.
"If you learn those skills, you can make an impact on the number of divorces, and the number, we think, of reports of physical violence," said Col. Glen Bloomstrom, director of ministry initiatives for the Chief of Chaplains.
To make the program more desirable, commanders are encouraged to give their soldiers time off to attend. Baby-sitting is often provided.
"What we're trying to do is change the culture, that it's OK to work on your marriage and take some time, and invest in your lifelong relationship - especially now when we're asking so much of your military spouses," Bloomstrom said.
Jose Bermudez said it seems as if everyone he knows at Fort Campbell is either getting a divorce or contemplating one. Many couples want to get things decided because the division has been alerted it could return to Iraq as early as mid-2005.
At Fort Campbell and elsewhere, many couples got married right before one spouse left for Iraq. Others, like the Bermudezes, have been married longer but still have spent little time together.
The Bermudezes met in 2000 and married six months later. He was later sent off to Kosovo and Iraq. "We didn't know each other that well. That's part of the problem," Mandy Bermudez said.
Bermudez is 26, his wife 25. Their second child was born while he was in Iraq, and she became pregnant with the third while he was home on a two-week leave.
Mandy Bermudez said part of the problem with their marriage was that he had trouble adjusting to the routine she had established for herself while he was in Iraq. Finding affordable day care has also been a major source of stress, she said.
She said the two joined a church, and "it turned our marriage around." He and his wife decided to stay together.
"I can't leave these three kids with her," Jose Bermudez said. "It's worth it to try and work it out."
The Army's recent foray into marriage counseling was started in the late 1990s by a chaplain in Hawaii working with a unit with a high number of divorces. In 2001, laws were changed to allow the Army to pay for lodging and meals for the retreats.
The effort is similar to another series of Army programs to help returning soldiers reconnect emotionally with spouses and children. Those programs began after four wives at Fort Bragg, N.C., were killed, allegedly by their soldier husbands, in 2002.
Egert said the Army's effort doesn't just make for stronger families - it makes for better soldiers.
"Soldiers will come apart in Afghanistan and Iraq. They'll absolutely collapse if they think their wife is going to leave them or their husband is going to leave them," Egert said. "I've seen soldiers hospitalized because they absolutely had a nervous breakdown because they were worried about their families."
Added Bloomstrom: "You are really giving something that the couples know they need, at a time they may be receptive to hear it."