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February 14th is just around the corner and with it comes a full assault on our senses in the form of merchandise, plans, behaviors and for some … anxiety and stress. Does she like dark chocolate or white chocolate? Will he want to stay in or go out? Will I choose the wrong gift? How much should I spend? The pressure to make the right choices might seem overwhelming, but Valentine’s Day can and should be one of the most rewarding times of the year. You can use it as a call to action to focus on your loved ones, be it a good friend, a spouse, a child, or even a parent.

No one really knows how Valentine’s Day started. The first references to a St. Valentine are to a Roman priest, Valentinus, who defended the rights of Roman soldiers to marry. But it could also have been named for a martyred bishop, Valentinus, or yet another Valentinus who aided Christian prisoners. Some believe that the church adopted Valentine’s Day as a way to Christianize the Roman fertility celebration of Lupercalia, held in the month of February.

The modern history of Valentine’s Day can be traced back to the Middle Ages when poet Geoffrey Chaucer declared February 14 as the day when “every fool cometh to choose his mate.” In America, Valentine’s Day greetings and gifts became common in the 18th century. Today it drives a multi-billion dollar business of love and affection.

Soldiers, like most everyone else on Valentine’s Day, participate in the exchange of cards and gifts. But for those of us serving far away from our loved ones, Valentine’s Day should also serve as a reminder that maintaining healthy relationships is a year-round labor of love. With the daily challenges of work, mobilizations, deployments, PCS’s, childcare and just the everyday complications of life, how can we show our loved ones that we still care?

Recognizing the unique challenges facing Soldiers and their families, in 1999 the Army developed a program known as Strong Bonds to help develop healthy relationships. The Strong Bonds program is a unit-based, chaplain-led set of resources, tools and activities that aims to create and maintain lasting bonds for the military family. It fosters resiliency, identifies unique challenges associated with various family structures, and provides coaching and education on mechanisms to address those challenges. The Strong Bonds program increases Soldier and Family readiness and assists in building relationship resiliency.  

One of the Strong Bonds initiatives that relates to Valentine’s Day is the 5 Love Languages.

“The 5 Love Languages program ties in perfectly with Valentine’s Day,” Sgt. 1st Class Sherica Cox, 120th Infantry Brigade religious affairs NCO, said. “Knowing your love language and the one’s of those close to you can help tremendously in showing affection this time of year.”

The 5 Love Languages include acts of service, gift-giving, physical touch, quality time, and words of affirmation.

The Strong Bonds program currently offers four programs that can be tailored to meet the needs of Soldiers and their families: 1) Singles, 2) Couples, 3) Families, and 4) Pre- and Post- Deployment.

The Strong Bonds Single Soldier program is designed to help establish relationship goals and gain essential skills prior to picking a partner for life. It’s often difficult to be a single Soldier in a unit. Pressures due to imminent deployment, loneliness and being far from home, can lead to hasty decisions regarding relationships. Army Strong Bonds can help Soldiers develop coping resources to face these challenges.

The Strong Bonds Couples program recognizes that couples in the Army experience more excitement, and expect more challenges, than average civilian couples. Long separations, frequent relocations, and the stress of deployments can subject marriages to extreme hardship. During the couples program retreat, couples participate in communication, relationship building, and other skills to help fortify their marriage.

“We talked about the 5 love languages,” Staff Sgt. Andrew Kanillopoolis from the 2-337th Training Support Battalion, remarked. “The program helps to encourage strong relationships and rekindle the relationship. It reminded us what it’s like to fall in love.”

The Strong Bonds Families program, which includes single parents, targets military families that face the same challenges as couples but have the added responsibility of raising children, keeping a daily routine, changing schools and maintaining closeness as a family. The Army recognizes these added challenges and offers ways to ensure the strengthening of the family throughout the Soldier’s career.

And finally, the Strong Bonds Pre- and Post-Deployment program focuses on the cycle of deployment and redeployment that puts added pressure on family relationships. During the pre-deployment phase, the stress of knowing you’re leaving and trying to get as many tasks done as possible often takes the joy out of the time you have available before the deployment. During deployment you worry about your family coping with the inevitable household repairs, and they worry about your safety. During the post-deployment phase, families often struggle with reintegration. Families have adapted to surviving without you and have established new routines. Strong Bonds can help Soldiers with all phases of the deployment.

In addition to the skills training, these programs also allow time for relaxation, recreation, fellowship and fun. Strong Bonds events are conducted offsite with lodging and meals provided, and often offer childcare to help relieve the additional stress of travel planning and family coordination.

Sgt. 1st Class Dexter Tomlin, 157th Inf. Bde. religious affairs NCOIC, points out that COVID-19 has introduced new challenges in the Strong Bonds program. “We have to get creative with events. Recently we have been using Facebook Live to give short blocks of instruction. We are certified in the blocks we give and have found that platform to be beneficial.”

The Army recognizes the importance of family support and, in the last year, more than 130,000 Soldiers and Family members participated in over 3,700 Strong Bonds events.

This Valentine’s Day, after the special dinners, flowers and too many boxes of candy, consider participating in one of the Strong Bonds events designed to build and nurture the bonds in your specific relationship.

And if you’re still trying to decide on the perfect gift, you can never go wrong with really good chocolate.