By Gordon Williams

Photo by Roy Cox/American Red Cross

Service in the military can be stressful for all concerned: for service members, active and retired, and for their families. While the American Red Cross supports the military in many ways through its Service to the Armed Forces (SAF) program, perhaps one of its most valuable offerings is resiliency training geared toward teaching participants how to manage service-related stress.

The challenges of military life are pretty obvious — deployment to danger zones, long periods of separation followed by all the issues involved with reconnecting. Add to that the trauma caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, and the need for resiliency training is pretty clear. No surprise that participation in resiliency workshops is at record levels, according to Jason Matheney, SAF Program Director for the Red Cross Northwest Region.

The region is an ideal spot to watch SAF in action, since it offers one of the nation’s richest concentrations of military assets. “We support 11 military bases in the region,” Matheney says. That includes two huge facilities: Joint Base Lewis-McChord (JBLM), the Army-Air Force base near Tacoma, and Fairchild Air Force base at Spokane.

Service members in the region include active military, National Guard, and veterans. Many are suffering from the stress of combat and some are receiving treatment for service-related mental and physical conditions. Since the tensions of military life involve partners and children as well, the demand for resiliency training is huge. April, by the way, is celebrated by the Department of Defense as the Month of the Military Child.

Matheney stresses that all resiliency courses are free of charge, confidential and taught by licensed mental health professionals who then have specialized Red Cross training. The pandemic forced the Red Cross to go virtual with most of the resiliency training. Now, says Matheney, “90 percent of the training is in-person.”

Beyond what the Red Cross can provide on its own, the SAF program relies on support from partner organizations. One such partner, cited by Matheney, is aerospace giant Boeing. Some 15 percent of Boeing’s workforce are military veterans. “Boeing supports a lot of our efforts,” says Matheney. It is because of contributions from Boeing and other partners that the Red Cross can expand both the range of offerings and the number of people helped.

Resiliency training starts with the notion that while members of the military can handle most of the stresses they experience, sometimes help is needed to get through a particularly rough patch. There are three broad components to the resiliency training:

Coping with Deployments: This component is meant for immediate and extended family members, significant others and friends. It is meant to help adults cope with the issues caused by long separations, and to build resilience in military children.

Mind-Body Workshops: This component teaches such stress reduction skills as breathing, mindfulness techniques and stretching and movement. Once learned, these mind-body techniques can be put to use during periods of severe stress.

Reconnection Workshops: This component is meant to help families cope with all the issues that can arise when families reunite after a long deployment or after transfer to a new station. It stresses clear communication, identifying depression and working through anger. The program is aimed at family members of all ages, Children as young as five can take part, if accompanied by an adult.

Matheney says the workshops use innovative techniques to get their lessons across. An example: Family Laugh and Learn Workshops. These are taught on a Friday night and are meant to bring families together. When the class ends, pizza is delivered to the homes of participants, to be shared in a family group. The Healing Arts workshop delivers therapy through exposure to the arts. One class helps veterans with drinking issues take up bowling as a more constructive outlet. “They learn they can bowl and not drink and still have fun,” Matheney says.

There are workshop modules meant to help those who provide care to veterans, including veterans who suffered wounds in combat. A soldier recovery workshop helps service members who are retiring because of medical issues

Abby Lutz pictured here with her husband, Cpt. Nickolas Walker.

To answer the question of how resiliency training actually feels, we turned to Abby Lutz, Communications Manager for the Red Cross Northwest region, and the wife of an Army officer currently overseas. Asked why she took the training, she says, “I thought it would be a great way to not only gain some resiliency skills but to meet others within the military community who might have some shared experiences.”

Lutz took the Coping With Deployment course, led by two Red Cross mental health professionals. “One of the most important things I gained was that I’m not alone,” she says. “There are other people experiencing the same struggles and stresses, that it’s okay to feel anxious and stressed about deployment. It’s nice to know I have a support system within the Red Cross when I am keeping things afloat while my husband is away.”

The Red Cross SAF office located on JBLM at: 4201 West Way, Joint Base Lewis-McChord, WA 98433

As to how well these courses are received, Matheney points out that a number of participants in Red Cross classes go one to become Red Cross volunteers.

Interested in learning more about resiliency training? You can stop in to our SAF office on JBLM anytime during normal business hours, or click here to learn more.

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