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VA Offers Intimacy-Building Skills To Struggling Couples

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Studies show that American veterans are far more likely to separate or divorce than non-vets. That finding stands to reason. So many troops are deployed overseas away from families for months at a time, often having extreme and stressful experiences before coming home. The Department of Veterans Affairs wants to help spouses reconnect. Here's Texas Public Radio's Carson Frame.

CARSON FRAME, BYLINE: The 27 couples in this windowless hotel conference room don't seem to have a lot in common. They range from their 20s to their 70s. They speak nervously to those seated at their tables. Some of the older ones sport hats touting their veteran status. But when a microphone gets passed around, they share similar stories of pain.

JOHN BROWNING: I have PTSD, anger issues, trouble a lot of times controlling my emotions.

FRAME: That's Marine Corps veteran John Browning, who saw combat in Vietnam. He and his wife Barbara have been married more than 50 years. They've survived a long list of surgeries and mental health setbacks.

J BROWNING: I hope to improve my communication skills and maybe to get more understanding of how to be a better husband.

FRAME: Barbara dabs her face with a Kleenex. She takes the microphone.

BARBARA BROWNING: I'm a very emotional person. I know people - I've always been one to help others. He never told me what he went through in Vietnam until he went to pieces.

FRAME: John previously got mental health counseling, Barbara says. But since he retired, his symptoms have made him hard to live with. On top of this, Barbara has early stage Alzheimer's and doesn't know how they'll get by once it progresses.

B BROWNING: We just want to be close together always. But it is hard right now 'cause he is agitated all the time and I don't know which way to do things.

FRAME: This is Warrior to Soul Mate, a free VA program that teaches intimacy-building skills in a group setting. The program is tailored to the needs of veteran couples. It's not new, but it's expanding as part of a push by the VA to offer more family services. Now it's training more people to provide couples counseling and lead programs like Warrior to Soul Mate. Faith Lane is one of the lead facilitators.

FAITH LANE: There's an exceptionally high rate of divorce among active military and veterans due to the symptoms they're experiencing from their service.

FRAME: The VA says there's more awareness that veterans don't operate in a vacuum. The strength of their marriages can affect their health and well-being. Post-traumatic stress, the strain of repeated deployments, injuries and medication issues can be challenging for couples. VA chaplain Randy Holloway says behaviors vets learn in the military can make it hard for them to communicate with their partners later on.

RANDY HOLLOWAY: Embrace the suck. You know, something's going to suck. Press on. You don't show emotion. You don't do that. You just get the job done; mission comes first. And so there's a disconnect, a lot of times, in the home.

FRAME: Holloway says sometimes it's the mission itself that causes shame or stirs up complicated feelings.

HOLLOWAY: And a barrier goes up. And it restricts communication within the marriage.

ABRAHAM CRUZ: I decided not to bring whatever happened there - to bring it to the house.

FRAME: That's Army veteran Abraham Cruz. He and his wife Maria have come to Warrior to Soul Mate to start finding their way back to one another. Abraham is now home after years of deployment. But he carries with him violent memories of combat, memories he doesn't share in Maria's presence.

A CRUZ: I talk to other soldiers. They understand the complexities of making certain decisions in combat and what it means to take a human life. It changes you.

MARIA CRUZ: There's stuff I don't need to know and I don't want to know because then I might look at him differently. And I don't want to look at him differently.

A CRUZ: What she needs to know is that she's loved and that that scenario didn't affect me to the point that she can't love me.

FRAME: Maria and Abraham say they're taking the lessons of Warrior to Soul Mate to heart and have connected more during the retreat than they have in years.

For NPR News, I'm Carson Frame in San Antonio.

(SOUNDBITE OF COLLAPSE UNDER THE EMPIRE'S "CRAWLING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.