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Marine retreat aids war-strained couples

Fighting in Iraq took a heavy toll on Marine Lance Cpl. Daniel Patrick, damaging his hand, injuring his brain and causing him to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.
Marines Marriage Retreat
U.S. Marine Lance Cpl. Seth Richey, 21, center, and wife Kristina Richey, 19, far right, learn yoga during a retreat at a hotel in El Segundo, Calif., on Friday, March 28, 2008.Damian Dovarganes / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Fighting in Iraq took a heavy toll on Marine Lance Cpl. Daniel Patrick, damaging his hand, injuring his brain and causing him to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.

But Patrick's body wasn't the only thing hurt by combat. His relationship with his wife was wounded, too. The couple got married shortly after he returned, yet Patrick refused to talk to her about the war. Sometimes he yelled at her.

So the pair marked their first anniversary this past weekend at a Marine Corps retreat that took a decidedly un-military approach to saving marriages: Combining classes in communication with massage therapy, yoga and meditation. It's an effort by the military to ease the strain on married couples when soldiers return to civilian life after long, repeated deployments.

Navy Chaplain Dwight Horn came up with the idea after returning from Fallujah, where he witnessed some of the fiercest fighting in the war.

"It just opened my eyes. I began to see a lot of issues that needed to be addressed," said Horn, a member of the Marine Corps chaplains' program that organized the retreat. He also had trouble resuming life with his wife after coming back from Iraq.

"We're seeing some warriors having a hard time readjusting ... and their spouses are confused by it."

Troubled marriages
The first-of-its kind program is called "Warrior Couple Readjustment Retreat." Joining the Patricks were 12 other couples, mostly wounded Marines and their spouses from Camp Pendleton.

Pentagon statistics released last year showed the divorce rate in the military holding steady at 3.3 percent, but the numbers say nothing about troubled marriages.

Sitting in a conference room at a Los Angeles-area hotel, Navy Corpsmen Aaron Seibert, 35, and his wife listen to a therapist encouraging couples to open up to one another before their frustrations explode.

The couples discuss the emotional distance that military duty and, in some cases, combat injuries have put between them.

Robin Seibert, 38, nods as she listens. After seven years of marriage, she knows the frustration that comes with a military marriage. But nothing prepared her for her husband's three consecutive deployments, including the one that ended in April 2006 when a mortar round riddled his body with 100 pieces of shrapnel.

"The injuries were extremely tough. I was thinking first, 'Is he going to live?' Then it was, 'Is he going to recover?' Then it was, 'What are we going to do? Is he going to have a job?'" she said.

Meanwhile, Aaron Seibert, of Riverton, Wyo., was battling the mood swings and flaring temper that come with PTSD.

Later in a dimly lit room, Seibert learns to give his wife a foot rub from a massage therapist. Across the room, Patrick massages his wife, Samantha, modifying the technique because his damaged left hand is still in a brace.

"I was like 'OK, yoga and massage are nice. How is it going to help my marriage?'" he said.

The massage lessons are designed to help couples relax with each other.

"When you start getting into the whole mind-body thing and the touchy-feeling thing with Marines, you have to present it in a way they are going to get into it," said Cari Gardonne, who helped design the sessions.

The yoga, for example, is geared toward teaching the benefits of health.

Patrick, wounded in Fallujah in November 2006, was skeptical about yoga, with its "spandex and funny music." But he was willing to try anything to preserve his relationship with his wife.

"It's been a rough year because of me not getting the help I needed at first," Patrick said. "I wasn't willing to admit I had problems. Now that I am getting help, things are a little better."

The Marine wants his wife to see the strides other wounded service members are making.

"I hope that she can see that there are other guys like me, and that I can get better," he said.

At the least, she realized there were others in her position.

"Seeing that there are other wives going through this, I don't feel so alone," she said.