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Military families reconnect through the Family Battle Buddies Program at Bradford Woods

Oct. 5, 2016

Sitting in a room in Bradford Woods Manor House, Denise Moraga tried to hold it together while talking about the idea of leaving her 4-year-old son Nathan as she prepares for her first military deployment.

Denise Moraga and son

Denise Moraga and her son, Nathan, participated in the Family Battle Buddies program prior to her deployment. | PHOTO BY LIZ KAYE, IU COMMUNICATIONS

"I’ve been so emotional since I’ve been here," she said during a break in the day’s activities. "When I got here, I messaged one of my friends who is deploying with me and said ‘I feel like breaking down.’"

In January, the single mother will deploy to Kuwait for a year. A member of the North Carolina National Guard, Moraga moved her son to Indiana when she found out she was deploying, in an effort to be closer to her family who will care for him after she deploys.

She found resources through the Indiana Department of Veterans Affairs, who connected her with Family Battle Buddies -- a free, strength-based program at Bradford Woods that helps Indiana military families navigate the challenges that can come with reintegration.

"I just want to spend as much time with my son as I can," she said. "This retreat, it may not seem like a lot to a lot of people -- but to us, it’s spending time with our children. I’m spending time with my baby. I’m trying to squeeze as much time out as I can before I leave."

A therapeutic program

Family Battle Buddies, a collaboration between Bradford Woods and the Indiana Department of Veterans Affairs, began a year ago as a pilot program and was fully funded this year.

For two days, military families participate in a number of activities, such as rope courses and equine exercises, to test their communication skills and their trust levels among both family members and program families they just met. They also enjoy a little relaxation and hopefully have a little fun.

"The purpose of Family Battle Buddies is to come here and meet other veterans, create memories with your family and hopefully fill up that resiliency toolbox a little bit with things you can do at home," said Jordan McIntire, assistant director of military and family programing at Bradford Woods.

The program was developed by a team of faculty from the IU School of Public Health-Bloomington, including Shay Dawson, Kathy Gilbert, Bryan McCormick, Rebecca Gilbert and Jonathon Beckmeyer, following their research that found a need for a longer process of adjustment within the family after a soldier/parent returns home.

"Our program is fairly unique," Dawson said. "There are about 30,000 nonprofits serving veterans in the U.S., but not many just focus on the family as a whole, especially during reintegration."

About 2 million children live in military families in the U.S., according to Dawson’s research, and nearly 700,000 of those children have experienced parental deployment.

When a family member is gone for an extended period of time, roles can change, he said. Spouses take on different responsibilities and children, particularly older children, can take on adult roles. When the family member returns, it can be hard for the family to readjust, Dawson said.

Add in the idea of "warrior culture" -- difficulty asking for help, resistance to formal counseling, and pushing away one’s own pain and misery for the benefit of the group -- can make it difficult for families to stay connected, sometimes long after a service member has come home, Dawson said.

Jim Hollaert, left, is a veteran of the Indiana National Guard, as is his fiancé, Adryanne Bonner, middle. Hollaert, his daughter, Eve and Adryanne work through a teambuilding activity together. | PHOTO BY LIZ KAYE, IU COMMUNICATIONS

"Some families are three years past reintegration and they are still dealing with these issues," Dawson said. "So we help build that family resiliency, work on improving communications and conflict resolution, and allow for everyone in the family to be a part of the process."

Adryanne Bonner, an Indiana National Guard veteran, knows all too well the importance of concentrating on military families as whole. 

Bonner grew up with a father in the military, she spent eight years in the National Guard, is currently engaged to an Indiana National Guard veteran and works as manager of the Empowering Military and Veteran Families Initiative through the Indiana Department of Veterans of Affairs. As part of her job, Bonner helps connect families to the Family Battle Buddies program.

"I’ve been the veteran; I’ve been the significant other; I’ve been the dependent child, so I’ve had that perspective from all angles," she said. "It’s a rollercoaster of emotions, being in the military, for the one that goes and the ones who stay behind. It’s programs like these that strengthen the family and solidifies the continuity within a family."

Bonner recently took part in the program, bringing her fiancé, her two stepdaughters and her son. One of the great things about the program, she said, is both the opportunity for families to reconnect and learn valuable skills, and to connect with other military families, building an additional support system that can be crucial for those who have served.

"It is an instant bond because we all understand the lifestyle that goes with it and there are a lot of struggles that go with it as well," she said. 

Military family

During her time at the retreat, Moraga not only soaked up time with her baby, but she found comfort among the other families, many of which had experience with deployment.

One of those service members was Sandra Duhart, who spent 21 years in the Army, raising three sons along the way. Having gone through four deployments, only one of which allowed her to bring her family with her, Duhart is all too familiar with sacrificing time with her family in order to serve her country. In fact, it was because of her three sons that Duhart retired from the military in 2013, eventually moving to Indiana to work at Naval Surface Warfare Center, Crane Division.

"It’s stressful and for me, being a mom, knowing that I have these small little ones at home and I’m not able to bond in that way with them because of the job that I do, that I really love. It was a struggle; it was stressful," she said. "However, having a strong support system is the base of everything, and you really need to have people who know who you are and how you want your kids to be raised."

Moraga nodded along, expressing not only her own sadness at leaving her son behind but the guilt trip some people give her for being a single mom in the military. 

"The worst thing is when people make you feel bad for deploying or for being a mother in the military," Moraga said. "There are so many benefits and opportunities in the military. It is what you make of it.

Army veteran and sons

Army veteran Sandra Duhart and her sons Dillon and David work together during one of the program's exercises. | PHOTO BY LIZ KAYE, IU COMMUNICATIONS

"I’ve got to put trust in myself and my support system and know I’m going to get through this. I’m doing this for my son." 

Duhart returned the nod, reassuring Moraga that she was doing the right thing.

"You are being a good parent," Duhart replied. "You are good mom because you are thinking about your son." 

As they prepared for the next activity, Moraga and Duhart expressed thanks for the staff at Bradford Woods and for an opportunity they say not only got them thinking about their own family dynamics but also simply provided an opportunity for them to spend time with their loved ones, whether making up for time lost or squeezing in time before it’s gone.

"This is an awesome opportunity," Moraga said. "The staff is so kind and welcoming and it’s nice to talk to other families. You find comfort in knowing how resilient mothers are, how strong mothers are. It’s so tough, but at the same time it’s like, I can do this."

It is that type of support that McIntire hopes continues with the military families who take part in Family Battle Buddies. Next year, the program plans to host reunion days where all of the families who have participated in the past can reunite for a day of fun and camaraderie. 

"Working with military families has opened my eyes to the need of programs like this, not just in Indiana but everywhere," McIntire said. "We have so many veterans coming home that really just need to feel that sense of connection and community. So for IU to step up and say we are actually going to try to make a difference in these families’ lives it makes me really proud to be a student and employee and to even continue to grow the program and make additions on to it."

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