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MILWAUKEE — On their weekend off, Airmen with the Wisconsin Air National Guard's 128th Air Refueling Wing, the 115th Fighter Wing and Volk Field brought their spouses to downtown Milwaukee at an off-site retreat to conduct important training. Their mission: spend quality time with each other, enjoy the city, and laugh their way to a better marriage.

"Our greatest resource that the Air Force has is our members," said Lt. Col. Matthew Friese, the head chaplain with the 128th Air Refueling Wing. "You can have the best equipment in the world, but if you don't have the best trained and prepared Airmen, the best equipment doesn't matter."

Airmen with the 128th Air Refueling Wing Religious Support Team facilitated a Strong Bonds event to build individual and family resiliency through relationship education at the DoubleTree Hotel in Milwaukee Jan. 23-25.

According to the program's website, Strong Bonds is a unit-based, chaplain-led program that assists commanders in building individual resiliency by strengthening the National Guard Family. The retreat provides a fun, safe and secure environment in which to address the impact of relocations, deployments and military lifestyle stressors. 

"This is a way to give back to those family members that give so much, to give them a great weekend, to invest in them, to show that we are a family," said Friese. "And that, more than anything, is evident in the Guard. There is absolutely a different feel within a Guard community than there is with any other military community. We really are able to capitalize on the community we've built."

Since 2012, Friese has helped to develop and facilitate the Strong Bonds program for the members and families of the Wisconsin Air National Guard. Eight events are scheduled to take place this year across the state to connect and create resilient families.

"These events kind of act as a middle ground," said Senior Airman Keith Turner, an Airman with the 128th Air Refueling Wing who attended the event with his wife, Crystasany Turner. "It got me and my wife into unison thinking, gave us some very practical ideas on how to handle conflict and how to grow as a married couple coming from two separate lives."

Because of the importance of resiliency training for members of the military and their families, the National Guard covers the entire cost of the event.

"I feel like a lot of families struggle to find time for each other," Keith said. "And with the unit sponsoring this, it kind of wipes the sweat off your head. It's a relief that we don't have to plan this."

This weekend event featured "Laugh Your Way to a Better Marriage," a recorded presentation by Pastor Mark Gungor, who is acclaimed for having a refreshing and hilarious take on marriage.

"I did appreciate the comic relief that made it a lot easier to confront issues and deal with emotions that may have been underlying," Crystasany said.

This is the Turners' second Strong Bonds retreat since they were married. Preference is given to members who have not attended a Strong Bonds event in the current year. If there is space, Airmen and their families are allowed to attend more than one.

"Being married is a challenge in itself, but then military life adds another level of difficulty," Crystasany said. "And so the fact that they make marriages a priority is really important to me, because it helps me to be a better wife in general and learn how to support him as a military serviceman." Crystasany is an artist and teacher with no military background.

"We appreciate being able to see how much the military cares about their people and their families," Keith added. "I mean a lot of companies that you could work for don't offer up these kind of things."

The Wisconsin Air National Guard Strong Bonds program offers specialized weekend events for single Airmen as well as Airmen and their families. Family members who participate in the Strong Bond events are dependents of their military member and are recognized in the Defense Enrollment Eligibility Reporting System.

"It's really about relationship resiliency, whether for individuals, couples, or families," Friese said. "Relationship resiliency is imperative in order to strengthen our members to accomplish the mission."