Military couples “Re-Unite, Re-Connect and Re-Build” at The Woods

August 11th, 2015 | SMWC


Participants of the R to the Power of Three (R3) Military Couples Retreat created a "found object" sculpture during one of the sessions.

“Re-Unite, Re-Connect and Re-Build” is the theme for a unique service to help couples who are reunifying following military deployment of one or both spouses. Divorce rates of military couples following reintegration from deployment are well over average population correlations. Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College (SMWC) partnered with the Indiana United Service Organizations (USO) to provide an opportunity for couples to grow back together after separation during deployment.

R to the Power of Three (R3) combined resources of the College’s strong undergraduate and graduates music therapy and graduate art therapy degree programs and the equine assisted therapy minor. The pilot program took place on campus from July 24-26, 2015.

Five Indiana military couples who are reunifying following deployment were hosted in the retreat-like setting of the College to explore their relationships through music, art and equine sessions and wellness practices. The experiential nature of these activities helped participants better understand themselves and their partners through non-verbal channels. Music, art and equine assisted services rely on “sensory processing,” a more primary level of cerebral processing than verbal/cognitive communication, to establish connections. These principles were used to help returning military personnel rebuild relationships with their partners in a relaxed and supportive atmosphere. 

After hearing Charles Ridings, executive director of the Indiana USO, speak at a Chamber of Commerce meeting, SMWC President Dottie King, Ph.D. initiated conversations about how The Woods could partner to deliver a unique program.

“No doubt the expertise in our Music Therapy, Art Therapy, Equine Therapy, and Wellness Programs could benefit the USO and the many women and men who have served and continue to serve our nation,” states Rachel Leslie, SMWC chief external relations officer. “Soon thereafter, the USO and SMWC had an angel sponsor out of Indianapolis who encouraged us to be creative. The request was for a program that could allow couples to re-connect and retreat to The Woods utilizing our talented faculty and unique resources.”

SMWC faculty and staff – including Jill McNutt, ATR-BC, ATRL, LPC, operations director and assistant professor of art therapy; Kathy Gotshall, ATR-BC, LCSW, director and assistant professor of art therapy; Tracy Richardson, Ph.D., MT-BC, professor and director of master in music therapy program; Christine Wilkey, LSW, ACSW, associate professor of human services; Jenn Kersey, director of events and strategic programs; and Susan Dolle, director of grants development – teamed up to ensure a meaningful weekend for the participants. Additionally, art and music therapy graduate students as well as equine assisted therapy undergraduate students gained valuable first-hand experience by assisting in the program.

“It was an honor and privilege to meet and work with the military participants as they explored their relationships in an honest and creative way,” states Gotshall. “They challenged themselves to reconnect, rebuild and renew in positive ways to make a better future for their families and the teams they lead.”

In the various sessions, participants created intention stones, sculptures, and studio art in an art session; experienced assisted relaxation and collaboratively wrote a song in music sessions; and groomed a horse and completed a relationship-building activity in equine sessions.

Wilkey explains the exercise, stating, “Each couple led a horse through a course of obstacles, which they labeled to represent their own concerns and goals. This experience opened discussions about the daily challenges of life as a military couple and how they work together to reach shared goals.”

The couples were housed in the Guest House on the 67-acre rural campus. Throughout the weekend, participants also had the opportunity to attend a yoga class and explore the beauty of campus. The pilot program was successful according to not only the participants but also those who helped facilitate the weekend.

“The partnership between SMWC and the Indiana USO is a valuable one,” states Richardson. “The participants all embraced and appreciated the experience.”

While the couples requested privacy, faculty and staff observed positive reactions.

“After the weekend, the two comments from the group were: ‘Great opportunity to reconnect and refresh,’ and ‘We entered The Woods broken and left with a sense of renewal and reconnection,’” explains Leslie.