Virtual Date Night gives couples tools to grow

Chaplain (Capt.) James Burke, assigned to 326th Brigade Engineer Battalion, 1st Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), gives dinner to Capt. Azura Lewis, 326th BEB, for the Nov. 12 Virtual Date Night at Memorial Chapel. Virtual Date Night is hosted by Fort Campbell Religious Services to connect military couples to one another and to share tools and testimonials about couples growing together through times of adversity. Dinner is provided prior to the session allowing couples to participate in the virtual training.

Fort Campbell Religious Services is now offering a Virtual Date Night to connect couples to one another and to share tools and testimonials about growing together through times of adversity, marriage and intimacy, communication, and parenting in the Army.

Virtual Date Night was created by Chap. (Capt.) James Burke, assigned to 326th Brigade Engineer Battalion, 1st Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), and his wife, Christi. They were inspired by a similar marriage program lead by retired Lt. Gen. Robert L. Van Antwerp Jr., former chief of Engineers of the United States Army and commanding general of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and his wife.

“General Van Antwerp and his wife visited in March and lead a virtual training on marriage and parenting in the military and how couples can learn how to communicate and work through their issues,” Burke said. “His training was really helpful, and he is scheduled to return this spring to talk again. My wife and I wanted to create our virtual date night for battalion chaplains to utilize for their Soldiers and spouses in the midst of the COVID-19 environment.”

Virtual Date Night is an hourlong session that happens monthly and is lead virtually by battalion chaplains. Couples can sign up and participate from home, and occasionally meals are provided for pick up before the session starts. The first Virtual Date Night took place Nov. 12, and the second is scheduled for Dec. 11. Virtual Date Night is expected to continue monthly into the new year.

“We saw a need, we saw a lot of couples going through marriage and conflict issues and not knowing how to process their conflicts,” Burke said. “They may not know how to process through their trauma and may be coming into their relationship with baggage. Our current culture says if you aren’t happy with what you have, you can just leave.”

We’ve seen a new trend with couples not being able to navigate these issues especially during COVID-19. We decided to implement a training that would help fit in with their schedules and encourage and show them how to grow through adversity in their marriage,” he said.

“Growing Through Adversity”

Virtual Date Night also incorporates the “Growing Through Adversity” documentary, created by the U.S. Army Chaplain Corps. The documentary includes testimonials in which several couples share their personal, often challenging, marriage experiences, to provide encouragement to others who want to build strong marriages. Senior Chaplain Corps and Army leaders, as well as other special guests, open up their lives to the audience, to share a path forward during these difficult times.

“It encourages couples through the example of veteran marriages of career military personnel and through newly married couples, such as Tim Tebow, who guest stars in the documentary, and how they’ve grown through adversity,” Burke said. “The next Virtual Date Night will continue to talk more about parenting, marriage, and emotional intimacy.”

COVID-19 struggle

Burke said he sees couples struggle with isolation during COVID-19, especially if they are not spending their free time with purpose.

“With isolation due to COVID-19, a lot of people realize they aren’t who they thought they were,” Burke said. “The real you comes out with how you spend your free time and how much you devote to self-development. I guestimate you have about 20 hours a week of free time. After sleep, work and parenting, you have to ask yourself what do those 20 hours go to?”

Sharing their experiences

Burke and his wife also share their own testimony and how they got through adversity together with the loss of their child, using their story to help encourage couples to push through hard times and loss together as a team. By identifying how free time in a relationship is being used, Burke said couples can redirect their time and spend it together purposefully, helping to grow through any adversity they are dealing with.

Patricia Bryant and her husband, Staff Sgt. Jeremy Bryant, 326th Brigade Engineer Battalion, 1st Brigade Combat Team, participated in the Nov. 12 Virtual Date Night.

“We saw the opportunity for an excuse to spend time together alone,” Bryant said. “We have five kids and we don’t always have the opportunity for time alone. We would absolutely do it again, initially it was just a reason to spend time together, but after hearing the vulnerability from Chaplain Burke and his wife and the adversity they’ve gone through, it made us realize we’re OK, everything will be fine, and we can get through anything together. It’s really nice to see other couples are trying to do the same thing and take the opportunity to grow together and spend time together with a purpose.”

After participating in Virtual Date Night and with plans to participate in the next, Bryant said she is already seeing a positive impact on her marriage and Family life.

“Ever since the first Virtual Date Night session, my husband and I have made a point to spend time together, even just for a few minutes, every day,” she said. “We communicate really well, but to have time to actually sit down together and connect, brings a whole other aspect to our marriage. You can spend all day together but it doesn’t mean you are growing your marriage. This has made us want to spend time together and think about how we can connect more, even if it’s just going to the commissary together. I’m very thankful for the Virtual Date Night, and even our oldest daughter has commented about how much happier we seem.”

Connecting with others

While distance can impact couples negatively, it can also provide a safety shield for couples, Burke said.

“Even though we’re in a COVID-19 environment, we can still connect,” Burke said. “To be honest, it has opened up the opportunity for couples to engage on a deeper level. There is some separation with the virtual option, if couples don’t want to be seen they can turn off their video but still hear the discussion and participate. It allows couples to put their kids to bed and engage or be able to multitask and still get some good community.”

Military couples can use Virtual Date Night to gain tools to strengthen their own relationship, as well as connect with other couples and gain wisdom from veteran couples who have gone through similar circumstances.

“We can help cultivate a more ready Soldier and Family unit, which furthers the Army mission,” Burke said. “We encourage couples to grow and develop their relationship and community with each other. I encourage couples to take time to invest in one another, take time to invest in yourself, and find time for selfcare. A lot of time selfcare means stepping out of your comfort zone and getting into a community and finding support, maybe that’s going to a chapel and getting plugged into the community there.”

Burke said chaplains are always available for couples who need support. Soldiers can go to their battalion or brigade-level chaplains for assistance, and couples can also turn to the Family Life Center, 3106 Indiana Ave., 270-798-3316, for assistance with professional and confidential individual, couple and Family therapy, parenting skills, grief counseling, combat stress and trauma counseling.

“The beauty of chaplains is we go wherever the Soldiers are going, whether it’s training, at the range, or wherever Soldiers and their Families are in need,” Burke said. “If you simply ask your squad leader or platoon sergeant for the contact information of your chaplain, they should be there whether it’s virtually or in-person to be a listening ear and help you process through things.”

For couples who want to participate in the next Virtual Date Night, they should contact their brigade or battalion level chaplain or Burke at james.g.burke.mil@mail.mil or call 404-788-0203.