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E-mail provides sense of comfort for military families

By CURTIS KRUEGER, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 29, 2003

Ondria Sanders-McDonald doesn't know exactly where the Army has stationed her brother in the Middle East, or what dangers he faces during the war with Iraq.

She is wrestling with the same worry and uncertainty military families have known since the time of Homer.

But Sanders-McDonald has something Homer didn't: e-mail.

Even though her brother, Lt. Col. William Alton Sanders, has served in the Middle East since early February, she can e-mail him virtually whenever she wants, with chit-chat about his hometown of St. Petersburg, family information, or updates about his house and bills.

"Although he can't discuss very much about where he is and what he's doing, it's a relief for us to know . . . that I can communicate with him and he can communicate with me," said Sanders-McDonald, 40, a secretary for the city of St. Petersburg.

In virtually every other war, soldiers waited for mail call and hoped a letter 2 or 3 weeks old would fill them in about life back home.

But this is America's first full-fledged E-war, the first conflict in which a significant number of soldiers routinely are e-mailing friends and relatives every few days.

They still wait for handwritten letters too, and many are able to make phone calls. But e-mail, virtually instantaneous, gives soldiers and their families a way to communicate about the minutiae that makes up daily life.

In a recent phone call with Sanders-McDonald, her brother wished her a happy 40th birthday. The next day he followed up with a short e-mail:

Ondria, Happy Birthday again. It was actually 4:30am when you called so I can't be responsible for what I said (smile)...

Sanders, 38, passed along good wishes for other family members and signed the e-mail, Your baby bro.

Not everyone has this luxury. Troops in combat, especially in remote locations, aren't able to e-mail anyone. Carrie Moss is living with family in Pinellas Park while her husband, Staff Sgt. Brennan Moss, 26, is deployed with the Army's 3rd Infantry Division.

"Where he was at, the phone was a mile away, so he had to make appointments to use it. I got two calls in two months," said Carrie Moss, 25. E-mail has been out of the question.

Soldiers who have e-mail access don't always have time to use it.

But families who do receive Internet messages say they can be a great comfort.

"It means a lot, because he has been having trouble calling," said Julie Choat, 26, whose husband, Stan, is a second lieutenant with the Army's 63rd Signal Battalion, currently in Kuwait.

"I just tell him how much I miss him and stuff, and he tells me a little bit about what's going on. But he doesn't want to tell me too much because he doesn't want to worry me," she said.

That's not the only reason he won't say too much. Military personnel are instructed not to say too much in their e-mails -- or in letters home -- for security reasons.

"These troops are smart, they're not going to go say something that's going to put their lives or their buddies' lives in jeopardy," said Patrick Swan, spokesman for the Army's chief information office at the Pentagon.

Army soldiers are given e-mail accounts through a secure Web site called Army Knowledge Online. Family members can get access to the same site, Swan said.

"It's an incredible morale-booster," Swan said.

He said the contact can especially help when there's cause for family members to worry. "They hear a news report that says a bomb landed anywhere in the theater and automatically family members are are thinking about the worst." With a quick e-mail, a soldier can say "Oh, that was 300 miles away."

"From a personal standpoint, I was mobilized for Desert Storm and it took me close to four to five months to get mail," especially when on the move from place to place, said Maj. William Nutter, a spokesman at the U.S. Army Reserve's 81st Regional Support Command in Alabama.

More recently, he was stationed for nine months in Bosnia, where he could use e-mail. "Every day I wrote a letter to my wife and kids," he said.

Army Spc. Allan M. Rissmiller is stationed in Germany but is likely to go to the Middle East soon, said his father, John, 45, of St. Petersburg. E-mail helps him keep tabs on the latest news.

"I'm one of the lucky ones that gets to stay in touch with him pretty regular," John Rissmiller said. He e-mails two to three times a week to check on his son as well as the grandkids.

"The more information you get, the better. Just a little note each day lets you know everything's okay."

During a stint in Kosovo, his son sometimes could not e-mail because "a lot of times he was out in a tent somewhere." But at other times, he could, and the steady stream of information helped, he said.

"I worried when he went to Kosovo at first. But the more you find out about what they're doing and what's going on, the more reassured you are."

Although e-mail is instant and reassuring, Nutter said there's still something irreplaceable about an actual handwritten letter.

"You're in a full operational mode, everything's military, then something (comes) from home that you can physically touch or put in your hands on. It makes a difference. It gives you a break from that reality that you're in."

-- Curtis Krueger can be reached at or (727) 893-8232.

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