Technology lets troops take families to war

It used to take weeks or longer to exchange handwritten letters and photographs, but now U.S. soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan are using the Internet to stay in immediate contact with their families and friends back home.

Published January 20, 2007

PENSACOLA — Returning from the streets of Baghdad, a soldier logs onto his personal laptop and decompresses by playing an interactive video game with his son, who is sitting at their home in the U.S.

A girlfriend at a Florida supermarket connects with her boyfriend in Iraq — e-mailing him from her cell phone.

A Panama City Beach mother and her children chat with their husband and father over a Web camera one evening and get a knock on their door the next morning from officers who tell them he died in combat overnight.

In contrast to earlier wars, when it could take weeks or longer to exchange handwritten letters and photographs, U.S. soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan are using the Internet to stay in immediate contact with their families and friends back home.

While that certainly has its benefits, it can also cause problems as the technology is blurring boundaries between the warfront and the homefront.

"There is instantaneous access for the good, but also instantaneous 'Dear John' letters and instantaneous tragedy and heartbreak because the soldiers are wired into their families and their families are wired into them," said Jeff Ferrell, a Texas Christian University sociology professor who studies technology.

Soldiers and their families back home are having to learn new communication skills to deal with the morphing of two worlds that in past wars were far apart.

"In Vietnam the American public was not involved in the daily lives of the soldiers. Today, all kinds of people have access to soldiers in real time. The door has been opened and we will never be able to close it," said Morton Ender, a sociology professor at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., who has been to Iraq and studied how troops communicate with the homefront.

"These guys are doing multiple tours, they return to Iraq and they are totally savvy about what kinds of things they need to hook up electronically."

Some of the many military wives and girlfriends who call into Jacye Eckhart's radio talk show say they spend so much time watching for e-mails or monitoring their soldier's Myspace pages that it is causing problems in their daily lives.

Eckhart, an author and columnist who writes about military life and also teaches marriage and family workshops for the Marine Corps., says sometimes it is best for couples to logoff from their computers.

"It's a skill to use the technology to keep the relationship alive rather than kill the relationship," she said. "One of the things we've learned from our callers is that over time you and your husband have to develop rules for using all of the technology."

When Air Force Tech Sgt. Jason Hall was stationed at Baghdad International Airport in 2005, his wife Bernadette monitored her home computer and always kept her cell phone with her so she wouldn't miss his twice weekly calls.
She tried to keep their talks upbeat and focused on their relationship and their two young children, but the daily routine slipped in.

"Like how to start the lawnmower. I broke the lawnmower. I could never figure out how to work it. I didn't want to ask him about it, but I did," she said.

Hall, who ran the airport's recreation center and computer bank, said troops were often affected by negative e-mails.

"Dear John e-mails, we had to be sympathetic to troops that might get those. If they got something like that, I always told my troops to wait a little while and not to fly off the handle — at least they were e-mailing you and you could talk back and forth," he said.

Air Force Lt. Col. Joseph Martin communicated with his wife and six daughters who ranged in age from 14 to newborn, by e-mail every day while commanding a supply squadron at Ali Air Base in Iraq last year.

"I knew more about what was going on back home and I knew it faster than in previous deployments," he said.

"Particularly as a commander, I had some challenging times and it was nice to be able to kind of vent electronically, hit send and go to bed. I would get up in the morning and have an e-mail from (my wife) there," he said.

But contact with the homefront was a problem for some among the 106 airmen he commanded.

"If you spend all of your time worrying and talking back to your house and your family, you are not going to focus on your job. In the meantime, if you spend too little time, you are going to come home and your house is going to be empty," he said.

And in the 10 times the base came under rocket attack during his command, Martin inevitably had to scramble to clamp down on communications.

"It was easy to see where rumors could get out of hand and that could be catastrophic," he said.

Some of the airmen Sgt. Pamela King-Hasberry counsels at Eglin Air Force Base's Family Readiness Center prefer to limit contact with their families while deployed, opting out of the bases "Hearts Apart" program, which helps family members contact deployed loved ones.

"They say 'I just want to do my time, I don't want any situations where I might become emotional'," King-Hasberry said.

However, she encourages families to use the center's Web cams and other technology, even if it's to tell airmen about routine things like a toddler flushing a GI Joe doll down the toilet.

"Pulling GI Joe out of the toilet may not be funny when it is happening, but when you think about it later on, it's kind of hysterical that the little kid was trying to see if GI Joe could make it to dad through the toilet," she said.

Despite the convenience of today's instantaneous communication with the warfront, she always reminds families not to cut back on letters and packages from home.

"Having been deployed, one of the things I tried to get my husband to do was to write me personal letters. If you sit down and write a letter and put a stamp on it and take it to the post office, I'm going to cherish that a lot more."