Internet bridging war and home

Published January 21, 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 day 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.

"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 learning new 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 home front.

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 lawn mower. I broke the lawn mower. 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.

Sgt. Pamela King-Hasberry, of Eglin Air Force Base's Family Readiness Center, 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 war front, she always reminds families not to cut back on letters and packages.

"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."