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Technology letting troops take families to war

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POSTED: April 3, 2007 5:14 a.m.
PENSACOLA, Fla. — 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,” Jeff Ferrell, a Texas Christian University sociology professor who studies technology, said.
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 during deployments 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 under his 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.
 

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