Internet Lifeline for Troops in Iraq and Loved Ones at Home
With mortar shells exploding near him sometimes twice a day in Ramadi, Iraq, Sgt. Mark Grelak found a way to shut out the heat, the noise, and all the demands of his job - sweeping the local highway for bombs left by insurgents. In a tiny space in his barracks, he would flip open his laptop, adjust his Web camera and watch his daughter Katie take her first halting steps.
Sgt. Mark Grelak, in Iraq, talks to his wife, Jennifer, and daughters Sara and Katie, holding doll, in Baltimore, using a Web camera.
From 6,000 miles away, Sergeant Grelak, 35, drew flowers with Sara, Katie's older sister, and witnessed, almost in real time, her first day of preschool. The soldier and his wife, Jennifer, 26, even bought a house in Baltimore together, e-mailing pictures and appraisals back and forth. Through instant messaging, they discussed the new landscaping and camping equipment as if they were sitting just across the kitchen table from each other.
"Do you care if I take out the crape myrtle?" Ms. Grelak messaged him in March.
"Why not leave it for now," her husband suggested.
Later, she messaged, "If you have some time, take a look on eBay for a tent. I'd like to go camping this year."
Military deployments have a way of chewing up marriages, turning daily life upside down and making strangers out of husbands and wives. But for this generation of soldiers, the Internet, which is now widely available on bases, has softened the blow of long separations, helping loved ones stay in daily touch and keeping service members informed of family decisions - important and mundane.
Most soldiers deploy with a laptop in hand and a hookup to the Internet in their barracks. Others, particularly those with young children, pay for Web cameras, a trend that began in earnest two years ago.
Mental health experts and military commanders say that the tens of millions of dollars spent on technology in Iraq for Internet cafes, computers and Web cameras have helped ease the isolation of soldiers' lives, as well as the turbulence of coming home, an often-bumpy transition from combat to kiddie pool and from commanding to compromising.
"It's rejuvenating," said Sergeant Grelak, an Army National Guard soldier who was gone for 18 months and is now at Fort Benning, Ga., awaiting his release from active duty. "It keeps you from getting detached from the person you left behind. You go outside, and you run the risk of getting shot and blown up. That changes people. If I didn't have that connection, I would feel like a stranger."
Those who benefit most are often families with young children, said Jaine Darwin, a psychologist and the co-director of Strategic Outreach to Families of All Reservists, based in Cambridge, Mass., which counsels reservists and families. "They make families much more connected to the soldiers. A voice is not the same as seeing a person," Ms. Darwin said.
Military spouses were once left to make all child-rearing, household and work decisions by themselves for months at a time; telephone calls were simply too brief, unpredictable and expensive. Now the burden is a little less lopsided and an answer is only a few hours away.
The constant communication makes for fewer unpleasant surprises after couples reunite, though there can be a downside: It brings the anxieties of the living room into the war. "Who wants to hear that your daughter got a tattoo?" Ms. Darwin asked. "Any piece of news that makes you preoccupied is not good for you in a war zone."
Sergeant Grelak, for example, became alarmed when he learned that Katie had an ear infection. "I had to be a shoulder for Jennifer," he said, but, he added, "I was 110 percent concentrating."
Ms. Darwin pointed out that soldiers, for their part, can have too much Web access between missions "and it's quite disruptive to a family," she said. "It poses a hard conflict between the wish to get every moment they can with their soldier and the need for life to go on. Talking to your soldier can become a full-time job."
Internet cafes with computers began to spring up at military camps during the crisis in the Balkans in the 1990's, but mostly in fits and starts. Since then the military and private organizations like the Freedom Calls Foundation have spent millions of dollars to wire camps in Iraqi war zones. The Defense Department alone has spent more than $165 million in the past two years to set up cybercafes in Iraq. In 2004, they began with 36 cafes, and now there are more than 170. The use of satellites has made the job considerably easier. Freedom Calls, which raises private funds to build satellite links and provide communications hardware for soldiers in Iraq, has enabled 30,000 service members in four camps to reach relatives free in the past two years, setting up live teleconferencing to broadcast the births of babies, birthday parties, weddings and graduations. About 1,000 families in the United States have been equipped with screens in their homes.
"A person can now keep his commitment to his family and keep his commitment to his country," said John Harlow, the executive director of Freedom Calls.
Specialist Kevin Groll, of the Michigan National Guard, took a virtual seat at the Thanksgiving Day children's table last year, a Groll family tradition. The family Web camera was positioned right next to the children's table. "Boy, you did it again," Specialist Groll joked with his mother, Vicki Groll. "I'm not even near the kiddies, and I still had to sit at the table. The kids just loved it."
While the divorce rate for returning soldiers remains relatively high, a testament to the difficulties of war and the number of pre-deployment leaps to the altar, commanders agree that the Internet has helped morale considerably. Yet such easy access to families also poses problems in terms of controlling the release of classified information. Service members are not allowed to discuss where they are going, what they are carrying, how they will get there or how long they will stay, for example. All communications on a base are typically shut down after a casualty or injury is reported until family members can be contacted, which can take anywhere from a few hours to two days.
Web logs relating to official duties must be registered with a service member's chain of command, but personal Web pages set up by people back home can run into trouble.
One mother, Robin Vaughan, whose son was a military policeman in Iraq and who created a Web site for people who wanted support and information about the unit, said soldiers and their relatives were told not to view her site because it was not an official, registered site.
But monitoring all calls, e-mails and Internet traffic is impossible, so to a large degree, the military relies on self-censorship. "It's a big challenge," said Maj. Sean Wilson, a public affairs officer at Fort Drum, N.Y.
"Soldiers are naturally proud of what they do. They want to tell somebody about it."
Juggling home and battle can prove stressful. The immediacy of the Internet allows little time for reflection, and rather than let a bad mood pass, a spouse may rush to the computer and rant, which is not always wise, Ms. Darwin said.
Rumors, too, can run rampant, even those about infidelity, she added. And not hearing from someone can be painful and frightening, on both sides of the divide, particularly when daily e-mail contact has been the rule, the families said. Breakups via the Internet do occur, in a contemporary equivalent of the Dear John letter.
Sherri Cropper, 30, said she e-mailed her husband, Sgt. William Cropper, in Iraq every day. It was her way of making sure he was all right. But it also helped her to cope with the demands of what seems the equivalent of single motherhood, and to express how she was changing, becoming more independent. "It did ease the transition a lot," said Mrs. Cropper, who lives at Fort Drum. "It wasn't bam, in your face, there are a thousand things that went on and I will sit here in the next two days and talk you to death."
The happiness of a reunion tends to wear off quickly, she said. "Then, it's, 'O.K., you missed nine months of baby-sitting and I'm out of here,' " Mrs. Cropper added. "I think this gives the person who is deployed a good grasp or perspective on how it will be when you get back."
Dixie Clark of Harrisburg, Pa., said she was lucky to get a quick phone call once a month from her husband in the 1980's when he was a marine.
Recently she had three family members to fret over. Her two oldest sons and her husband, all Army National Guardsmen, were all deployed to Iraq at the same time, posted to the same base.
This time around, she routinely watched her "three guys" on a Web camera. Once when a mortar shell hit the camp, Mrs. Clark e-mailed one son and demanded that all three appear in front of the camera to assure her that they were fine.
"My son comes running into the barracks saying, 'Mom is on the Internet and she wants us to get up there; she has to see everybody,' " Sgt. First Class James Clark Sr. recalled. "I didn't even know he had a Webcam set up at that time. We all huddled up and said, 'Here we are.' "
Every day, Mrs. Clark and her husband sat down for a 90-minute round of instant messaging, which cost a pittance compared with telephone calls.
They planned the renewal of their wedding vows together online. He chose the menu - chicken, roast turkey and broccoli and cheese. And when things went wrong with the house, she knew that an answer was a few hours away. "Honey, where is the furnace?" she messaged him. "I ran out of oil."
an internet lifeline for troops and loved ones at home
Published: July 8, 2006, 4:42 pm