Spouses use technology to stay 'connected' during deployment
September 9, 2011
FORT DRUM, N.Y. -- Today, technology is a part of everyday life. People use "apps," or applications, to do everything from buy household items or downloading music to balancing their checkbooks. Likewise, a simple Internet connection can unite two people thousands of miles away.
During the past 10 years, military Families have been put to the test. Long deployments and the occasional phone call have made it difficult for Families to stay connected. However, in recent years, technology has improved, taking Soldiers away from the battlefield and temporarily placing them back in their homes. Soldiers can now participate in important Family events like Thanksgiving, anniversaries and even the birth of a child.
One Fort Drum spouse whose husband is deployed to Afghanistan with the 10th Combat Aviation Brigade has seen the improvements in communication since the beginning of the war.
Kelley Arnold and her husband, Chief Warrant Officer 4 Rick Arnold, were married in June 2001 while he was stationed at Aviano Air Base, Italy. They were preparing to report to Fort Drum when they first heard the news of the attacks on the World Trade Center.
"(Before I met Rick), I wasn't affiliated with the Army at all," Arnold said. "As (the movers) were driving away with our things, that's when the first plane hit the first tower. Seeing that while living in a foreign country, all I could think was 'Is this real?'"
Like all Americans living in a foreign country at the time, the Arnolds were instructed to stay out of public as much as possible until they arrived in the North Country in October.
"At that time, I was such a newbie (to the Army) that Rick didn't talk to me all that much about what was going on," Arnold said. "He kept me in the dark because they were told not to talk about (security threats). I didn't question it."
When 10th CAB deployed to Afghanistan in 2003, it was initially planned as a six-month deployment, but it lengthened to 10 months, Arnold said.
"It seemed like they'd never come home," she said.
Arnold was assigned to a forward operating base that was fairly new, so there wasn't a lot of ways he could communicate home.
"That deployment was extremely difficult," Arnold said. "He could only make phone calls from the (Morale, Welfare and Recreation) tents. Calls were few and far between."
"I remember missing his phone call three times in a row and I just sat down and bawled because that was my only contact with him," she continued. "It got to the point where I wouldn't do anything. I just sat by the phone waiting."
The unit redeployed in 2004 before returning to Afghanistan in 2006-2007. In the two years 10th CAB was home, technology improved vastly downrange and in some locations, Internet was available to individual Soldiers.
The Arnolds began using computer video chats during the second deployment, and continued to use programs like Messenger, Skype and Facebook to stay connected during the brigade's third and fourth deployment.
"It was phenomenal," Kelley Arnold said. "The picture was grainy and the picture would freeze, but you could see him in real life. You could see that he was OK."
The computer program the Arnolds used also allowed Rick to purchase a phone number.
"He had an answering machine and I could call him back," Arnold added. "It's kind of silly, but if I really needed to hear his voice -- even if I knew he wasn't going to be there -- I would call his number just to hear him. That would help me get through the day and would instantly bring a smile to my face."
Kelly Mear, another 10th CAB spouse, said she and her Family didn't begin using online video chats until the brigade's deployment to Iraq in 2008-2009. She and her husband Staff Sgt. Charles Mear, and children Grace, 8, and Adam, 6, have been through three deployments with the brigade.
The Mears were married in 2000, and like the Arnolds, they have been through their fair share of separations.
When Charles Mear was assigned to Korea in 2005, the Family didn't have a computer at home.
"We had amazingly high phone bills, (and we mailed) cards and letters," Kelly Mear said. "(Communicating) was expensive at the time, but for the last two deployments, we've had laptop computers."
Mear said one year, she placed the laptop on the dinner table during the Family's Thanksgiving feast, so her husband could share the holiday with everyone. She also said being able to share the everyday things she and the children do allows them to stay connected as a Family.
"(We can share) the little things that happen in our lives and what's going on (in Afghanistan), so when they do come home, they're not so out-of-the-loop," Mear said. "They know what's going on, how many teeth have been lost, who's gotten a haircut (or) special things (the children accomplished) at school."
Kelley Arnold and Kelly Mear both agree, however, that technology sometimes has a negative side.
"I think I take (his calls) for granted sometimes," Arnold said. "Because we talk so often, I get used to receiving a call every day instead of valuing every second I get to talk to him. Being able to talk to Rick a lot is a double-edged sword for the simple reason that now I worry why he hasn't called."
When Charles Mear first deployed to Afghanistan last year, his children had a hard time adjusting to the deployment, Kelly Mear said.
"Initially, it was very difficult for the kids," she said. "There were times (when) they didn't want to see him. They were too heartbroken, because they knew he wasn't coming home any time soon."
Mear added that it took the children about a month to be able interact with their father online, and now they're excited to see and talk to him.
"(Digital communication is) good for the Family," Mear explained. "It's all about the communication. It helps keep the Family close.