By Sgt. Stephanie van GeeteApril 12, 2009
FORWARD OPERATING BASE SPEICHER, Iraq - On February 13, Lt. Col. James Baker watched as his wife Amanda gave birth to their son, Jesse James Baker, in a hospital room in Tampa, Fla.
Baker, the Deputy Commanding Officer for the 10th Combat Aviation Brigade, watched the birth from his room on Contingency Operating Base Speicher, Iraq, where he has been deployed since October.
All it took was two laptop computers and the help of the friendly hospital staff, and Baker was able to participate in Jesse's birth using a popular internet video-teleconferencing program.
"I was more than a casual observer," Baker said. "I was there, looking at and talking to Amanda, in real time, right in the delivery room as it was happening."
With wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan, today's servicemembers are facing longer and more frequent deployments. Modern technology has changed the way Soldiers and their families keep in touch.
"Nineteen years ago, during my first deployment in support of Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm, it took roughly six weeks to turn around a written message to your family back home," Baker said. "You mailed a letter that took three weeks to arrive and, if written back right away, you got your reply three weeks later. Modern communications have certainly changed all that."
And military leaders are embracing those changes. Many deployed Soldiers have internet access in their tents, CHUs and rooms; for those who don't, internet access and video-teleconferencing capabilities are now a standard part of Morale, Welfare and Recreation services overseas.
Capt. Andrew Young, Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 10th CAB commander, recently spearheaded the creation of an "internet cafAfA" in the back of the company's Command Post here.
"Soldiers wanted a place they could go to use the computers but not have to walk to the MWR," Young explained. "We have five computers with commercial internet lines free for use, and three internet phones that cost $.03 or $.04 a minute. It's a lot easier than going to the MWR, because there are no lines and more bandwidth, and it's definitely cheaper than paying for internet in your room."
Young's idea has paid off, and the cafAfA maintains a steady stream of Soldiers using the phones and computers. On any given night, troops can be found chatting with their families online and using the web cams to interact with their spouses and children.
Spc. Valerie Popek, an HHC Aviation Operations Specialist, used the internet cafAfA to include her family in her reenlistment ceremony last month. As Popek took the oath of enlistment here in COB Speicher, her parents, grandmother, aunt and three sisters watched from their living room in Roswell, N.M.
"It was one of those spur of the moment 'hey, I think we can do it this way' things," Popek explained. "My family has never been to a military ceremony for me, so this was their first time. They were very excited to be involved in something I've been a part of for the past five years."
Popek said that because of the reenlistment ceremony, her grandmother learned about the communications technology available today and now keeps in touch online more often.
"I talk to my family nearly every day through Skype and email," she said. "I do still get letters and cards from my family, but it's a lot faster to be able to talk on computer than waiting for a letter from home."
Back at Fort Drum, Army spouse Heidi Cowan takes advantage of the "Yellow Ribbon Room" video-teleconferencing services offered by the post Army Community Services. Seeing deployed husband Sgt. Jon Cowan's face instead of just hearing his voice makes all the difference, she said.
"Phone calls are great, but to actually see his face and expressions and to see him happy is wonderful," Cowan explained. "It's great to have this option available to us."