By Dena O'DellMay 21, 2009
ABILENE, Kan. - "Daddy! Daddy! Daddy!" two young girls excitedly cried out as they peaked inside a little, white trailer and saw their father's face appear on the television screen.
A few seconds later the girls, Megan Gentz, 8, and Taylor Gentz, 5, were joined by their older sister, Nicole Fleming, 17, clad in an orange cap and gown.
It was May 16 and Nicole's graduation day from Abilene High School.
While her classmates began arriving at the school with their Families for the graduation ceremony, Nicole sat with hers in front of a television screen inside the trailer parked next to the high school gymnasium.
On the screen was her stepfather, Sgt. Chad Gentz, a Soldier with the Special Troops Battalion, 2nd Heavy Brigade Combat Team, currently deployed to Iraq.
It was just after 4 p.m. in Kansas, but after midnight for Gentz, as he spoke with the girls and their mother from nearly half a world away via video teleconference.
"Are you ready for this'" Gentz asked Nicole about graduating.
"Yeah, I'm stoked," Nicole replied.
For the next hour, the Family talked at great length about Family matters, the weather and how everyone was doing, with the conversation soon turning to Nicole's after graduation plans.
"So Nic, what do you have planned for after graduation'" her father asked.
"I can't tell you, it's classified," Nicole joked.
At a few minutes before 5 p.m., it was time for Nicole to say goodbye so the soon-to-be graduate could line up with her classmates. Gentz continued to watch the ceremony live as his daughter and about 100 other students walked across the stage to receive their diplomas.
"It was great. Chad is still beaming over it," Nicole's mother Terry said. "He called me five minutes after the ceremony and said he spent a lot of time bragging about getting to see his girls. Chad was truly tickled. Doing the video made him really feel like he was not so far away."
This is the third year Fort Riley has offered Soldiers the opportunity to watch their children graduate from high school via video teleconference. The conferences are coordinated through the Directorate of Information Management.
Gentz's close friend, retired Sgt. Jason Smith, was also present during the teleconference and remarked how seeing his Family was a morale booster for his deployed friend.
"This is pretty cool that they've got this set up for them," Smith said. "Just to see the smile on his face...this is a phone call home. Who wouldn't take it'"
Terry Gentz said the Family received official confirmation about the video teleconference with her husband about a week prior to the ceremony. To keep the surprise, the Family waited to tell Nicole until two days prior to the graduation.
"She just thought that was the coolest thing," Terry said about Nicole's reaction. "I don't think she realized she actually missed dad until she saw him on the screen."
Of the nine high schools in the Central Flint Hills Region, four schools were identified for the program because they had graduating seniors with a deployed parent, including Abilene, Junction City, Manhattan and White City. The service was offered to White City High School, but the Family did not need the service.
"This program is a great example of Fort Riley leaders' emphasis on Family initiatives and has taken a great amount of time and effort for the civilian workforce to plan, test and coordinate," said Bob Windham, director of DOIM. "It also has given civilian employees a good feeling to be able to make a difference."
"Even if we get one student at one school, it's all worth it," said Ferdinand Shaw, division chief of DOIM.