FORT BRAGG, N.C. - The Internet-communications ready Dell "netbook" computers handed out to Families of six dozen Iraq-bound paratroopers Friday at the Hall of Heroes were not free. The computers were earned everyday by Soldiers and their Families, who do the heavy lifting for America.

That was the sentiment of Operation Homelink founder, Dan Shannon, who, along with Troy West of Dell Computer, presented the Families of 75 paratroopers of 1st Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division with brand-new, ultra-compact notebook computers, enabling the Families to communicate with their deploying Soldiers online.

Rebecca Tapia was very excited to own her first computer. She and husband, Pvt. Joseph Tapia, a cannon crew member with Battery A, 3rd Battalion, 319th Airborne Field Artillery Regiment, used e-mail to keep in touch while he attended basic training.

She said she looked forward to setting up a Facebook account to keep in touch with Joseph, and with her extended Family back in Arizona. Tapia also planned to sign up for an online course in sign language.

"There is no way we could have bought a computer," she said.

The full-time mother of three young children said she was delighted at how compact the gift computers were. "I can stick it in my diaper bag and take it with me to the park or wherever we're going," she said.

West, general manager of Dell's federal business, said the donation of new Netbook 2100's rather than refurbished notebook computers should be easier on Family members.
"It's the appropriate technology for e-mail," he said, noting that Dell was providing a three-year, on-site warranty on the new machines, whereas the company typically covered refurbished units for 90 days.

Brigade rear-detachment commander, Maj. Kevin Agness, said the computers would help the detachment accomplish one of its key tasks - ensuring Soldiers establish effective communications with their Families.

"For a spouse, a picture of their Soldier in Iraq or Afghanistan or an e-mail speaks volumes about their welfare and is always a million times better than any public message that I send out as a rear-detachment commander," said Agness.

Typically, recipients of the computers are young, newly-established Families of lower-enlisted Soldiers recommended by their unit's Family readiness group, said Shannon.

Corporate sponsors normally donate retired laptops and choose which units will receive them. To date, Dell had donated nearly 900 of the 2,900 computers that the program has matched with military Families over the past six years, he said.

Other sponsors include Microsoft, CDW-G, CAN Insurance, Southwest Airlines, Northrop Grumman, Pratt and Whitney and others, he said.

Shannon, a Chicago-area, commercial real-estate broker with four children of his own, began Operation Homelink shortly after Sept. 11, 2001 when he was moved by images of a Soldier saying goodbye to his wife and kids, he said.

"I have not served myself. I wanted to do something to give something back," he said. "It's a very small thing that we do in return for the sacrifice."