AL ASAD AIRBASE, Iraq (Army News Service, Dec. 31, 2009) -- Sharing photos of karate practice or birthday parties, and stories of a visit by the Tooth Fairy are just some of the things possible with a computer.
During this holiday season, Rebecca Tapia also used the computer she received from a nonprofit charity for its intended purpose: staying in touch with her deployed husband, Pfc. Joseph Tapia, a cannon-crew member with 3rd Battalion, 319th Airborne Field Artillery Regiment, 1st Brigade, 82nd Airborne Division (Advise and Assist Brigade).
Joseph is one of 75 paratroopers whose family received a new computer through Operation Homelink, just prior to the unit's deployment in August.
To date, the nonprofit has partnered with corporate donors to link 3,200 deployed Soldiers with their families using Internet-friendly computers.
"He'll pop up in Yahoo Messenger and say he's online," said Rebecca. "We'll talk about the kids. He'll say, 'How are you doing in school'' I just finished an online class."
"I text her cell phone from Yahoo and ask her to get on the computer so we can chat," said Joseph, who has been deployed in Al Anbar province, Iraq, since August 2009. "I'll definitely be online with my wife and kids for Christmas," said Joseph.
Rebecca also uses the ultra-compact notebook to communicate with her family in Arizona, Joseph's aunt in South Carolina, and his sister in California. When Rebecca's sister had a baby, she posted the photos online for Rebecca to see.
Maintaining family connections make the deployment easier to bear, she said.
"We just had our family portraits made, and I put the pictures on Facebook," she said. "I put everything on Facebook."
Donor companies share a passion for supporting military personnel and their families, said Dan Shannon, the founder of Operation Homelink. The goal is to provide refurbished computers to the spouses or parents of troops within the lowest pay grades.
On Dec. 18, in collaboration with Dell, Operation Homelink supplied 100 new computers to the families of deployed Soldiers stationed at Fort Lewis, Wash.
A week earlier with the Raytheon Company, Operation Homelink presented 150 refurbished computers with webcams, allowing recipients to see each other in real-time when they talked, to the families of a battalion with the 75th Ranger Regiment and other units stationed at Fort Benning, Ga.
The Tapias' computer did not come with a webcam, but they wish it had, they said.
"With the increased use of programs like Skype, many of our recipients told us they would love to have webcams for the computers," said Shannon. "This is particularly important for holidays and birthdays. I went to our primary donors, Dell and Raytheon, and suggested we include webcams with future computers. Both wholeheartedly agreed, so going forward, all Operation Homelink computers will include a webcam."
Shannon is continually inspired by the servicemembers that he meets to grow the program, he said.
"A father came up to me following the Fort Benning event," explained Shannon. "He was there to help his daughter pick up one of our computers. He said that he was deaf and that he also has a son in the Marines who is also deployed. He asked how someone in his position could get a computer so he could 'speak' with his son. I told him that I would send him a laptop. We found out that his wife is wheelchair bound and they also have a niece and nephew serving. I bought them a webcam and wireless router so it would be easier for her to use anywhere in the house from her wheelchair."
Shannon later received word from the father, thanking him for making it "possible for a deaf man's voice to be heard around the world."
"Who is more deserving than this family, to whom the rest of America owes a debt that we can never repay'" he asked.
(Spc. Michael J. MacLeod writes for the 1st Brigade, 82nd Airborne Division (Advise and Assist Brigade), Multi National Force - West Public Affairs)