Technology Keeps Deployed in Touch
By Elaine Wilson
WASHINGTON, (4/8/10) -- On her third deployment to Afghanistan, Army Spc. Traci Petaway said it's the little things she misses most about being back home - holding her husband's hand or playing in the sand with her 2-year-old daughter, Arabelle.
But rather than letting the miles grow into a chasm between them, Petaway has combined modern technology with a dose of creativity to bridge the distance to her family.
The personnel actions clerk, deployed to Forward Operating Base Lightning, takes full advantage of the communication tools on hand, such as Yahoo Messenger, Skype and Facebook, to keep in touch with her husband and daughter, who are awaiting her return in Germany.
"When I am on a video call with Arabelle, I feel as though I am there with her," she said. "Playing 'Itsy Bitsy Spider' and blowing kisses back and forth really brightens up my day."
Deployed servicemembers, who once had to rely on mail and a shaky phone system, now have a multitude of communication options at their fingertips, whether it's webcams, instant messaging, e-mail or a plethora of social media sites, such as Facebook or Twitter.
"The parent may not be physically present, but the child is still hearing their voice and seeing their face," said Barbara Thompson, director of the Pentagon's office of family policy and children and youth. "Those connections are very important over the course of a deployment."
Some 1.7 million American children under age 18 have a parent serving in the military, and about 900,000 have experienced multiple deployments. Recognizing the importance of strong connections, the military has stepped up to help with a variety of free, technology-based resources designed to foster communication, Thompson noted.
She described a program in Navy child development centers in which deployed parents can see their children's assessments and what they're working on. Thompson also encouraged parents to check out TroopTube, an online video site on Military OneSource.
"Families can record significant or day-to-day events, such as Mom tickling a baby and Dad being able to hear him laugh," she said. "These kinds of things help people not feel so isolated."
Deployed parents of children attending Defense Department schools can participate in important milestones such as graduations and football games using webcams, she said.
Also aimed at schoolchildren, the Defense Department offers free online tutoring through Tutor.com. The site - http://www.tutor.com/military -- offers round-the-clock professional tutors who can assist military children with homework, studying, test preparation and more. Deployed parents can keep tabs on students by accessing online resources offered through school Web sites or via e-mail with teachers.
"Families can use technology to do a science project together online or play a game over the Internet," Thompson suggested. "By doing so, the deployed parent is still an integral part of the family."
Nearing the end of a year-long deployment in Afghanistan, Army Sgt. Mark Morrison said he primarily relied on e-mails and phone calls to stay connected with his wife, Pamela, and daughters, 18-year-old Dominque and 6-year-old Gabriella.
"I have to call about every day for my 6-year-old," said Morrison, a Georgia Army National Guardsman who works in the joint operations center on Forward Operating Base Lightning. "As long as she hears my voice, she knows that everything is OK in the world."
If more than a few days go by without contact, Morrison said, Gabriella starts to "act out" at school and at home. "We tried the webcam, but Gabriella didn't like seeing daddy on the computer screen and not at home," he said. "She wouldn't look at me on the computer, so the webcam was out."
When technology offers a stumbling block, such as with Morrison's family, some families turn to more creative options to keep in touch.
Petaway said she mails her daughter kisses, but of the chocolate variety, to add to a jar. She sends a kiss each time she sends a letter. "As their jars are getting fuller, they realize that you did not forget about them and that you love them very much," she explained.
She also suggests parents make a "flat parent," created by gluing a picture of the deployed parent to an ice cream stick. That way, children can take their "flat mom or dad" with them wherever they go, she said. Some families also have created special stuffed animals or quilts to keep deployed loved ones close at hand for children.
Army Sgt. Stephen Nichols is preparing to deploy to Afghanistan, his second deployment since his 4-year-old son was born. As a single father, Nichols is doing his best to prepare his son for the long separation. As he did for the last deployment, Nichols bought his son a pre-deployment teddy bear and while he's deployed, he plans to call often and chat with him online.
"My son is a lot like me, short and to the point," he said. "As long as he hears my voice though, all is good."
"You just do what you have to do," she said. "I call as often as I can and try to work on things from here. I'm still a parent, even though it's from a distance."
It takes a great deal of effort to keep connected, Thompson acknowledged, but in the end, it's well worth it.
"Communication can help ease the separation and the reunion when the parent returns," she said. "It's critical to keep the child in the mind of the parent and the parent in the mind of the child."
Petaway agrees. "For me, staying in touch is so important because I don't want Arabelle to forget who I am," she said. "And on really stressful days, seeing them is like my breath of fresh air.”
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