Friday, October 12, 2001

E-mail clicks with armed forces abroad


Loved ones at home feel connected

By Howard Wilkinson
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Petty Officer Andrew Bredestege's family in Cincinnati might not be able to take a map and point to the precise longitude or the exact latitude where their son sails on the USS Enterprise.

        But they can find him in cyberspace.

Bredestege
Bredestege
        Part of the legend and lore of being a sailor is the long stretches at sea, in peace and war, and the loneliness of being separated from those you love and left on shore.

        But war in the late 20th and early 21st centuries is not what it was before e-mails and videophones, when communicating with loved ones was a matter of posting a letter and counting the weeks before a reply would come.

        J.T. and Cheryl Bredestege's son will turn 22 this month on board the Enterprise, the U.S. Navy's largest carrier — nearly four football fields long, with 3,150 sailors on board.

        Today, it sits somewhere in the Arabian Sea, its return to its home base in Norfolk, Va., postponed last month after the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. For the past week, the Enterprise has been heavily engaged in the air strikes over Afghanistan.

[photo] Cheryl and Tom Bredestege hold a photo of their son, Andrew, who is on the USS Enterprise. On their computer is an e-mail from the aircraft carrier's captain.
(Glenn Hartong photo)
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        The North Bend couple had been hearing from their son regularly via e-mail, as had the sailor's wife, Cara, who is seven months pregnant and living with her parents in Cheviot.

        Then came Sept. 11 and the military alert, and the communication stopped. While the air strikes were going on, all ground and sea units had their e-mail privileges blocked.

        “I'd love to be able to write him right now and get a response,” said Mr. Bredestege. “I'd love to know all the details of the operation, too. It's frustrating.”

        Wednesday night, though, the block on e-mails was lifted and sailors aboard the Enterprise were allowed to send one short e-mail. Petty Officer Bredestege sent his to his wife, who forwarded it to his parents.

        “He seemed irritated, a little frustrated,” his mother said. “You can understand why. It's hard. You're on this ship, you see the same people every day, eat the same food every day. And you're not going anywhere.”

        Petty Officer First Class Jess Johnson, a Navy public affairs officer, said the decision to temporarily halt e-mail and other communication came from the Chief of Naval Operations at the Pentagon.

        When it was lifted, Petty Officer Johnson said, the sailors were allowed one e-mail that was “short, sweet and non-operational.”

        Mr. Bredestege said he understands the limitations on communications, especially in times of war. He has been there himself, as a “ground-pounder” — an infantryman — in a year-long tour of duty in Vietnam.

        Soldiers and sailors, Mr. Bredestege said, have always found clever ways to get messages back home.

        During his Vietnam tour, he bought a small tape recorder and made 20-minute tapes that he would mail back home to his family. They, in turn, would make tapes and send them back first-class.

        “It was amazing; I was way up in the Central Highlands and those tapes would get there in three or four days,” Mr. Bredestege said.

        E-mails, of course, are quicker. But they are not the only tools for communicating with the folks back home.

        Maj. Ann Coghlin of the Ohio Air National Guard said that many guard units — such as the 121st Combat Communications Squadron of Springfield, which has been mobilized but not yet deployed, have video phone units they allow family members to use when troops are in other parts of the country or overseas.

        “It really helps family members to be able to actually see them, instead of just talk,” Maj. Coghlin said.

        Video phones are becoming more common, but e-mail communication is ubiquitous in the modern armed forces.

        While the e-mail ban was in effect, the Bredesteges and other parents and spouses back home were not completely in the dark.

        The captain of the Enterprise, James A. Winnefeld Jr., issued e-mails to all parents and spouses back home he called “captain's notes.”

        The one sent out Sunday as the military operation against Afghanistan began was particularly touching, the Bredesteges said.

        The captain told the family members that he couldn't share with them any information about the carrier's operations but said it was in a “safe location.”

        Then, he recreated for them the address he made to the crew Sunday night, just before the bombing began.

        “We do not think of ourselves as heroes,” Capt. Winnefeld said. The real heroes, he said, are the 17 sailors killed in the terrorist attack on the USS Cole last fall, the victims at the Pentagon and World Trade Center, the firefighters and police officers of New York City, and “the innocent people who died thwarting hijackers in Pennsylvania.”

        “Say a prayer for our airmen,” Capt. Winnefeld said. “Concentrate very hard on what you are doing. Do not let the enormity or the excitement of what we are doing distract you from what is a difficult and dangerous business that we absolutely have to get right.

        “Make sure you rest and eat right.”

        In a situation where they could not communicate directly with their son, the captain's e-mail was the next best thing, Mrs. Bredestege said. “It made us feel better.”

       Howard Wilkinson can be reached at 513-768-8388 or at hwilkinson@enquirer.com.
       



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