Sunday, March 16, 2003

@ The Front


In the 21st-century military, e-mail is a high-tech version of the letter home

By Howard Wilkinson
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[photo] Senior Airman Charles Heringer of Alexandria, Ky., stationed in ItalĄ, can keep in touch with home by e-mail. He is the son of Margaret Heringer of Ludlow.
(U.S. Air Force photo)
If the Kentucky Wildcats are playing basketball, Capt. Ruey Newsom is probably fiddling with a laptop computer, finding the game broadcast and e-mailing family and friends.

Never mind that Newsom is halfway around the world, in the middle of the Kuwaiti desert, part of a U.S. fighting force poised on the brink of war.

"Anything to take your mind off this place for a while is welcome," e-mails Newsom of Erlanger, who's with the U.S. Army Reserve's 3427th Military Intelligence Detachment.

Even in a dusty desert camp, surrounded by thousands of comrades in camouflage, Newsom has nearly instant communications with his parents and friends back home. During the Gulf War 12 years ago, the World Wide Web was in its infancy. Today, more than 130 million Americans are online .

It only makes sense, then, that the nation's servicemen and women near Iraq are exploring new ground on the use of cyberspace in war.

But the connection can be severed just as quickly as it is made.

The U.S. Armed Forces have no hard rules about Internet communication with friends and family. For the most part, the branches of the armed services leave it to individual unit commanders to make decisions about when and where e-mail will be available.

[photo]
Newsom

The technology is not available 24/7 to every serviceman or woman. While members of some units, particularly aboard ships or on more permanent bases, have access to computers, there are no guarantees. And personal online communication is expected to cease altogether once the shooting starts.

At least for now, though, e-mail is the main source of messages of love, support and details of everyday life from thousands of miles away.

"U.S. SAILOR MISSES FAMILY" proclaims the subject line on an e-mail sent to The Cincinnati Enquirer. "Tell 'em, I miss 'em!" reads another. And this: "Ready to do our duty."

Messages sent to the Enquirer and others forwarded from families are poignant and upbeat. One soldier writes that while believes in the importance of his mission, he misses LaRosa's and Gold Star. Another believes that U.S. troops may bring a "real and lasting peace in the Middle East." He hopes that Cincinnatians "think of us and support us."

When Sue Clark of Goshen checked the Internet late at night on Christmas Day for any word from her son, Josh, aboard the Navy's USS Hawes in the Mediterranean Sea, she found a fresh e-mail. Her prompt response reached him while he was still online. For almost two hours, they exchanged messages. Undoubtedly, she says, it was "the best Christmas present a mom could have."

Quiet from the borders

But families with loved ones serving closest to Iraq's borders hear very little from their servicemen and women.

Nearly a month ago, about 160 members of Communications Company, Headquarters Battalion, a Marine Reserve unit headquartered in Walnut Hills, were shipped overseas.

Major Markus Hartmann, a Persian Gulf War veteran who remains stateside to run the unit's affairs, says the unit has been split into small groups scattered throughout Kuwait. E-mails from them, Hartmann says, "are few and far between."

"With them sitting there waiting like this, if there is an opportunity for general access to e-mail, you can bet they will be standing in line waiting," Hartmann says.

WE WANT TO TELL YOUR STORIES
Hundreds of Tristate men and women in the U.S. armed forces are being deployed as the chance of war with Iraq increases. The Enquirer wants to tell the stories of those who serve, as well as the families left behind.
If you are serving in the military, or if you have a family member overseas, and are willing to share your story, please contact reporter Howard Wilkinson, telephone: (513) 768-8388 ; e-mail: hwilkinson@enquirer.com; mail: 312 Elm St., Cincinnati, OH 45202.
Some of the soldiers, like Newsom, who are now in places like the Kuwaiti desert, carry their own laptops. They use the machines for e-mail, Internet access or even to watch a movie on DVD.

In civilian life, Newsom is assistant commonwealth attorney for Kenton County, a prosecutor who handles as many as 200 criminal and civil cases a year.

But since early December, he has been on active duty with his reserve unit and stationed at Camp Doha, a 500-acre military base that was established after the Persian Gulf War.

Home to thousands of American military men and women, the camp is just a short Humvee drive away from Iraq.

There is an AT&T trailer, Newsom says, where soldiers can go to make telephone calls, "but the rates are very expensive." Still, he says, "nothing replaces the sound of a voice."

Newsom served with the First Armored Division in Germany and did a stint in the former Yugoslavia. But this deployment, with the possibility of war growing stronger each day, is unlike any he has ever experienced.

The 35-year-old captain has to be "somewhat cryptic" in describing the "sensitive nature" of what he does at Camp Doha, the overseas home to the Third Infantry Division, a unit that's expected to spearhead an invasion of Iraq. Soldiers are conscious of the security of the troops and their mission and are told to avoid giving information on troop movements.

In a series of e-mails to the Enquirer in recent weeks, Newsom has described in detail life at the camp, full of long workdays with only snatches of personal time.

Typically, he wakes before 07:00 on his standard-issue Army cot, one of about 100 crammed into a bay of a desert warehouse that serves as military housing. Showers and toilets are in a trailer 100 yards away. Breakfast in the mess hall is served at 07:30.

He works from 08:15 until 22:30 and spends his lunch break working out in the gym. Then it is back to his cot in the warehouse.

"What each individual does usually breaks down along age ranges," Newsom wrote.

"I am 35, but most of the guys in my bay are 19-24. Needless to say, PlayStation and Xbox are their preferred modes of recreation. As for me, I brought a laptop with a DVD player, and I can watch a movie or read a magazine before going to sleep."

When time allows, Newsom and his buddies amble over to Uncle Frosty's, Camp Doha's "nightclub," where soldiers get a snack, shoot pool, play board games, sing karaoke, or watch one of the occasional live USO shows.

What they can't do, though, is wash away the desert dust with a cold beer - Kuwait is an Islamic nation where alcoholic beverages aren't available.

"It's a nice place to go and spend a little down time," Newsom says.

He stays in touch with his parents, Ruey and Joy Newsom of Erlanger, via e-mail daily. Other family members share cyberspace chats, too.

The support of his parents, he wrote, "makes life bearable over here."

The elder Newsom says he and his wife ship their son 25 to 30 pounds of homemade cookies every week and send videos of TV shows like Andy Griffith.

"We just want him to know we're always thinking of him," the father says.

Morale is high among those waiting in the desert, the Army Reserve captain writes.

"The work here is difficult and very stressful, but these soldiers have a clear understanding of the mission and why we have been asked to be here," Newsom writes in an e-mail.

"The American flag that all wear on their right shoulder is all that matters, nothing else."




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