Tuesday, April 1, 2003

Loveland woman coordinates
e-mail for troops

By Howard Wilkinson
The Cincinnati Enquirer

From Tania Ward's small frame house on a quiet street in Loveland, a thread - invisible, but strong - stretches out around the world and back.

It stretches to a dusty camp in the desert of Kuwait, to a lonely soldier in a dank tent, bent over a laptop computer.

It reaches a teenage sailor in his bunk, several decks below the flight deck of an American aircraft carrier, watching and waiting in the Persian Gulf.

It touches a Marine in desert cammies, loading his duffle bag at Camp Lejeune, as he prepares to board a ship that will take him halfway around the world to war.

E-mail is the thread Ward uses to bind her to hundreds of soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines around the world. The computer terminal that sits in a cluttered corner of her room is the tool she has used to create the StarSupportMilitaryGroup, a network of more than 100 volunteers nationwide - mostly women - who spend time each day communicating via e-mail with hundreds of young men and women serving in the armed forces.

"We couldn't have done something like this the last time around," said Ward, speaking of the first war with Iraq 12 years ago. "But now, the technology is there; everybody has access to it; and we can spread a lot of love around to these soldiers and sailors."

But even cyberspace communication can be difficult and slow.

There is no hard-and-fast rule in the U.S. armed forces when it comes to communication with family and friends back home. Unit commanders make their own rules.

So, those stateside might have fairly easy access to telephone and e-mails - but once overseas, it is a matter of where they are and what they are doing that determines whether they can communicate with folks back home.

Those in combat generally have no communication at all back home.

"Once the fighting begins, families no longer hear from their people," said Gunnery Sgt. Anthony Spriggs, a Marine Corps veteran of the first Gulf War. He remained in Cincinnati this time around to assist the families of his Marine Reserve company that is deployed in Iraq. "It just increases the anxiety."

Consuming passion

Ward continues to reach as many service men and women as she can, although she knows that many of her messages won't be answered. But for Ward and her corps of volunteers, providing comfort to service men and women has become a consuming passion.

On days she doesn't work, she will spend 10 to 12 hours a day in front of her computer, e-mailing service people and other volunteers in the StarSupport network.

"This is as close as I can be to the front lines," Ward said. "If this were my son over there, I would hope that there would be people out there who care about him, too."

It was her own son, Matthew Menendez, who inspired her to start the StarSupport network.

Menendez is a 21-year-old soldier stationed at Fort McNair with the 3rd Infantry Regiment - the unit known as the "Old Guard," which conducts military ceremonies at the White House and guards the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery.

Fort McNair is close to the Pentagon, and Old Guard members spend a great deal of time there.

On Sept. 11, when a hijacked jet slammed into the Pentagon, Ward feared her son might have been in the building. Frantically, she worked the phones. She found him; he was safe.

But the next day, Menendez worked on a detail inside the shattered Pentagon, hauling out debris and the bodies of victims.

"You can't imagine the horror of what he saw," Ward said.

Ward began baking cookies and shipping them off to the Old Guard; she asked her son what else she could do to help.

"He said, `Don't worry about us; we're fine,' " recalled Ward. "He said, `If you want to help somebody, help the ones who are deployed overseas.'

"So that's what I did. And it has been the greatest joy of my life."

E-mail hwilkinson@enquirer.com

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