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Families, Troops Forge Real-Time Connections

By Christian Davenport
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 30, 2003; Page C01

CAMP ARIFJAN, Kuwait -- She carried all the necessary equipment for war: a 9mm pistol, an M16A2 rifle, a Kevlar helmet, body armor. But during her tour in Baghdad, Army Spec. Kareem Falcon also had something else: a sociology textbook.

With access to her commander's laptop computer and a sometimes reliable Internet connection, Falcon, whose senior year at Salisbury State University was interrupted when her reserve unit was activated, was able to take an online course from Anne Arundel Community College while in Iraq. Like every other member of the cyber class, she sent exams in via e-mail and logged in for the online discussions.

In Kuwait, Army Spec. Shanon Houser, front row left, Spec. Justin Long and others view digital photos they took during their tour of duty in Iraq. (Christian Davenport -- The Washington Post)

But Falcon, a 22-year-old member of the 443rd Military Police Company, which is based in Owings Mills, Md., had distractions that none of the other students in the class could claim.

"You could sometimes hear mortars going off in the background while you were studying," said the Severn resident.

Falcon's continuing education from a combat zone is just one of several ways advances in technology have transformed the life of troops in a war zone.

Unlike in many previous conflicts, spouses and family members of soldiers deployed to Iraq don't rely on the mail to bring them letters days or weeks after they are sent. Instead, many family members of deployed troops have become accustomed to almost daily e-mails with digital photos attached. Two members of Falcon's unit even have satellite phones.

Modern technology has also provided welcome diversions that can temporarily take a soldier's mind off the grisly work of war. Downtime at the base where the unit is staying while it waits to fly home has been filled with music stored on laptops and DVD movies. The unit even had bootleg copies of such films as "Matrix Reloaded" while they were still playing in theaters back home.

After the mess hall, the most popular spot here is the Internet cafe, which never closes and has about 50 computers, some with Web cameras attached. There is routinely a wait that can last a half-hour. The line is especially long late at night, when it's midday back home and instant messages can be exchanged.

Cathy Mullaney of Damascus gets almost daily e-mails from her husband, Capt. John Mullaney. With news reports still full of soldiers dying, she said, the daily notes have been reassuring.

"I don't know how the wives from other wars did this," she said. "I don't think I could go months without hearing from John. You see all the stuff on TV, and you are constantly reminded of how many people we're losing and how miserable it is. It's a comfort to know that he's okay."

Indeed, that comfort level is why Staff Sgt. Eric Heitz, 34, of Falls Church has a satellite phone his wife rented for him.

"If you only use it 10 to 15 minutes to say, 'Hi, I'm alive,' the expense is worth it," Heitz said.

The ease of e-mail has its charms, but Staff Sgt. Regina Lucas of Fort Meade told her family and friends to mail letters as well. It's how she got through the Persian Gulf War more than a decade ago. And she enjoys watching her 10-year-old daughter's penmanship improve. "There is nothing like getting a personal letter," she said.

Capt. Jonathan Bennett, 31, of Centreville, the commanding officer of the 443rd, has been home for only six months of his son's 21/2 years. Shortly after Bennett arrived in Iraq, he made his son a present. Using his digital camera and PowerPoint presentation software usually used for briefing senior officers, he created a storybook for Chase, "Dad & Percy Go to Iraq."

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