COMBAT GENERATION WIRED WAR
When the messages home stop
AT FORT CAMPBELL, KY. Emily Franks was playing with her toddler when a soldier called from Afghanistan with devastating news.
A massive roadside bombing had killed five soldiers from her husband's 120-man infantry company. The soldier was calling Franks, who was at the center of a wives' support network, in violation of a military-imposed communications blackout on the unit.
Using an Afghan cellphone, he told Franks that her husband was safe, but that the company commander was probably dead.
Franks's cellphone beeped. Kitty Hinds, the company commander's wife, was calling.
"I gotta go," Franks told the soldier.
She was sure that Hinds was going to tell her that her husband had been killed. Hinds, however, was oblivious to the events 7,000 miles away in Afghanistan. It was a perfect afternoon and she was driving her three boys home from baseball camp.
Franks struggled to mask the dread in her voice. Her pulse raced as she said goodbye. "It was horrid," she recalled. "Absolutely horrid."
To ensure that a service member's family does not receive the news of a death by e-mail, phone or an errant Facebook posting, the military temporarily shuts down Internet access to deployed units that suffer a fatality. In today's era of ever-present connections, such blackouts are rarely enough to cut off the flow of information.
Only hours after the explosion on Monday, June 7, the news that something terrible had happened spread among the three dozen wives of Gator Company through social-media sites and text messages. Worried spouses called the battalion's rear-detachment headquarters at Fort Campbell, searching for news. They posted prayers on Facebook. They scoured the Internet for scraps of information about their husbands' fates.
With each successive year of war, new technologies and social-media sites have narrowed the distance between the home front and the frontlines. In the early days of the Afghan war - before Facebook existed - troops typically e-mailed home a few times a week. They called even less frequently.
Today spouses and troops, based in even the most remote areas of Afghanistan, can trade messages and phone calls dozens of times a day. In good times, the minute-by-minute status updates provide peace of mind.
In moments of crisis, the connectivity can make the looming possibility of death seem almost suffocating. The spouses jump with each phone call. Ringing doorbells spark tremors of terror.