Even on-line, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial is a powerful experience. Its images, history and character can be captured from America Online and CompuServe, which along with Prodigy have extensive offerings of things military.
Probably their biggest service to people who are now or once were in uniform is help in finding long-lost pals. If there's one thread that ties all military folks together, it just might be how darned easy it is to lose touch with people they worked with closely and who share some once-in-a-lifetime memories.
Today lots of military types have found a way around that. Hundreds of messages on all three commercial services come from people looking for reunions with mates of just a little while ago or a couple of decades past.
While there's no single searchable database, getting your message out there where a few million people across the country can find it could make the hunt a smidgen easier. Some of the messages you'll find posted are from people offering to do the job for you, for a price.
But uniformed life of the present is just as hot a topic on-line, and you don't have to have ever been on active duty to be fascinated by it. Career issues, benefits discussions, guides to installations and making sense of the bureaucracy take up a lot of the bytes.
Chatting with people who have been-there-done-that is both entertaining and enlightening, but when you're looking for cold, hard facts, figures and forms, remember that your military branch might be a little more current and accurate. Not necessarily faster, however.
The military sections on CompuServe (go to military) have some heavily historical selections, with images of war birds, tanks and cruisers to download; message and file areas on every major conflict from the Civil War through Desert Storm; declassified files and technical information on weapons systems; and military intelligence and military studies sections.
Videos of the Blue Angels and the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier are there too (go to milgraphics). A war games section that will include simulations is under construction. Separate forums center on military organizations such as the VFW (go to milorg).
Prodigy's focus is on the people connection. On its Veterans BB (jump to vets), people exchange public notes about subjects as diverse as disabled vets and military brats. There's a lot of trading memories about such things as bagging groceries at the commissary to earn a little spending money for fireworks on New Year's Eve.
But there also are exchanges about serving today: the pros and cons of giving birth at a military hospital; the frustrations of waiting for orders; medical symptoms of Desert Storm illnesses; and advice on paperwork needed before retiring.
Prodigy also will link your home page to the service's military-focused World Wide Web page.
America Online's main military area, called Military City Online (keyword mco), revolves around material from Army Times Publishing Co. of Springfield. For starters, you can get (and search) back issues of Army Times, Navy Times and Air Force Times, as well as a daily synopsis of the Pentagon's Early Bird headline newsletter.
MCO also offers a military-only store (you need to register to get in) that serves as an on-line PX, at which you can use virtual coupons and find out what's on sale this month.
America Online has a separate military and vets club (keyword mvc). You also can send a USO-Gram -- e-mail to military personnel deployed on Navy ships -- for $3. The OverSeas Brats, an organization for alums of high schools abroad, maintains a strong presence here and on the other on-line services. Other organizations and clubs are here too.
In my wanderings in Military City Online, I happened to click on the entry to the Vietnam memorial's section (you can also get there via keyword the wall). Besides photos of the stark granite vee, there are stories about some of the mementos and notes left by the wall, a "guest book" to sign and information about making a contribution to the fund.
When I saw the icon for the searchable database of the names on the wall, a name flashed into my mind: Capt. Eugene M. Jewell. The name is inscribed on the metal POW/MIA bracelet I wore in high school, long since put away in a box with other keepsakes. I did a search, finding his name quickly among a handful of other "Jewells" listed.
And just like when I first saw the wall in person, I had to catch my breath. When his full listing was displayed, it made very personal and profound for me what I knew only through an uncomfortable band of metal I once brandished symbolically.
"Eugene Millard Jewell," the entry told me, was from Topeka, Kan. An Air Force Reserve captain, he was 24 years old and married when he went to Vietnam, it said. And then, "Casualty type: Hostile -- died while missing. Body status: Not recovered."
The black-and-white type in a box on my home computer screen, and the terse military-speak describing his death, made me once again marvel at the power of the on-line connection. * Victoria Shannon can be e-mailed at 75030,1167 on CompuServe, BKAS27A on Prodigy, firstname.lastname@example.org on the Internet, or VShannon on America Online and Digital Ink. PLACES TO GO
The spooky spirit of Halloween is on-line. You can solve daily and weekly challenges in Murder Mysteries Online on America Online (keyword cyber sleuth); join the Vampire Reading Group on CompuServe (go to litforum); or visit with a Druid priestess on Podigy (jump to myth). *