A lonely sailor pulling long sea duty can now look to a computer screen for a digital lifeline thrown by Navy officials concerned that deployments away from home take such a severe toll on personnel that it harms the service's readiness.
LIFELines is a Navy Web site that offers practical information on moving a household to a new assignment, extensive listings of recreational activities on and off base, and even "Jharma's Reflection Pool," a stress management page that takes a quasi-Zen approach, "Ahhhhh. Feel your lungs expanding. . . ."
Nearly a year old, the World Wide Web site (www.lifelines4qol.org) is rapidly expanding its offerings and soon will allow personnel to make housing and leave requests online. Almost all major surface ships, about a third of the Navy's 316 vessels, are equipped for Internet access, and submarines are slated to be wired next. Meanwhile, the Army has launched "Army Knowledge Online," an intranet site available only to authorized users that will offer service-related information.
These programs are part of a military-wide effort to improve the lifestyles of service members, especially young enlisted personnel and noncommissioned officers and their families who faced mighty temptations from the civilian sector as they decided whether to pursue a career in uniform. A 4.8 percent increase in basic pay and a variety of reenlistment bonuses for pilots and other personnel with highly marketable skills were included in the fiscal 2000 defense appropriations bill, and Defense Secretary William S. Cohen has announced that improved housing and medical care will be addressed this year.
"Retention is our top personnel priority, because every time you lose a highly skilled, highly trained sailor or Marine, over the long term you are weakening the force," said Navy Secretary Richard Danzig.
In fiscal 1999, the Navy and the Marine Corps barely met their reenlistment goals, while the Air Force fell slightly short and the Army managed to meet its overall personnel targets only because extra reenlistments made up for a shortage of new recruits. In this context, exercise rooms, easy access to e-mail and even stress management advice take a priority nearly as high as bombs and bullets for Pentagon bosses.
"Quality of life has a direct relation to military readiness, because a sailor cannot do his job if he is worried about his family's welfare," said Carolyn Howland Becraft, assistant Navy secretary for manpower and reserve affairs.
LIFELines, expanded distance learning programs and other initiatives are meant to use the military's technological strengths to resolve lifestyle challenges. Across the military, for example, service members are getting access to free e-mail accounts to provide an easy way to stay in touch with family and friends. On a recent six-month cruise, the more than 3,000 crew members of the carrier USS Enterprise sent and received about 4 million personal e-mails, Navy officials said.
"We have taken huge strides in our use of information technology for warfighting, and so it was logical that we would apply that knowledge to improve the way our personnel live," Danzig said.
Organized like a virtual shopping mall, the Navy site allows visitors to enter a variety of "storefronts," where they find links to other Web sites, multimedia materials, interactive pages and plain old text on subjects as diverse as crisis counseling and Navy traditions. A cluster of servers is under construction to handle 10 million visits a month. The site's first 11 months of operation have shown that service personnel, who are predominantly in their twenties and thirties, readily accept information from the Web, Navy officials said.
"There is a very, very hungry audience out there," said Randy Eltringham, director of LIFELines.
And like others in the Internet business, the military is discovering that it can never stand still. Under a program to be implemented next year, service members will be issued "smart cards" that can be swiped like credit cards to allow a variety of personnel functions to be performed from remote locations.
"Instead of going to a bunch of different offices, service members will be able to check their records, register their kids for school or check out job opportunities for a spouse and do it all at a workstation at 3 a.m. aboard a ship in the Pacific or sitting around their living room with their family," Becraft said.
In competing with the civilian labor market on quality-of-life and workplace conditions, Danzig said, "if we try to be like Microsoft, we will always get outbid." Instead, he argued that LIFELines and other such initiatives can engender loyalty because they communicate traditional military values, especially "the knowledge that the nation cares about what you are doing and that the nation will care for you and your family."