Cheetahs’ Offer Swift Connection Home for Deployed Troops

WASHINGTON, Feb. 4, 2011 — Deployed ser­vice mem­bers often count on con­nec­tions home — whether it’s e-mail, Skype, Face­book or Twit­ter — for encour­age­ment, com­fort or just a wel­come diver­sion.

satellite dish for a morale satellite unit nicknamed the
Marine Corps Sgts. Wes­ley John­son, left, and Robert Brown, both of the 1st Marine Logis­tics Group Exchange Detach­ment, set up a satel­lite dish for a morale satel­lite unit nick­named the “Chee­tah.” These units offer free Inter­net access and phone ser­vice to ser­vice mem­bers deployed to remote loca­tions in Afghanistan.
Cour­tesy pho­to
Click to enlarge

But while Inter­net access has become a fore­gone con­clu­sion on many large bases in Afghanistan, it’s a dif­fer­ent case in the more remote for­ward loca­tions. Troops there may not have Inter­net access for weeks or months at a time.

To rem­e­dy that, offi­cials are rac­ing portable satel­lite units, nick­named “Chee­tahs,” to for­ward-deployed troops in the far­thest reach­es of Afghanistan. The name con­notes speed, which the units deliv­er. Chee­tahs come equipped with up to eight lap­tops, phones and a router to pro­vide ser­vice mem­bers free, swift Inter­net access and crys­tal-clear Web or phone calls home.

“When it was bro­ken out, it was like Christ­mas morn­ing,” one deployed Marine said of the satel­lite unit.

The Marine Corps start­ed the pro­gram about two years ago to fill a com­mu­ni­ca­tion gap for for­ward-deployed Marines, Jose Bur­gos of Marine Corps Com­mu­ni­ty Ser­vices said. Tim­o­thy R. Larsen, direc­tor for the Marines’ per­son­al and fam­i­ly readi­ness divi­sion, asked his experts to come up with an idea that would enable Inter­net in some of the most remote, rugged spots in Afghanistan, he explained.

They came up with a portable and high­ly effi­cient satel­lite unit, Bur­gos said, which they pieced togeth­er from equip­ment that already had proven suc­cess­ful in the field. The Marine Corps Com­mu­ni­ty Sup­port Morale Satel­lite Office, which man­ages the pro­gram for the Defense Depart­ment, suc­cess­ful­ly test­ed three units in Afghanistan in 2008.

The ben­e­fits were evi­dent, he said. Troops could set up and take the unit down in 20 min­utes and run it off of a Humvee bat­tery or gen­er­a­tor. And since it’s portable, it can be packed up and moved to any oper­a­tion around the world at a moment’s notice.

Defense Depart­ment offi­cials tracked the program’s suc­cess, and the Pentagon’s mil­i­tary com­mu­ni­ty and fam­i­ly pol­i­cy office pitched in with enough funds to add 35 more units in 2009 for Marine Corps, Army and Air Force use. U.S. Forces Afghanistan joined with the mil­i­tary com­mu­ni­ty and fam­i­ly pol­i­cy office to fund 100 more in 2010 to fur­ther increase the access to remote areas, explained Pam Crespi, direc­tor of morale, wel­fare and recre­ation pol­i­cy for the office of mil­i­tary com­mu­ni­ty and fam­i­ly pol­i­cy.

“Com­mu­ni­ca­tion is the No. 1 morale fac­tor in help­ing to cope with deploy­ments,” she said. “That’s the dri­ver behind our efforts. Because it’s com­mu­ni­ca­tion, it’s one of our top pri­or­i­ties.”

The pro­gram that start­ed with three units now has grown to more than 130 — either in Afghanistan or on their way –- reach­ing troops in some of the most remote and aus­tere deployed loca­tions, Crespi said.

The Marines’ Chee­tahs usu­al­ly accom­pa­ny a portable mini-post exchange — loaded onto the back of a semi truck — to an out­post, explained Joshua Mont­gomery, Wi-Fi and satel­lite com­mu­ni­ca­tions man­ag­er for Marine Corps Com­mu­ni­ty Ser­vices. News of the arrival spreads quick­ly, as does a line for the Chee­tah. The line typ­i­cal­ly is longer for Chee­tah use than for the PX, Mont­gomery not­ed.

That’s under­stand­able, he added, since the ser­vice mem­bers may have gone months with­out talk­ing to loved ones.

“The ser­vice peo­ple are just hap­py. It doesn’t cost them any­thing, and you can call direct­ly back to your house,” Mont­gomery said, not­ing the lines are so clear it’s as if the per­son they’re talk­ing to is “right next door.”

One Marine, Bur­gos recalled, hadn’t talked with his preg­nant wife in three months. The Chee­tah came to his out­post a day after his baby was born, and he was able to talk to his wife in the hos­pi­tal.

“Oth­er sto­ries like this one come back and make us feel real good,” Mont­gomery said.

For the first 13 Chee­tah units ded­i­cat­ed to Marine use in Afghanistan, experts have tracked usage at about 3,500 phone calls and more than 8,600 Inter­net ses­sions per month, he said.

Offi­cials are look­ing to expand the unit’s capa­bil­i­ty with more lap­tops. And the Marine Corps now spon­sors a train­ing com­po­nent that offers a three-day course on oper­at­ing the units to all ser­vices about four times a year, Mont­gomery said.

The Chee­tah pro­gram is part of an over­all endeav­or to increase Inter­net access across Afghanistan, Crespi explained, not­ing that troops already have access to more than 400 free Inter­net cafes in Afghanistan equipped with more than 4,000 per­son­al com­put­ers and near­ly 2,000 phones.

The Amer­i­can Red Cross and USO also pro­vide free Inter­net in their cen­ters and can­teens, and the Army and Air Force Exchange Ser­vice offers a fee-based ser­vice to troops who want Inter­net access in their per­son­al liv­ing areas.

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs)

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