USA — Deployed Troops Bridge Distance With Technology

WASHINGTON — On her third deploy­ment to Afghanistan, Army Spc. Traci Pet­away said it’s the lit­tle things she miss­es most about being back home – hold­ing her husband’s hand or play­ing in the sand with her 2‑year-old daugh­ter, Ara­belle.

Forward Operating Base Lightning, Afghanistan
Army Sgt. Mark Mor­ri­son of the Geor­gia Army Nation­al Guard e‑mails his fam­i­ly from For­ward Oper­at­ing Base Light­ning, Afghanistan, April 7, 2010. Mor­ri­son said he tries to e‑mail and call his daugh­ter dai­ly. “As long as she hears my voice, she knows that every­thing is OK in the world,” he said.
U.S. Army pho­to

But rather than let­ting the miles grow into a chasm between them, Pet­away has com­bined mod­ern tech­nol­o­gy with a dose of cre­ativ­i­ty to bridge the dis­tance to her fam­i­ly.

The per­son­nel actions clerk, deployed to For­ward Oper­at­ing Base Light­ning, takes full advan­tage of the com­mu­ni­ca­tion tools on hand, such as Yahoo Mes­sen­ger, Skype and Face­book, to keep in touch with her hus­band and daugh­ter, who are await­ing her return in Ger­many.

“When I am on a video call with Ara­belle, I feel as though I am there with her,” she said. “Play­ing ‘Itsy Bit­sy Spi­der’ and blow­ing kiss­es back and forth real­ly bright­ens up my day.”

Deployed ser­vice­mem­bers, who once had to rely on mail and a shaky phone sys­tem, now have a mul­ti­tude of com­mu­ni­ca­tion options at their fin­ger­tips, whether it’s web­cams, instant mes­sag­ing, e‑mail or a pletho­ra of social media sites, such as Face­book or Twit­ter.

“The par­ent may not be phys­i­cal­ly present, but the child is still hear­ing their voice and see­ing their face,” said Bar­bara Thomp­son, direc­tor of the Pentagon’s office of fam­i­ly pol­i­cy and chil­dren and youth. “Those con­nec­tions are very impor­tant over the course of a deploy­ment.”

Some 1.7 mil­lion Amer­i­can chil­dren under age 18 have a par­ent serv­ing in the mil­i­tary, and about 900,000 have expe­ri­enced mul­ti­ple deploy­ments. Rec­og­niz­ing the impor­tance of strong con­nec­tions, the mil­i­tary has stepped up to help with a vari­ety of free, tech­nol­o­gy-based resources designed to fos­ter com­mu­ni­ca­tion, Thomp­son not­ed.

She described a pro­gram in Navy child devel­op­ment cen­ters in which deployed par­ents can see their children’s assess­ments and what they’re work­ing on. Thomp­son also encour­aged par­ents to check out Troop­Tube, an online video site on Mil­i­tary One­Source.

“Fam­i­lies can record sig­nif­i­cant or day-to-day events, such as Mom tick­ling a baby and Dad being able to hear him laugh,” she said. “These kinds of things help peo­ple not feel so iso­lat­ed.”

Deployed par­ents of chil­dren attend­ing Defense Depart­ment schools can par­tic­i­pate in impor­tant mile­stones such as grad­u­a­tions and foot­ball games using web­cams, she said.

Also aimed at school­child­ren, the Defense Depart­ment offers free online tutor­ing through The site – — offers round-the-clock pro­fes­sion­al tutors who can assist mil­i­tary chil­dren with home­work, study­ing, test prepa­ra­tion and more. Deployed par­ents can keep tabs on stu­dents by access­ing online resources offered through school Web sites or via e‑mail with teach­ers.

“Fam­i­lies can use tech­nol­o­gy to do a sci­ence project togeth­er online or play a game over the Inter­net,” Thomp­son sug­gest­ed. “By doing so, the deployed par­ent is still an inte­gral part of the fam­i­ly.”

Near­ing the end of a year-long deploy­ment in Afghanistan, Army Sgt. Mark Mor­ri­son said he pri­mar­i­ly relied on e‑mails and phone calls to stay con­nect­ed with his wife, Pamela, and daugh­ters, 18-year-old Dom­inque and 6‑year-old Gabriel­la.

“I have to call about every day for my 6‑year-old,” said Mor­ri­son, a Geor­gia Army Nation­al Guards­man who works in the joint oper­a­tions cen­ter on For­ward Oper­at­ing Base Light­ning. “As long as she hears my voice, she knows that every­thing is OK in the world.”

If more than a few days go by with­out con­tact, Mor­ri­son said, Gabriel­la starts to “act out” at school and at home. “We tried the web­cam, but Gabriel­la did­n’t like see­ing dad­dy on the com­put­er screen and not at home,” he said. “She would­n’t look at me on the com­put­er, so the web­cam was out.”

When tech­nol­o­gy offers a stum­bling block, such as with Morrison’s fam­i­ly, some fam­i­lies turn to more cre­ative options to keep in touch.

Pet­away said she mails her daugh­ter kiss­es, but of the choco­late vari­ety, to add to a jar. She sends a kiss each time she sends a let­ter. “As their jars are get­ting fuller, they real­ize that you did not for­get about them and that you love them very much,” she explained.

She also sug­gests par­ents make a “flat par­ent,” cre­at­ed by glu­ing a pic­ture of the deployed par­ent to an ice cream stick. That way, chil­dren can take their “flat mom or dad” with them wher­ev­er they go, she said. Some fam­i­lies also have cre­at­ed spe­cial stuffed ani­mals or quilts to keep deployed loved ones close at hand for chil­dren.

Army Sgt. Stephen Nichols is prepar­ing to deploy to Afghanistan, his sec­ond deploy­ment since his 4‑year-old son was born. As a sin­gle father, Nichols is doing his best to pre­pare his son for the long sep­a­ra­tion. As he did for the last deploy­ment, Nichols bought his son a pre-deploy­ment ted­dy bear and while he’s deployed, he plans to call often and chat with him online.

“My son is a lot like me, short and to the point,” he said. “As long as he hears my voice though, all is good.”

Air Force Maj. Spring Myers, offi­cer in charge of a com­bat stress clin­ic, is deal­ing with the old­er end of the spec­trum dur­ing her deploy­ment in Bas­ra, Iraq. Her younger daugh­ter, 17, is with her grand­moth­er at Ander­sen Air Force Base, Guam, while her old­er daugh­ter, 20, is in the states attend­ing col­lege. Her younger daugh­ter is apply­ing for col­lege, she said, and needs help with ref­er­ence let­ters and appli­ca­tions.

“You just do what you have to do,” she said. “I call as often as I can and try to work on things from here. I’m still a par­ent, even though it’s from a dis­tance.”

It takes a great deal of effort to keep con­nect­ed, Thomp­son acknowl­edged, but in the end, it’s well worth it.

“Com­mu­ni­ca­tion can help ease the sep­a­ra­tion and the reunion when the par­ent returns,” she said. “It’s crit­i­cal to keep the child in the mind of the par­ent and the par­ent in the mind of the child.”

Pet­away agrees. “For me, stay­ing in touch is so impor­tant because I don’t want Ara­belle to for­get who I am,” she said. “And on real­ly stress­ful days, see­ing them is like my breath of fresh air.”

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