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Technology Brings Troops Home for the Holidays

By Samantha L. Quigley
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Dec. 9, 2005 – Deployed servicemembers are once again sending holiday wishes to family and friends from afar.

The greetings, a decades-old holiday mainstay, are one way families can have their servicemembers "home" for Christmas. The troops, with the help of their public affairs officers, tape thousands of holiday greetings each year for local TV stations to air as the holidays approach.

The method for collecting and airing those messages, and other news from overseas military units, was basically the same for years. Digital Video and Imagery System technology has sped up the process, Army Sgt. 1st Class Michael Wetzel, said.

"(DVIDS) is mainly to give stateside media ... reliable and accurate access to troops on the battlefield," Wetzel, the DVIDS noncommissioned officer in charge, said. The service is free to media companies that wish to use it.

Before DVIDS (pronounced DIH-vids), teams from the Army and Air Force Hometown News Center, based in San Antonio, went overseas to film the holiday greetings starting as early as September, he said. When the teams finished their rounds of the military installations, usually in October, they would return to Texas to edit and compile the messages geographically before distributing them to TV and radio stations around the country.

Since 2004, DVIDS, a system of satellite transmitters, has enabled Army, Navy and Marines public affairs teams in U.S. Central Command's area of responsibility to send taped holiday messages and other news back to the DVIDS hub in Atlanta much more quickly than ever before. That area of responsibility includes Iraq, Afghanistan, Kuwait, Qatar and Bahrain.

Once the footage is received in Atlanta, Wetzel and his team prepare it for distribution to TV and radio stations that have requested it. On average, the whole process takes just a few days, he said.

"We've kind of latched on to this old idea and kind of made it new with our satellite technology," he said. "Our public affairs units are out there taping greetings. They transmit them to us ... and then we turn them around and give them to any media that wants them."

When Wetzel's team has the greetings ready for viewing, the greetings also are posted on the DVIDS Web site. Mainly a media resource, the ".net" site also is accessible by family and friends, who can view the greetings by clicking on the DVIDS site's 2005 Holiday Greeting link.

In 2004, 6,300 video holiday greetings were posted, Wetzel said. This year, about 3,500 messages have been received so far, though he's hoping for more.

"We've been a hit during the holidays," Wetzel said. "We do it all year round, but there's more interest in civilian media to have (servicemembers) on their TVs during the holiday season."

Though the technology lengthens the time available to gather greetings beyond what the Hometown News Center teams ever had, there are still deadlines, Wetzel said.

The messages, which started arriving in October, will be accepted in Atlanta until Dec. 14, he said. That will allow enough time for the DVIDS team to work their magic and the civilian stations to air the greetings in a timely fashion, the sergeant added.

Unfortunately for those who are stationed on a base with no public affairs personnel, this deadline closes the window of opportunity to record a holiday greeting this year. Should the same situation arise in the future, Wetzel said servicemembers should go through their chain of command to facilitate the taping of a holiday greeting.

While DVIDS accepts and posts messages throughout the year, the system is used primarily for live interviews, he said. For instance, a reporter from a Texas newspaper can interview a deployed servicemember from Texas real time, Wetzel said.

Twenty such interviews were conducted on Thanksgiving Day alone, he noted.

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