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Reducing Combat Stress Just a Video Call Away

By Douglas J. Gillert
American Forces Press Service

BETHESDA, Md., Feb. 25, 1998 – Last Christmas, 20 sailors aboard the USS Enterprise saw their newborn babies for the first time. The loneliness of serving in the Persian Gulf, at least 3,000 miles from home, was instantly relieved by the surprise family reunions.

The reunions occurred courtesy of the Naval National Medical Center telemedecine clinic here. Clinic director Dr. (Cmdr.) Richard Bakalar and his wife, navy psychiatrist Dr. (Cmdr.) Nancy Bakalar, arranged for the new dads to greet their wives and newborns by video-teleconferencing.

During the same holiday period, the clinic invited several Navy families to "visit" their loved ones aboard ships in the Persian Gulf. "It was fascinating to watch these families together," Nancy Bakalar recalled. "They'd talk about the routine things of everyday life. One teenage daughter sat here and put her feet up on the desk. Her mom (on the ship) noticed it and said, 'Honey, take your feet off the furniture.' From 3,000 miles away, mom was correcting her daughter like any mom would."

Videoteleconferencing is one more tool the Navy is using to link sailors with their families back home. They also now have telephones aboard ships and can use the Internet to send messages back and forth. But seeing each other really makes a difference, Nancy Bakalar said.

"This is really the very early, cutting edge of combat stress prevention," she said. "We know that high morale is a protective factor against stress. Every family member [who participated in the holiday greetings program] said how wonderful it was to 'see mom, see my wife, see my dad.' If a picture is worth a thousand words, a video is worth a million."

The Navy conducted similar sessions from telemedicine clinics at other hospitals, for other ships, said Dr. (Capt.) Michael Krentz, senior medical officer aboard the USS George Washington. In all, some 100 families benefited from the program.

Krentz would like to see every sailor at sea be able to videoteleconference with family members. "I had a conversation with our admiral," he said, "and we both envision a future where this modality is available to everybody all the time.

"Four years ago, we didn't have e-mail or telephone access on board ship. We wrote letters and whenever we got to a port, we'd line up at the phone booths. Now, with this deployment, we've got e-mail and telephones, so I think it's entirely possible that in just a few years we will be talking to our families routinely by videoteleconferencing."

For Krentz and his shipmates in the Persian Gulf, any means of feeling less disconnected from home reduces stress, he said. "We don't know from one day to the next where we're going to be or what we're going to be doing," Krentz said. "To be able to maintain those anchors back home in any way is clearly a benefit to all of us."

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