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93rd Signal Paves Eagle Force Info Superhighway

By Staff Sgt. Vincent DeGroot, ARNG
Special to American Forces Press Service

COMALAPA AIR BASE, El Salvador, Feb. 10, 1999 – You won't see any telephone company offering you a deal like this: $13 a minute or $225,000 a day.

That's what Uncle Sam was paying for telecommunications service here until the 93rd Signal Brigade of Fort Gordon, Ga., showed up. Within 24 hours, Joint Task Force-Aguila ["Eagle"] units had state-of-the-art phone lines, Internet service, Defense Switching Network lines and secure computer network links.

For military leaders in the Hurricane Mitch relief effort, that means constant contact with units throughout the Central American theater and the United States. For soldiers, it means getting a reassuring "Ma Bell" dial tone when they pick up the phone to call home.

At Comalapa Air Base, the 93rd has a phone tent where soldiers can make a call anytime, anywhere in the world. Along with phone service, soldiers can also send and receive e-mail.

"Our soldiers are getting better Internet access than in the states," said Sgt. Robert Dupuis of Company C, 63rd Signal Battalion. "I've checked my bank accounts and paid some bills. It's pretty cool."

When U.S. military units first arrived in El Salvador, they were using standard-issue, military, portable phones that link to commercial satellites and phone lines at a cost of $2.25 to $13 a minute. The brigade troops hit the ground running and had their trunk line up within six hours. The end of the first day marked the end of $225,000-a-day bills.

"We put out very large data pipes -- 50 percent larger than those at Fort Campbell [Ky.], and we're doing it off tactical equipment," said Maj. Leo Thrush, brigade operations officer. This allows commanders to continue the mission while providing troops with more than enough open lines for the all-important morale and welfare calls.

With the Comalapa hub and uplinks throughout the theater, the unit processes 20,000 to 30,000 calls a day. "That is a significant moral booster," said Thrush.

Users in the field may not care how it all works so long as it does. For 1st Lt. Michael Davenport, though, making it work better than anyone could have expected is a significant accomplishment. Combining military communications equipment with off-the-shelf equipment pushes the network miles beyond normal restrictions.

"The people who wrote the book didn't think it could be done until they tried it and it worked," said Davenport, the joint computer systems chief.

With many soldiers now making their last phone calls before re- deploying home, Dupuis, who monitors the number of outgoing calls, said they're hoping people will continue to call.

"Before we leave here, we want to put a sign on the side of our truck that says, 'One million served,'" he said with a smile.

[Staff Sgt. Vincent DeGroot of the 135th Public Affairs Detachment, Iowa Army National Guard, Hull, Iowa, is assigned to the U.S. military relief effort in El Salvador.]

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Click photo for screen-resolution imageSgt. Donnie Elmore of the 235th Signal Company checks the wave drive on an eight-foot dish antenna at Comalapa Air Base, El Salvador.  
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