Services Respond to Electronic Age's "Mail Call!"
By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, March 25, 2002 Service members through the ages have lived for mail. Whether in the trenches around Vicksburg, Miss., in 1863 or in Pleiku, South Vietnam, in 1967, soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and Coast Guardsmen have always looked forward to the shout, "Mail Call!"
But today, instead of the platoon sergeant shuffling through letters and calling out names, the mail call come- and-get-it is more likely a delivery announcement that pops up when you connect your computer to the Internet.
A Marine in the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable) checks his personal E-mail account while on station in Kandahar, Afghanistan in January 2002. Photo by Capt. Charles Grow, USMC
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
Electronic mail has become ubiquitous in America at large. Some service members are using e-mail to keep in touch with family and friends no matter where they may be, including distant battlefields.
The war against terrorism takes full advantage of the technology available to the U.S. military. Part of that technology helps soldiers, airmen and Marines in Central Asia who are using computers to keep in touch, said service officials.
The Air Force has an ambitious e-mail post office called GIMail, which is accessible from www.afcrossroads.com/html/communications/index.cfm, said Air Force Maj. Jay Doherty of Air Force Family Matters at the Pentagon. Accounts are free and open to members of all the services. Visit the site for more information and conditions of use.
"It is a 'dot.mil site,'" Doherty said. "Military members themselves have to go in and register. Once they do, e-mail can be sent to and from firstname.lastname@example.org." Deployed personnel can access the site from any computer with an Internet connection. Families without home computers may be able to access GIMail accounts using equipment in service family centers on installations, or libraries or schools.
GIMail is intended for short-term "keep-in-touch" use by service members and families. To keep itself lean, the system deletes mail after 90 days and automatically deletes accounts not accessed for 90 days.
The Navy has a sophisticated e-mail system for sailors deployed aboard ship. "It's getting better all the time," said Navy spokeswoman Lt. Brauna Carl. "In 1998, I deployed on the USS Whidbey Island. We had to save e-mail as text files and it was all sent out once a day at one time.
"I was recently aboard the USS Peleliu," she continued. "There, they have computers all over the ship and you can log right onto e-mail accounts. If you get a good connection, the turnaround time is sometimes 10 minutes."
Carl said she can't think of anyone aboard ship who doesn't take advantage of the service. "Some of the sailors are encouraging their parents and grandparents to figure out how to use a computer so they can stay in touch," she said.
She said ship captains encourage the use of this technology. "A sailor who has contact like that and knows everything is all right at home will have his or her head in the operations the groups need to conduct," she said.
The Marines who went into Camp Rhino and later Kandahar, Afghanistan, had e-mail connections with their families stateside, Marine officials said. There were no "dedicated" official resources to the program and, in fact, no formal program at all. Marines, with their commanders' blessings, used official computers on off-hours to read and send e- mail.
Soldiers in the area are also maintaining contact. "There is no formal set up, like we have in Bosnia and Kosovo," said Kathleen Cole, a specialist with the Army's Community and Family Support Center in Alexandria, Va. In the Balkans, the Army has set up "cyberhuts," which are small buildings with computers inside and a small satellite dish on top.
"We have nothing like that in Afghanistan," Cole said. "We don't know how long we will be there and, let's face it, the commanders are running combat operations. Those, of course, have priority."
But again, during off-hours, soldiers are using computers to check e-mail accounts and stay in touch with home. Cole said her organization is ready to put in cyberhuts if commanders ask for them.
In more settled areas, the services have video-telephone capabilities. These aren't in place in Central Asia yet, but the capability is mobile and could be deployed if needed.
The services see e-mail as a critical morale booster, and they continue to seek ways to improve it.
"We're looking at having a capacity to videostream e- mails," said the Air Force's Doherty. "In other words, send e-mails with videoclips so that while you're deployed, you don't miss the Soapbox Derby or the baby's first steps."
This means time zones don't matter when scheduling videophone e-mail. "It may be noon in Washington, but three o'clock in the morning where your loved one is deployed," Doherty said. Just fire off an e-mail with that ballet clip attached, he said. The recipient can open it at his or her leisure and even download it to a writable CD to keep forever.