updated 6/3/2007 3:02:06 PM ET 2007-06-03T19:02:06

From his post in Iraq, Marine Sgt. Chad Matthews watched by video as his wife, Cynthia, gave birth in a Mobile hospital, a heartwarming connection that hasn’t been possible in past wars.

Freedom Calls Foundation, a New Jersey-based charity born in the wake of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, makes the video hookups available for milestone events to thousands of military families.

Ideally, Freedom Calls founder and Executive Director John B. Harlow II said, coverage would be expanded so that every soldier coming in from a day’s duty could talk to his or her family back home.

But expenses are draining the charity’s $400,000 annual budget as demand for its services grows. It relies entirely on charitable donations from individuals and businesses, and about three out four requests are turned down.

“What we really need is cash to run the network. We’re in danger of being shut down, leaving thousands of military families in the lurch,” said Harlow, an attorney and high-tech venture capitalist. “There is no government funding for this. We’d like to see some.”

Harlow said some calls organized by the charity are for small things — a 4-year-old girl wanted to show her father in Iraq that she had learned how to tie her shoe laces.

And there are sad calls. A soldier’s sister was dying and she wanted to tell him goodbye.

Satellite Internet connections have replaced the telegrams and long-distance phone lines of past wars to share homefront news with fighting forces overseas.

“I felt like he was in the room with me,” said Cynthia Matthews, who watched her husband’s image on a computer screen as he encouraged her during the March 24 birth of their son, Braxton. “He couldn’t physically touch me, but he was there.”

Harlow said he began organizing the charity in 2003 after hearing about a soldier with a $7,000 phone bill for calls back home. He felt soldiers were being “commercially exploited.”

$1,000 a day to operate
Freedom Calls provided its first connections in 2004. Harlow said there are now four call centers in Iraq, including 50 computers and 20 telephones at Camp Taji, north of Baghdad, and video-conferencing operations in two locations in Anbar Province.

“The military gives us the building, electricity, furniture and staffing,” Harlow said Thursday.

In the U.S., he said, equipment is set up by hospitals, schools, universities, law firms and others “who have opened their doors.”

“From a cost perspective, our operations are running about $1,000 a day,” Harlow explained. Satellite time is a major part of the cost. Soldiers and their families pay nothing to use the network.

“We’re doing about a million minutes a month in phone calls and about 2,000 video conferences a month,” Harlow said.

Pentagon spokesman Navy Lt. Cmdr. Greg Hicks said the work of Freedom Calls has “boosted the morale” of those serving in the military and their family members.

“While we cannot say how easy or difficult the arrangements are, we do hear terrific feedback from those who have had the opportunity to utilize the service provided,” he said.

Military officials have asked for an expansion of the video locations, said Harlow, whose foundation is based in Morristown, N.J. Future plans call for Freedom Calls centers at eight more Army camps in Iraq, two Army camps in Afghanistan and eight more Marine camps this year.

Limited funds

Harlow, who has not been to Iraq but has received a handshake from President Bush and military commendations for his work, said the charity’s annual budget doesn’t allow it to help everyone who requests a warfront connection back home.

There are other video-conferencing options available, but they are usually less flexible.

The military offers video hookups from the front back to home bases, but there are time restrictions and it’s difficult for soldiers if their families live elsewhere. The service also can’t handle events that take place off base, such as weddings, births and graduations, Harlow said.

United Service Organizations spokesman John Hanson said the USO doesn’t offer video conferencing like Freedom Calls.

Instead, it distributes 300- to 500-minute phone cards to soldiers and plans to open a center in Iraq that will allow soldiers to e-mail messages home for free.

The Red Cross, in an emergency, has a service that keeps military personnel in touch with home following the death or serious illness of a family member or other key events, such as the birth of a child.

Harlow said Freedom Calls also offers services at Okinawa in Japan and to wounded military at Landstuhl hospital in Germany so they can conference with their families in the states.

“And, we hope to be offering services from Walter Reed (Army hospital in D.C.) in the near future,” he said, adding it’s been a slow process. “We’re dealing with the bureaucracy.”

Before each video conference, volunteers with Freedom Calls work to get families together for the virtual meeting while commanders and the Red Cross in Iraq locate the soldiers involved.

'It's more than you can really explain'
On March 30, Army Col. Jim Close was in Iraq and allowed to see his 2-day-old son, Ryan, in an hour-long link to a Peterborough, N.H. hospital. Close hadn’t seen his family in eight months; his 10-year-old daughter, Megan, played an Elton John tune on her saxophone for her dad, and his 4-year-old son, Connor, showed off his toy light saber and some karate moves.

“The connection is just unbelievable, and it’s more than you can really explain,” said his wife, Kerry Close.

In Mobile, Dawn Hicks, manager of telemedicine programs at the University of South Alabama hospital, set up the video conferencing equipment for Freedom Calls that was used by the Matthews couple.

On the opposite end of the state, Robert L. Middleton, a NASA retiree and senior research engineer at the University of Alabama at Huntsville, took the video and put it online.

Harlow commended several corporations for their contributions, particularly Lenovo Inc. for computers, Logitech International SA for webcams and FedEx Corp. for delivery of equipment to Iraq Freedom Calls Centers.

The technology was in place when Cynthia Matthews arrived at University of South Alabama Children’s & Women’s Hospital at 1 a.m. March 24. The video equipment was set up at 3 a.m., dad appeared on screen about 4 a.m. and remained on until about an hour after the baby’s 9:19 a.m. arrival.

The couple routinely stays in contact by e-mail and voice mail. But to witness the birth? “He’s just thankful for Freedom Calls,” she said.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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