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Troops no longer just phone home

The Pentagon’s technology push has reaped some welcome side effects for military personnel overseas. NBC News' Babak Behnam reports on how e-mail and Web blogs are opening up new lines of communication for soldiers serving far from home.
Lt. Micah Bell of the Michigan National Guard uses his laptop to connect with home, using a satellite dish that members of his unit chipped in to buy.
Lt. Micah Bell of the Michigan National Guard uses his laptop to connect with home, using a satellite dish that members of his unit chipped in to buy. Kevin Burke / NBC News
/ Source: NBC News

Sitting along a row of desktops, Maria Montemayor types furiously on the keyboard in front of her.

But, this is no ordinary Internet café and Maria is no ordinary computer user.

Maj. Montemayor serves with 324th Civil Affairs unit and the computer she uses is at the end of one of the ballrooms in the former palace of Saddam Hussein, now known as the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, Iraq.

The ability to access the Internet courtesy of the Pentagon’s push for advanced technology in the battlefield, has reaped some welcome side effects for military personnel serving overseas.

In previous wars, the possibilities for troops to reach out to friends and family members were severely limited. During the Vietnam War some military personnel resorted to “MARS grams,” using Ham Radios to hop scotch messages home. During the Gulf War in 1991, troops let their fingers do the dialing to occasionally talk to loved ones.

But for service members in Iraq, the Internet has made it possible to stay in touch with people back home on a daily basis. 

E-mail means daily communication
“E-mail is my primary means of communicating back home,” said Montemayor.

“I can’t just pick up the telephone and call home,” explained Montemayor, who is from San Antonio, Texas. “If my mother doesn’t hear from me every 48 hours she begins to worry. This way I can give her peace of mind.”

With the Internet such an integral part of military life, today’s soldier need not feel like they are a million miles away and totally disconnected from home.

“The Internet is critical in every aspect of life today,” said Col. Joseph Osterman, an adviser to the Iraqi Army. “It would almost impossible to do my work without it.”

Osterman lives and works in a bombed-out building, but he's still connected to his family back home. "At the end of my day I can get on the Internet and my children can see and talk with me through my Web cam,” he said.

That is a far cry from the first Gulf War, where soldiers had to line up for hours at times to get a 20-minute telephone call.

Taking communication into their own hands
The Michigan National Guard 126th Armored HHC 1st Battalion patrols the streets of Baghdad. When the soldiers return to their base after their missions, they don't have to walk 1 1/2 miles to the nearest Internet café to connect with home. They just go to their bunks beds and switch their laptops on.

One of the unit's members worked as an IT network installer as a civilian and, after his comrades chipped in money to buy a satellite dish, he hooked up an Internet connection for their use.

Lt. Micah Bell, 29, took full advantage and set up his own Web log.

“It is a way for me to tell the story of our war to this unit’s families, so they can see what we are doing to make a difference here,” he said.

That’s a sentiment echoed by J.P., who asked that he not be named. J.P. was deployed in Afghanistan from 2004-2005.

“I started my Web log because it was easier than e-mailing everyone back home,” he said.

But as the number of blogs grew, he said they began serving a larger purpose.

“It became a different option than watching what was going on through mainstream media. They weren’t all anti-Bush and anti-war,” said JP.

But he added that the blogs are not all about message. “They connect the whole military family together: the wives, parents, children and even veterans with the soldiers in the field.”

J.P. returned from active duty and on his own started a directory of military blogs. To date he has listed over 1,100 different sites on his "MILblogging" Web site.

Pentagon's policy
While the Pentagon has an open policy for Internet use, including e-mail and blogs, it relies on common sense and self-censorship from the troops.

Even though there have been a few cases of demotions and fines, the Pentagon’s policy is to provide wireless Internet capabilities to all forward operating bases whenever possible.

Bell says that their primary concern is when the unit suffers a casualty.

They do not want one of the soldiers calling home back to inform a family member before the military has a chance to officially notify them.

“They all know that with the privilege of having cell phones and Internet access comes responsibility,” said Bell. “If we come back from a patrol and there is an incident, God forbid, they know there will be a blackout period. If anyone breaks the blackout then our unit loses that privilege.”

It's a privilege Bell and his mates do not want to lose “It means a lot to me to able to bring my neighborhood here in Baghdad to my neighborhood back home,” he said.