Via military e-mail, home's a click away

Contact: Near-instant communication can boost morale, but some fear security leaks or dangerous distractions for U.S. soldiers and sailors at war.

February 24, 2003|By Ryan Davis | Ryan Davis,SUN STAFF

Before Master Sgt. Richard Christopher of the Maryland National Guard was shipped to the Middle East in December, his wife drafted a list of chores: Fix the transmission on the Chevrolet pickup, sign over power of attorney, repair the tractor and move the computer from the family room to the bedroom.

"I was afraid I'd miss an e-mail," says Gayle Saunders-Christopher, 56, of northern Harford County.

With the computer screen just three feet from her bed - and angled toward her pillows - Saunders-Christopher can spot e-mail from her husband as it arrives. When the "You've got mail" window pops onto the screen, she hops out of bed.

The pairing of the military and e-mail makes an odd couple - one of America's oldest and most secretive institutions embracing a staple of today's rapid-fire information exchange. And despite the benefits of e-mail, as U.S. troops prepare for their first war armed with Internet connections, the instantaneous link between military outposts and home is causing problems that pen and paper never did.

Some military officials worry that troops could be thinking about problems at home - leaky sinks and broken-down cars - instead of the enemy.

Others fear security breaches. If loose lips can sink ships, Navy and Marine officials say, so can freely typing fingers - and much more quickly.

"E-mails could be viewed by a thousand people, and one of them might be a bad guy," says Glenn Mayberry, the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force family readiness officer at Camp Lejeune, N.C.

Communication between troops and their families has evolved from letters in World War II to audiocassettes in Vietnam to limited phone service in Desert Storm to this: e-mail.

When America went to war in Iraq in 1991, the phrase "surfing the Internet" had not yet been coined. Now, more than 50 percent of American homes have Internet access, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce.

During the mid-1990s, the phenomenon also spread quickly within the military.

"There was some resistance from older-timers who said, `We don't really need this,'" says Navy Cmdr. Mike Mansfield of the Atlantic Fleet, based in Norfolk, Va. "Once we overcame that, it was full speed ahead."

In 1999, e-mail on Navy ships was limited to officers who needed accounts for work. Others received printed e-mail every few weeks when they arrived in port. Now, everyone on a ship has e-mail access; if sailors don't have an account, they can type e-mail onto a disk and the ship's messages are beamed away in bulk.

By Oct. 1, 2001, everyone with ties to the Army, including the Maryland National Guard, was directed to have an Army Knowledge Online e-mail account. The Marines and Air Force have access as well.

But the best measure of technology's reach might have come last year. From tents with satellite connections in the middle of the desert, troops sent e-mail home from Kandahar and Bagram in Afghanistan.

The military calls them "morale welfare and recreation" tents. It was easy to find them, says Army Reserve Maj. A.C. Roeper, who recently spent six months in Afghanistan and two in Kuwait. On Valentine's Day, Mother's Day and sometimes on weekdays, those tents were the ones with lines outside.

Nowadays, a soldier with e-mail access is as common as a car with air conditioning. Says Roeper, "It's just a standard part of life."

The aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk's crew of 5,500 reportedly received more than 350,000 e-mail messages during an 83-day mission in 2001.

It's not just words that are exchanged. Some troops send and receive pictures. Others video-conference with their families.

Saunders-Christopher saves each correspondence from her husband in a computer file titled "Richard."

She tries to reply to his e-mail immediately; otherwise, her responses are returned as undeliverable, she says. Her husband serves in Special Forces and is not allowed to give his location. But she gets the impression he's e-mailing from a tent with a line of troops behind him. He doesn't use capital letters and doesn't write more than 15 lines.

Christopher, who is expected to be away for a year, has sent more than a dozen e-mail messages since going overseas in late December. They augment his sporadic five-minute phone calls and a letter that took nearly 20 days to reach rural Harford County.

There's the first e-mail, from Jan. 2, in which he asked for hand cream for his chapped hands.

There's the one from Jan. 19 with the subject "missing you."

And there's the one from Jan. 25 in which he wrote, "i really hope you get my first letter."

He signs each one the same way: "your rich."

Despite the proliferation of e-mail, it's unclear how freely the troops around Iraq could use the Internet if war broke out.

"Most units ... would have some form of Internet access," says Navy Cmdr. Dan Gage of Central Command in Tampa, Fla., headquarters for Middle East war planning.

Tents similar to those in Afghanistan have been or could be erected. Permanent installations in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait have Internet access.

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