Servicemembers here in Iraq have many ways to keep in touch with folks back home. Most soldiers have access to a work computer, and the NIPR on these computers NIPR (Nonsecure Internet Protocol Router Network) is used to exchange sensitive but unclassified information between “internal” users, but basically you can use it to access the internet and send emails. This is in contrast to the SIPR (Secret Network), which is highly restrictive and does not allow communication outside the network. It is acceptable to make limited use of the NIPR network for morale purposes, so long as this does not interfere with your official duties.
In addition to having internet on your NIPR computers, there are phone centers all over the place. AT&T has call trailers set up, where they gouge you on AT&T phone card calls. For this, AT&T has earned my enmity. But when you first arrive in the Iraq/Kuwait Theater, you have little other choice.
It is not hard to find a DSN phone (Defense switch network), and you can use these to make calls to other US military DSN phones anywhere in the world. This can be useful to make a calling card call, or to be connected by a local operator. I find this a cumbersome and slow process, and rarely use DSN, even though it’s not hard to get calling cards for free on this base. There are also the Spawar phones. These are very nice, and they are the phones that I use most often. They are VOIP phones, and it costs 4 cents per minute to call the US. Finally, the US has a lobby with 8 free direct-dial VOIP phones. There is often a line to use these, and many soldiers spend their half hour talking with family back home on these phones. VOIP phones have great call quality, and are the easiest to use. Much better all around than DSN, and I prefer paying 4 cents per minute for the ease of use and better call quality. Here is a photo of a typical call center, this one is at the Red Cross building, a very nice place to contact home. If you look closely, you’ll see both internet computers and VOIP phones (using Spawar), as well as a bookshelf full of books that are being given away. (photo taken around 5AM,when the center was empty except for me and my bike helmet atop one of the computers):
Here’s another shot of the USO at Ali Al Salem air base in Kuwait, with free direct-dials on the right, while people play video games on the left. Notice the ceiling, which is canvas in this glorified tent:
One of the stranger places on post is the JBB USO which has this DSN lounge, with 60’s-style egg-shaped chairs:
The best way to keep in touch with home is to get on a computer and use Skype for a video conference. This is free, but it’s also a bit of trouble to get to a computer with good internet access, and then set up the webcam and headset. Here is what this looks like (Judy is holding her beloved white rabbit):
Even the Ugandans, Nepalese, and Filipino workers can keep in touch with home, usually by going to the internet centers and then doing a chat with folks back home. Not the best way to keep in touch, but it is free, and these folks earn little money to afford phone calls to places other than the USA, which can be extremely expensive. Most of these Third-Country National (TCN) workers are earning about $500 a month, so they really need to watch their money. It’s good that they can at least use internet chat for free to keep in touch with home. The TCN’s treat the internet like gold. Here is a group of mostly Ugandan TCN’s at the MWR East Rec Center computer/phone room:
I heard a story from a guy who works at the internet cafe on a remote part of base. Normally the Ugandans are extremely polite and friendly. But a few incidents have happened where upon being told that their internet time up, they became somewhat verbally disagreeable. Afterwards, they always apologize, and return to being polite. Access to the internet can cause such disputes.
Being away from your family for a whole year is hard. But on a base like JBB, there is every reason to phone, email, or video chat with home every single day.
It can be hard to communicate with little kids. My two daughters are 4 and 5 years old, and phone manners are new to them. We’ve developed some games, like singing familiar songs, which usually gets them interested in the call. Judy even sang the “Baba come back” song which she made up on her own. Rebecca likes to sing songs from the Disney movie Mulan. On video chat, we like to play games like I make a face, and the kids tell me what kind of face it is (happy, sad, scared, etc.). The kids like to turn the webcam upside down, which they think is very funny.
We also do things were we show each other pictures over the internet. For example, the kids can show me drawings that they did that day, and I can comment on how nice they are. I also get art projects from my kids in the mail, and the kids like to see me holding their work up to the webcam even though we are far away. Another game they like to play is hide and seek, where I go out of webcam view, and then direct the webcam to other parts of the room, until the kids are able to find me. I’m sure people can think of other ways to keep young kids interested in phone and video calls. Just talking face to face does not interest them much. Judy has learned to read while I’ve been gone, and sometimes she enjoys just reading a book to me while I watch.
The military allows you to send letters for free, and I send two letters home every week, mostly because my kids love opening mail addressed to them.
Ten years ago, when I was a young captain in Korea, it was much less possible to communicate with home. Letter-writing has always been possible, of course. But making a phone call would cost $3 a minute, and so was quite rare. Email was just coming into use.
Last year, when I was at Fort Hood in October 2008 doing pre-mobilization training, I met up with another major who was helping my unit. I don’t remember his name. During our talk, he said that while he was deployed overseas, he found that he had some of the sweetest and most heart-felt communication with his family, especially his wife. I thought that this statement was counter-intuitive, why would this happen only when you are thousands of miles away? But over the past year, I’ve seen that it is true. My wife and I have had many nice exchanges, and I have tried hard to show my appreciation for her efforts to watch the kids while I’m gone. It is good to know that when I come home in a few weeks, I will be coming home to a marriage that is stronger than when I left, and a house with more love than ever before.
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