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During Deployments, Family Time Goes High-Tech

During Deployments, Family Time Goes High-Tech

Planning a wedding during a military deployment might sound like a Herculean mission, but Patty Barron and her daughter Megan, an Army captain, pulled it off with aplomb. Megan and her fiancé, Army Capt. Vance Zemke, both based in Alaska, were deployed to Sharana, Afghanistan; Barron was in Virginia.

“She bought her dress, sight unseen, on the Internet and tried it on when she got back,” says Barron, who is also a military spouse. “We put idea books together and planned her colors. Technology worked well for her. She got back on a Saturday, he got back on a Monday, and that afternoon, they got married.”

“Impossible!” you might say.

Or maybe, you wouldn't, given the commonplace rapid technological advances during the past several years. The evolution of bandwidth video, multimedia Web applications, and large-scale file-sharing and a convergence of data, voice, and video technologies are transforming the way families communicate. Military families, once far-flung to disparate global regions, can send instant messages, photos, and videos - or even chat George Jetson-style with tools like Skype. And dual-service military couples like the Zemkes even can plan weddings.

“We have more computing power in our pockets than Apollo had in orbit. It's mind-numbing when you think about that,” says Navy Reserve Lt. Paul Selby, who is also director of Solutions Engineering at of LGS Innovations. Based in Herndon, Va., the company researches, develops, and deploys networking and communications solutions for the federal government.

From write-in-the-rain paper to SMS

Tara Crooks, who co-runs the online Army Wife Network, remembers sending letters on “write-in-the-rain paper” to her husband, Army Maj. Kevin Crooks, during his missions early in marriage in the late 1990s. During her first pregnancy in 2001, she remembers emailing someone in his unit about ultrasound results on the baby's sex.

“I had a connection with an officer, and they knew they'd go to the field and would be seeing him. They took a picture of him holding the email that she was a girl, came back to the computer, and attached it to an email to me,” she recalls. By his first Iraq deployment in 2005, communication was via email or phone calls, “but we still didn't have a ton of access,” Crooks says. “I remember signing up for the VTC (video teleconferencing), and we'd have 15 minutes to see them on a screen.”

He also was deployed to Iraq in 2007. By his latest deployment in 2012 to Afghanistan, the VTC idea “was a joke,” Crooks laughs. “We thought, 'Why would you even need to do that now?' ”

What's the outlook for technology, and what does it mean for military families moving forward?

Already, families are seeing easier tools, even for the young children, Selby says. Even while deployed to remote regions, he stays in touch with his 2-year-old daughter with tools like Kids Cork, a website developed by a retired Army colonel and former LGS employee. Kids Cork is designed like a personalized “bulletin board” of activities. For a small fee, separated families can play games, post photographs and “sticky notes,” and read bedtime stories together in real time.

Another unique communication tool is Defense Connect Online, an Adobe product that can be used on any device and allows safe communication because it's hosted on government servers. The suite of tools includes instant Web conferencing, virtual meetings, and chat services.

“There is no barrier to access,” former Army Capt. Mike Murphy, program manager, says of Defense Connect Online, which is available free to DoD users. “If someone were to go on a military system in an operations center and have a couple minutes' downtime, they can use this on the systems in front of them. They don't have to go outside on their own laptop or smartphone. It's part of the fabric of the military network.” Each user has a personalized URL address to their own “room.”

Murphy used the tool when he was in the Army as part of his operations for his mission. But he also used it personally when stationed in Alaska to stay in touch with his grandparents.

The biggest advantage to technological change, Murphy says, “is the pervasiveness and the expectation of connectedness, whether it's live sessions with video or audio. I see that as getting better.”

Unforeseen pitfalls

The downside to the instant connectivity, however, is human nature. Spouses like Crooks, who have been married and in the military since before 9/11, have witnessed firsthand the generational differences in couples' communication. Younger spouses get flustered, for example, when they do not receive an almost-immediate reply to their text messages. They easily jump to conclusions: Is their partner wounded or dead? Or cheating?

“For younger people, the expectation is much higher for constant communication or lack of delay,” says Dr. Andy J. Merolla, an associate professor in the Department of Communication Arts & Sciences at Baldwin Wallace University in Berea, Ohio. “They want rapid interaction. When a text is sent, they want [a reply] back quicker on average.” He studies long-distance relationship communication and has published papers on maintaining relationships during military deployment.

“We have the ability to communicate all the time,” says Selby. The question is, should we?”

Technology has opened a Pandora's box of communication styles and issues among military couples, say psychologists and spouses like Barron, director of family programs for the Association of the United States Army. It's not all smiles and roses, either.

“Technology has changed interactions in all life; there is no going back,” says Kathy Slaughter, a marriage counselor who works with active duty servicemembers. She is co-owner of Integrative Health Resources in Indianapolis, Ind. “By and large, it's helpful. But at the same time, we hear comments. We tend to forget how young most of the soldiers are, which means their partners are young, too. People in the military are in their early 20s, and they don't know what it is to not be in constant contact. Texting and Facebook picked up steam five or 10 years ago. Now we have young adults who didn't have to deal with waiting for the phone to ring during normal dating life. As a result, there will have to be more pro-action with soldiers and families about the different aspects of combat and the mission so that there is no panicking.”

As a result, couples should go into deployment with a plan as often as possible, Merolla advises. “Have a conversation before you leave about uncertainty, such as, 'Here are things I might experience.' And then have that conversation as the deployment goes along: 'Here's what we're doing well [and] not so well.' Keep talking in that way.”

Crooks points to other unavoidable mishaps, like spouses who inadvertently post “news” on Facebook about another soldier's injury or death before their spouse has been notified. “We're human, and people do stupid stuff, unfortunately, when communication is so easy,” she says.

For those periods of silence, when a text seems to be ignored and the imagination goes wild - “you need to set expectations,” Crooks says. “Tell your spouse up front, 'Hey, I read in a book or I heard somebody say the way they made it through deployment was that they were clear about expectations. I know this sounds crazy, but I want to make sure I know when we'll talk. I'd like you to call me once a week.' Your spouse might say, 'Well, I'd really like to call you every day.' Sometimes it helps to tell him, 'When you say you can't call, I know you're on a mission, but I don't want to know about it.' ”