The dusty cities of Iraq seem awfully far from home, especially with the holiday season in high gear. But thanks to technology, American soldiers overseas are able to reach out to friends and family more easily and more often than ever.
Phone calls, e-mails and even videoconferencing are available to many soldiers in Iraq, and contact has improved greatly since the early days of the war, when the mail was slow and phone contact was sporadic.
"Most of our units now have Internet access," said Lt. Col. Bill Macdonald with the 4th Infantry Division, which is based in Tikrit (search). "We take the quality of life issues such as getting e-mail established and making phone service available [seriously]."
Ford Gibson, a Vietnam veteran whose son John is a captain in the 82nd Airborne in Iraq, said he and his wife Becky talk to their son once or twice a month by phone. While conversations are short, they've felt lucky to hear their son's voice — especially during Thanksgiving this year.
"[My son] says the mail gets through pretty good over there and it's very important that the mail gets to them," said Gibson, who added that the difference between communication today and in Vietnam (search) is like "daylight and dark."
"[In Vietnam] letters were the only thing you got. Now you’ve got cell phones, satellite phones and you can even e-mail pictures," he said.
For Becky, talking to her son once a month isn't enough, so she's turned to the Internet. A message group set up by the families of soldiers in her son's unit has proved the most valuable way to keep in touch. They share information about births, hear stories from Iraq like the one from the soldier who met the president during his Thanksgiving trip, and, sadly, provide news about casualties.
Some groups of soldiers, using technology usually seen in boardrooms, are lucky enough to have group videoconferences with family members back home, Macdonald added.
While videoconferencing isn't widely available, e-mail and phone access is accessible for most soldiers and is helping families get through the long months of separation.
"Technology has really increased the ability to communicate," said Shirley Calhoun, director of public relations for the National Military Families Association (search).
Sgt. Danny Martin, Coalition spokesman for Joint Task Force 7 who is attached to the 82nd Airborne Brigade in Baghdad, said soldiers can access phones and the Internet in many different ways depending on their assignments.
Those who work in offices can keep in the best contact. Others use phone banks and Internet stations established by the Red Cross or the military. Soldiers who are regularly out on patrol are the least connected.
Mail delivery has also become more regular now that soldiers are at more fixed locations.
"A lot of soldiers get goody and care packages fairly regularly," said Macdonald. "That's a big morale booster."
Even in the years between the last conflict in Iraq and this current one, technology has jumped ahead, said Sgt. Martin, who recalled his brother's service during Desert Storm, when delays on phone lines made conversations frustrating.
"[There was] a second or two second delay, so when my brother was in Kuwait we were kind of going back and forth in conversations."
But even with the technology, communication isn't perfect, according Calhoun, who said the cost of calling between America and Baghdad can be prohibitive — as much as 35 cents a minute.
"It is very expensive and I've heard a lot of complaints about the cost," she said.
And the communication can be especially tough during a family crisis.
"If you just talk to him once a month for eight minutes you don’t get a thorough communication," said Becky Gibson of her son. "It was particularly difficult when his uncle died and we were not able to get word to him."
Calhoun noted there are several organizations that donate calling cards to soldiers.
The USO sponsors Operation Phone Home in which the USO partners with AT&T to send prepaid phone cards for soldiers overseas.
Another program is run by the Veterans of Foreign Wars. Operation Uplink provides prepaid calling time for active duty military personnel, hospitalized veterans and their families.
"For thousands of military families, especially for those in guard and reserve, they're really facing some financial distress. So this is just one way we help them," said VFW Director of Communications Jerry Newberry.
During the holidays, when many families are painfully aware of a loved one's absence and soldiers will likely feel pangs of homesickness, being able to communicate is crucial.
"It's very important when someone's deployed to have that personal contact with a spouse or child," Newberry said. "It's a tremendous morale booster."