COLUMBIA, S.C. – Pfc. Mathew Galchick may be thousands of miles from home and facing daily danger, but he is comforted by a special lifeline while serving in Iraq: He's got e-mail.
U.S. soldiers are keeping in touch with their families by phone and e-mail this holiday season through dozens of so-called cyber cafes that the military has set up in tents across Iraq.
"I had to miss my daughter being born, so I try to keep up," said Pfc. Mathew Galchick, 20, a cargo specialist from Fort Campbell, Ky., who uses the cafe's telephones and computers every day to check on his wife, Samantha, and 7-month-old daughter, Emily, back home.
"She's saying 'da-da-da' now. She's growing like crazy and doing something new every day," said Galchick, who also can chat with his parents, siblings and other relatives living in Austintown, Ohio.
The mobile communication stations were developed at the Naval Weapons Station (search) in Charleston. Each unit includes a 32-foot-by-20-foot tent with 20 laptop computers and eight telephones, printers, air conditioning, generators and satellite communication sets.
"These troops have really taken to the idea of being able to call home. Some of them had not talked with family or loved ones for months," said project manager Ed Gallagher, a civilian. "They have been in use virtually nonstop since they were put up."
Jim Condon, a program senior manager, said the $20 million program was devised as a morale-booster for the troops and was developed as a "high priority" by Army Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez (search), the top military commander in Iraq.
While e-mail has become common place for sailors on some ships and others at high-tech military bases, it has not been available to most soldiers in the field, Condon said.
"They are so starved for communication, it's a godsend," he said. "Now, they can pick up the phone and talk to anyone they want or send an e-mail anywhere they want."
While the e-mail service is free, phone calls cost about 4.7 cents a minute and soldiers can pay by credit card or have their families prepay through a Web site. The goal is to install 145 such cyber cafes for Army troops stationed in Iraq.
Gallagher said troops wait patiently in line and use an honor system to share time.
He recalled that soldiers from the 10th Mountain Division (search), who'd been under constant fire on convoy duty, recently entered one of the tents about 40 miles north of Baghdad, saying they had just 15 minutes of free time.
"Not one soldier hesitated. Every single person got up and let those guys get on" the computers, Gallagher said. "And sure enough, 15 minutes later, those guys were out the doors and gone."
Spc. Bryan Smith, 21, of Burlington, N.J., uses the system and called it "awesome."
"This is amazing. I love it!" said the warehouse clerk, normally based at Fort Carson (search), Colo. Smith said he calls his wife, Sarina, who is living near Philadelphia with relatives.
"Before they put up this center, it was months at a time" between telephone conversations, Smith said. "Now, for $10, I can get a nice amount of time."
As various units move around Iraq, the systems will move with them, although ongoing violence in some areas of Iraq has made establishing all the sites difficult. "It's extremely slow. We're going as fast as we can," Condon said.
Because the troops are expected to be in Iraq for some time, the ability to access the Internet means the troops can accomplish many things beyond talking to loved ones, Condon said.
"They can access long-distance education sites. They can do things online that other kids their age do — order CDs, buy things that can be sent to their military addresses," he said.