Morale: The Secret Weapon


May 23, 2009: The Internet has played a major role in improving morale for troops serving in Iraq, Afghanistan and other distant places where the war on terror is being fought. It's hard to measure the impact, but commanders have learned, over the last eight years, that access to the Internet improves the attitudes of troops, and reduces discipline and morale problems. This apparently plays a role in higher re-enlistment (and enlistment) rates, and fewer problems with combat fatigue (which can also be made worse by lack of contact with friends and family back home.)

Aside from the obvious use of email and use of messaging systems, the Internet also provided access to social networking systems (MySpace, with 125 150 million users, and Facebook with 220 million). These gradually became popular way for American troops overseas to keep in touch with the folks back home, and with each other. The ease-of-use that has made these sites so popular with civilians, was equally attractive to troops who don't have much time to spend on the Internet. Most troops in Iraq and Afghanistan have access to the Internet, but often via the equivalent of a dial-up connection. So MySpace and Facebook are convenient enough for troops to quickly post messages, pictures and short videos. Other types of social networking, like matchmaking sites, also became popular with single troops looking for a spouse. The frequent deployments overseas (often half the time troops were in uniform) made the matchmaking sites essential for those intent on marrying and starting a family. Troops overseas make lots more money than when they are back in the United States (often nearly twice as much), and women like the fact that those in the service only got in because they were smarter, healthier and more reliable than the average civilian guy.

The brass were not happy with all this social networking, but were reluctant to attempt a crackdown. The suspect troops can be hard to identify, if they want to be, and have proved to be very responsible when it comes to OPSEC (Operational Security, not giving out info that can help the enemy). The brass have also learned that taking away Internet access would cause a serious morale problem.

As far back as 2003, some enterprising soldiers were tapping into mobile military satellite links and selling Internet access for other troops. This illegal access soon went legit when the troops appealed to the PC and Internet companies for some access assistance. They got it, and in the next few years, over a hundred million dollars in goods and services have been donated, to help provide the troops overseas with Internet access.

By 2004, most battalions had set up an "Internet Cafes," usually with enough laptops and Internet connections to allow each soldier or marine at least one session a week. To make this possible, some units run their cafes 24/7. Actually, this is often necessary because many combat units operate 24/7, running day and night operations in shifts. Many troops work 12 hours on and 12 off. So a round- the- clock Internet Cafe is a necessity. Troops were allowed 20-30 minutes per session, and most just read and reply to email. But eventually, some of the Internet Cafe PCs got webcams and VOIP (telephone calls over the Internet) software. This allowed troops, who had family and friends on the other end with equivalent equipment, to see and speak with the folks back home.

Soon, most military bases in the United States and Europe had set up Internet Cafes with webcam and VOIP gear so that family can come in and hold a "televisit" with their soldier, sailor, airman or marine in Iraq. This equipment was used to show live web coverage of high school graduation ceremonies on many military bases. Parents who were stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan were able to view their kids via the Internet Cafes.

It didn't take the Department of Defense long to come up with a standard design, and by 2006, over 200 Internet Cafes have been set up, most of them in Iraq, but also several in Afghanistan and even aboard oil platforms in the Persian Gulf. Each Internet Cafe was basically a 640 square foot tent, or room, equipped with twenty laptop computers, eight telephones (for voice calls via the Internet), air conditioning and satellite communications gear. Each facility was designed to serve about a thousand troops (mostly soldiers and marines), and usually stayed open 24/7. Local troops maintain the equipment, the biggest problem being the dust. Department of Defense provides replacement parts and technical advice. Email was free, but troops paid (usually via credit card) a few cents a minute for VOIP (Voice Over Internet Protocol) phone calls. There are also dozens of half size Internet Cafes for smaller bases, especially in Afghanistan and other remote areas where the war on terror is being fought. Some individual units set up their own Internet Cafes, but the Department of Defense package is so much cheaper, and easier to operate, that it has replaced a lot of the earlier initiatives. There have also been a lot of private donations to pay for additional bandwidth, which is needed for VOIP and video communications.

The Internet access has resulted in major morale improvements. Troops no longer feel cut off from home. This is especially important for the many who are married, and have young children. In the past, the kids would, after an absence of six months to a year, meet a parent who seemed like a stranger. A year is long time to a five year old. The Internet proved a major help for the spouse who stayed behind with the kids. There often lots of little details needed to run things at home, that only the deployed spouse knew. With email, you could get that information, or just some advice or encouragement, in hours. The email often brought bad news as well. Now "Dear John" letters (where the girlfriend lets you know she's no longer your girlfriend) arrive by email, or are sometimes preceded by digital photos from "a friend" showing you that the girlfriend is playing around. But the majority of troops leave the Internet Cafe feeling better than when they arrived.

Not all the Internet connectivity is just for staying in touch with the folks back home. The troops use the Internet a lot for professional tasks, and not all of them are official business. Some troops blog, and many other stay in touch with military friends and associates in other parts of the world. The Internet has made possible many online communities composed of military professionals. These are rarely seen by civilians, as they are run via email (listservs) or on restricted bulletin boards. There are some official ones as well, which require a .mil email address to get into. These virtual communities ensure that new military developments get distributed and dissected quickly. This has been a real lifesaver for combat troops, because now they have access to a lot more of their peers, that they can quickly consult for information and advice. This angle rarely gets reported, again, because it takes place out of view. But like most things on the Internet, they are having a far greater impact than most people realize. Commanders saw this early on, and supported the rapidly increasing availability of the Internet to troops in the combat zone. For those officers who didn't get it, all they had to do is note the drop off in performance when, for technical reasons, Internet access to a base was interrupted for more than a day. Most officers, however, considered Internet access for the troops to be a secret weapon, that made their unit much more capable and resilient.



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