Morale: The Critical Connection

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June 11, 2012: The war on terror (in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other remote spots) has seen some fundamental changes in how soldiers operate in a combat zone. A major change has been vast improvements in the ability of troops to stay in touch with family and friends back home. At first it was just cheap phone calls, available from most large bases. But this slowly expanded to Internet access, than Internet access fast enough to handle video calls and, finally, Internet access even in many small, remote bases. It's gotten to the point where calls (audio or video) are sometimes interrupted when the base comes under attack and the caller on that end has to run off to take cover or shoot back.

In the beginning, after September 11, 2001, the big innovation was relatively easy, and inexpensive, access to long distance phones in the combat zones. In the wars of the past century, being able to call the folks back home was not really possible once you got close to the fighting. No more. However, the rates were still pretty high. In 2004, for example, calling from Iraq to the United State cost 30-50 cents a minute (or more, depending on who you bought the phone card from). It was even more expensive if you called collect. Afghanistan was more expensive, at about a dollar a minute. If you were one of those people who had a hard time getting off the phone this could get real expensive, real fast. While most troops had turned to the much cheaper email, there are often occasions where a phone call is appropriate, even if it was a brief one. 

The Internet arrived gradually. Afghanistan was a wasteland as far as modern communications went but Iraq was in a region that was wealthy enough to have world-class telephone and Internet connections installed by the time the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003. The Internet proved to be a major morale builder in Iraq and Afghanistan. By 2004, most battalions in Iraq had set up an Internet Cafe and tried to set up enough computers (usually laptops) with Internet connections to allow each soldier or marine at least one session a week. To make this possible some units ran their cafes 24/7. Actually, this was often necessary because many combat units operated 24/7, running day and night operations in shifts. Many troops worked 12 hours on and 12 off. So a round-the-clock Internet Cafe was a necessity. Troops were allowed 20-30 minutes per session and most just read and replied to email. Increasingly, over the next few years, many of the Internet Cafe PCs had webcams and VOIP (telephone calls over the Internet) software. This allowed some, who had family and friends on the other end with equivalent equipment, to see and speak with the folks back home. Around that time most military bases in the United States and Europe began setting up Internet Cafes with webcam and VOIP gear so that family could 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 eventually able to view their kids via the Internet Cafes.   The majority of the troops used the email and some managed to get into the Internet Cafe just about every day. Email allowed for sending digital photos and, as bandwidth increased, digital videos.

Recognizing the big morale boost the Internet access provided, the army and marines soon made setting up the Internet Cafes a priority. If you can have one Internet connected PC for every 20-30 troops on a base, you kept everyone happy. Well, not everyone. News of deaths in the family, or arguments with spouses or others, can take place via email. Dear John letters (where the girlfriend lets you know she's no longer interested) arrive by email or are sometimes preceded by digital photos from someone else showing you that the girlfriend is playing around.

The majority of troops leave the Internet Cafe feeling better than when they arrived. Not all troops had regular access to an Internet Cafe. Many bases were too small for an Internet Cafe or didn't have Internet access. Commanders tried to get around this by making it possible for troops to travel to a larger base regularly. The troops liked to do this, despite the danger of roadside bombs in some parts of Iraq, to visit a PX (Post Exchange) to buy stuff, as well as hitting the Internet Cafe as well. The army and marines also extended Internet access as quickly as they could for purely military purposes. Being able to provide the troops with access to the folks back home is a valuable bonus.

By 2006, commercial providers of satellite Internet access were pitching their services directly to American and NATO troops serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. Rates were competitive and the Internet access included VOIP and video conferencing. Not all bases had Internet access and the providers found a market of well-paid troops who were willing, and able, to pay for access. Commercial firms had Internet access equipment (satellite dish and router) shipped to bases and it was designed to be simple to set up. While the brass were increasingly concerned with such Internet access in a combat zone, they had to move carefully to control it (for security purposes) because such access is very popular with the troops. More troops were bringing their laptop computers with them to the combat zone and all these PCs needed were an Internet connection to provide the user with regular access to back home.

As Iraq, and even Afghanistan, got wired for civilian cell phone and Internet use, American troops would buy this access themselves. While using cell phones was generally forbidden while on a combat mission, there were instances where a soldier was talking to family or friends back home when rockets or mortar shells hit the base. Sometimes the caller back in the states would hear explosions or sirens on the overseas end, followed by the call being terminated, or just a few seconds of heavy breathing and then a resumption of the conversation. In the last few years it's been more common for this to happen during video calls.

While some troops are more harried by such easy access to folks back home, the time difference (seven hours later than the U.S. East Coast for Iraq, 9.5 hours for Afghanistan), plus the long and unpredictable working hours for the troops, meant that most calls were made by appointment, at least for the folks back in the United States.

The constant access to what was happening back home could sometimes be a distraction, as troops could not be involved in decision making back home, especially for some kind of crises. But on balance it was found that the morale boost far outweighed the negatives. Commanders now recognize that if the Internet connection goes down, so does troop morale.

 


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