Web bridges Gulf for families, troops

BAHRAIN - Whatever role the World Wide Web may play in the battlefield of the future, U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf have turned the Web into a powerful tool for communicating with family and friends and getting a taste of home.

Military personnel have found that the Web is an ideal medium for keeping in touch with folks back home: It's less expensive than long-distance calls and quicker than standard mail. Where the resources are available, troops stationed here are taking advantage of the Web to exchange news with folks back home or to access their hometown newspaper.

For example, aboard the USS Belleau Wood, operating in the Persian Gulf, the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit has set up a Web site (www.usmc.mil/31meu) where it posts information and photographs.

The more than 1,000 men and women of the 31st MEU have been far away from the unit's home base of Okinawa, Japan, for more than four months. But the Web site puts family and friends just a mouse click away, said public affairs officer Lt. Kristen Lasica.

Earlier this month, Lasica used the Web to quickly disseminate a vital piece of news: the date of the 31st MEU's return to Okinawa (March 14). In pre-Web days, that bit of information would have taken days to reach home.

Lasica uses e-mail to update the unit's home page, which is housed half a world away. She also has enlisted the 31st MEU's chaplain, Navy Lt. Stephen Lee, in a project to deliver personalized greetings from Marines via the Web page. Lee roams the ship with a digital camera and a microphone, taking pictures and recording sound bites for posting on the Web.

Lee snaps 20 to 30 candid photos a week and said the five- to 10-second mini-interviews are a boost to family morale. While the sailors and Marines aboard the Belleau Wood have access to e-mail, Lee said the ability to post sound files on the 31st MEU's Web page enhances communication. "Families really crave verbal communication.... They really want to hear that voice."

Likewise, Chief Petty Officer David Cather, the Belleau Wood's weapons systems group supervisor, uses satellite terminals on the ship to maintain a personal Web page with the GeoCities service.

Cather said he started the Web page when he was first transferred to the Belleau Wood, whose home port is Sasebo, Japan, to keep in touch with his parents. The Web site saves him from making costly long-distance phone calls, he said.

Now, far from a phone booth during his deployment in the Gulf, Cather sends updates for the Cather Family Home Page (www.geocities.com/Heartland/Pointe/6427) via e-mail so that he can "continue to tell my parents what I'm doing out here.... That's important to moms and dads."

Cather said visitors to his Web page will find a lot more than just plain text descriptions of his travel. He has tapped Web tools and technologies to beef up the page with music and graphics.

The Web also has made it easier for people stationed here to get news from back home. The Navy's Morale, Welfare and Recreation Department has set up the Internet Cafe at the Navy Central Command headquarters, where Navy personnel can spend some leisure time surfing the Web.

Petty Officer 2nd Class Jason Lindsey, a Texas native, said he uses the terminals at the Internet Cafe to keep up with sports news back home. Through the Web, Lindsey can page through the current edition of the Dallas Morning News, not a week-old newspaper delivered by mail.

He also uses the Web to correspond by e-mail with his wife. "I have a Hotmail account, and my wife uses America Online," said Lindsey, who called the $5-an-hour rate at the Internet Cafe a deal compared with long-distance phone calls.

Petty Officer 3rd Class Ron Frank said the service at the Internet Cafe is far better than that aboard the USS Dubuque, which lacks a satellite systems, so the crew does not have individual e-mail accounts.

Asked if any sailors bother to write old-fashioned letters, Frank said he doubted it, calling regular mail "just too slow."

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