Skip to comments.For Troops, Home Can Be Too Close
Posted on 03/15/2005 6:53:19 PM PST by neverdem
Jane Murray was fuming as she answered the phone, and, hearing her husband's voice, let it rip: their teenagers had once again left the bathroom littered with empty shampoo bottles despite repeated lectures on tidying up.
It was a routine parental exchange, but not one Ms. Murray would have indulged in had she taken a moment to collect herself. The problem was one of context. Ms. Murray's husband, Col. John M. Murray, was calling from Baghdad, where he commands 6,000 soldiers of the First Cavalry Division out of Fort Hood, Tex.
Over nine time zones and many months of separation, his wife's outrage over a messy bathroom simply did not compute, turning a conversation both Murrays hoped would serve as precious reconnection into a reminder of how far apart their worlds really were. "I slipped up," Ms. Murray said ruefully.
Military scientists have long studied wartime communication, but the war in Iraq is opening a new dimension. Virtually every soldier, sailor and marine there has access to e-mail and cellphones, a broad and largely uncensored real-time communication network unprecedented in military history.
The military is taking steps to control the information flow, in part with Internet kill switches at bases to give senior officers a means to enforce communication blackouts. Military researchers, meanwhile, are scrambling to track the broader impact of instant communication technology. Studies under way include the interpersonal - as in the Murrays' painful collision of household and war zone - and urgent matters of national and military security.
"We are going to learn profound lessons from this war about how to manage these devices to communicate what we really want to convey, and reduce the negative aspects," said Dr. Morten G. Ender, a sociologist at the United States Military Academy at West Point.
Learning the best use of e-mail, cellphones and other interactive devices is critically important to the military, where careless communication can cost lives. But experts say that even seemingly mundane exchanges have implications for troop morale and the emotional health of service families.
More than 95 percent of the military personnel in Iraq report using e-mail, and nearly two-thirds say they use it three or more times a week, said Dr. Ender, who also is looking at subtler issues like whether officers, troops and families chose e-mail for certain types of messages - routine news, for example - and saved more personal topics for cellphone conversations.
The capacity for such real-time, interactive communication has unquestionably aided military field operations, but researchers say the emotional and psychological impact on soldiers and their families is less clear.
Just as television coverage during Vietnam brought shocking images of war into living rooms, so today's communications technology has the potential to immerse already anxious families in the raw experience of combat, while miring soldiers in domestic problems that distract from the mission.
"My wife is having problems with getting yard work taken care of without having to pay out the nose for it," a 29-year-old Army captain complained in a survey about whether deployment had resulted in "marriage issues."
Others reported haggling by e-mail or cellphone over money. The Internet enables soldiers to monitor their bank accounts from Iraq, a mixed blessing in the case of one soldier who discovered that her husband had used up her combat pay on Yankees tickets and a new boat.
Families, too, can become so tethered to cellphones and e-mail that they have difficulty re-establishing normal routines at home, said Dr. D. Bruce Bell, a psychologist and an expert on military families, formerly with the Army Research Institute in Arlington, Va. This contrasts with previous wars when letters arrived infrequently, and separations provided opportunities for spouses to master new skills.
Finally, there is the problem of technology misfires - the Iraq cellphone network crashes or e-mail goes astray. These can bring on spikes of anxiety as family members leap to the worst possible conclusion.
"We've raised expectations of instantaneous communications to such an unreasonable level that when we can't connect, the technology ends up being a new source of stress," said Dr. Frederic Medway, a psychologist and a specialist in military and family separation issues at the University of South Carolina.
The technology can also distort communication. Cellphones and e-mail artificially compress time and space, giving the illusion of chatting almost in the same room. But as the Murrays' experience shows, context greatly influences how people "hear" what's being said. Frequency and volume, moreover, don't necessarily contribute to better understanding. "We are seeing a great deal of information overload in soldiers in Iraq and in their families," Dr. Ender said.
Military communications science covers a vast terrain. Commanders must be able to communicate with frontline troops and supply lines, while keeping important information from the enemy. But they have a parallel duty to facilitate those troops' communication with loved ones because of demonstrated psychological benefits to morale and combat readiness. Studies of German military units in World War II showed that soldiers isolated from contact with family and the larger society were more likely to surrender.
Such military concerns have led to significant communication innovation. The concept of the postcard as a short form of letter is believed to have originated in the War of 1812, when a commander worried about morale suggested that his men write greetings on scraps of paper, which he had delivered to their families.
In World War II, the Army tried to speed up family-to-soldier communication with a system called V-Mail. Letters were photographed; the film then was flown to battlefronts for reproduction and distribution. But what soldiers and families gained in speed, they lost in privacy. Besides passing through many strangers' hands, V-mail was subject to military censorship.
Real-time communication technology eliminates such controls - an obvious concern for military leaders responsible for both security and the psychological well-being of troops and their families. The military has responded with increased training, essentially teaching self-censorship to keep details of military encounters confidential. For families, the advice is to keep conversations upbeat.
But the military's ability to shield soldiers and families is limited. When an Army helicopter was shot down in Iraq last year, televised images beat notification of next of kin by many hours - an agonizing communication gap for family members at Fort Hood, who recognized the insignia of the helicopter brigade from news footage of the wreck. Maria McConville, wife of the brigade commander, received many panicky calls that day.
"Every wife wanted to know, 'Was it my husband?' " recalled Ms. McConville, who also couldn't say, pending identification of the dead and the military's notification visit to their families.
It is this system of in-person notification that has pushed commanders in Iraq to intervene in the timing and content of soldiers' personal messages home. The increased oversight was brought on by several incidents early in the war, after families heard through the virtual grapevine - and not always accurately - that their loved ones were casualties.
This was the impetus for installing kill switches on Internet servers at Iraq military bases that senior officers can activate at the first word of troops wounded or killed.
The idea is to forestall the natural inclination of the service members to reassure parents or spouses that they are all right, or to comfort the family of an injured buddy. However well intentioned, such messages can have dire consequences for service families as they spread unverified through the same technology that sped them from Iraq. Among many anxious questions: "If Ms. Jones's son e-mailed, why hasn't mine?"
Because cellphones operate through commercial Iraqi networks outside the reach of military kill switches, many commanders have also directed troops to refrain from talking or messaging about casualties until senior officers give their approval. Violation of these standing orders can result in military prosecution.
Taming the technology, however, remains work in progress. Kill switches, for example, send a message of their own. Now, when e-mail messages don't go through or calls go straight to voice mail, families tend to leap to the conclusion that someone's hurt or dead, ignoring possibilities - technology failure, for example - that previously carried greater weight.
The military is addressing this reaction with so-called negative notifications, which are e-mail bulletins to families whose relatives are in units that didn't lose anyone but still are subject to the communication blackout.
"Basically, we're letting them know there's a casualty, but it is not in your unit," said Maj. Diane M. Ryan, an Army spokeswoman. She acknowledged that this heightened anxiety among service families that did not receive the negative notifications.
Relieving their anxiety isn't accomplished so speedily. The military aims to notify families within four hours of a death, but the process frequently takes longer. Delay can result from courtesies embedded in the casualty notification process: for example, the delegation cannot visit families before 6 a.m. or after 10 p.m.
Which is not to say researchers and military families advocate turning back the clock on real-time communications. The benefits of hearing a loved one's voice or reading a newsy late night e-mail message far outweigh technology's harms, families say.
As for Ms. Murray, lately she has had better things to talk about with Colonel Murray than shampoo bottles, their new role as grandparents. Ms. Murray was at her daughter's bedside immediately after the birth.
"The first thing we did was call Dad in Baghdad," Ms. Murray recalled. "We could never have done that before cellphones."
Ironically, it wasn't TV, cell phones or E-mail that caused problems for my unit. When we suffered our first casualty, it was a numbnuts officer on the general staff back home who was officially in the loop that told a few wives about it at a reception - before the official notification process was complete. Shortly thereafter the rumor mill and panic had set in. Loose lips damn near sank our ship in that particular instance...
Sarge's Daily Report PING!
I'd like a little opinion spot, here. My kids will meet this wall eventually, and they need to be prepped for the silence. One chick keeps calling one of my guys a dozen times each day.
My baby girl - 7 - gets upwards of 10 calls a night from a classmate.
I am very familiar with Internet firewall technology, part of the job.
Thinking about the concept of a home phone firewall.....
That's Mrs. Murray to you bubs!
Just figured you would be interested in this.
Well, all I can say is that all the technology has made it much easier in my mind to have my kids all over the place. It's a whole lot easier with email than waiting six week for snail mail. And, yes, one was in Iraq and will be going back shortly. I treasure the emails and phone calls. I enjoyed that phone call from Colombia last night too!
"Just as television coverage during Vietnam brought shocking images of war into living rooms, so today's communications technology has the potential to immerse already anxious families in the raw experience of combat, while miring soldiers in domestic problems that distract from the mission."
Neither my mother, or father or brother (older)
ever knew I went to Viet Nam
UNTIL after I came back.
The post office on my ship used to place a stamp on each outgoing piece of mail to them so they were not
tipped off by the free postage.
They were in my hometown of Chicago
and subject to the growing anti war crowds.
My thought why should they worry about me.
Good point, Tonk...sometimes the communications are not what we want our families to hear.
But, the supportive messages are necessary IMO.
Somebody already made my main point...a Colonel's wife is reduced to Ms. ... as though she's unmarried or still a little girl. How demeaning can you be? Oh, that's right. She's part of the military. Can't be bothered with those people's feelings, right?
I can attest to a lot of what was said as being true. When KJ was in Iraq and if I knew he was travelling a dangerous route I would be on pins and needles til I got an email. And when he got there fine but just didn't get a chance to let us know, we spent a few anxious days. It's a catch-22 from the homebound. You want to know, but then maybe you don't want to know everything.
Geez Tonk. You're about to make me cry.
His wife ought to get off her backside and push the lawnmower around herself, as I do, and did just after each of my children was born.
This is one of the things that makes a deployment harder for men: whining women back home. I have heard this from so many men, and I listen to the whining and helplessness in an area full of military wives. Grow UP, ladies! It's 2005! You can do things, make decisions, and manage your life without crying to your husband! Consider it your patriotic duty to be cheerful, supportive, and upbeat when he calls, without hassling him and making him worry about problems at home. Surely he has enough to worry about in Iraq.
Needless to say, I hate helpless girly women.
Things were different then.
The anti war crowd in Chicago was ruthless.
Fueled by the likes of the Chicago 7.
We left in Aug '68, right after the Democratic convention.
There was no "Welcoming the Troops Home" back then.
We all just came back and tried to forget.
And here it is 2005 and Hanoi Jane will be on the airwaves, again, starting on 60 Minutes on Apr 3
And the "Move On" FReepers will do just that.
Ain't life grand.
I know things were different back then. THANK GOD the guys going now will benefit from what you went through and will never have to face the kind of BS you did - and still do...which you know I believe is a crock. It's because of Vietnam vets like YOU that my brother got a welcome home last April. THANK GOD the press will never be able to pull crap like that again without an outcry from people everywhere. THANK GOD Algore invented the internet! I'll bet he wishes he'd never thought of it! He he he!! *HUGS!*
Hooah!! THANK YOU for being a strong woman behind one of my military HEROES - you are a hero too!! *HUGS!*
Well, I appreciate that, but actually I'm not behind any military hero. My teenage daughter's boyfriend is in Iraq and another dear young friend of mine just came home (a Naval officer who was so determined to fight directly in this war that he transferred to ground duty in Iraq, and ruined his fine career in doing so). But I don't have a husband over there. I am just surrounded by local officers' wives in my neighborhood who spend half their lives bitching about how tough it is to have Himself gone for six months or so, and as a divorced mother who has not had a man to make decisions for me in the past ten years I get furious that they call their husbands and whine about how hard it is making the maid do a good job on the bathrooms. Sheesh. These gals need to get a clue. It's the twenty-first century and today women actually are able to make decisions for themselves. I just know that if I had a husband over there I'd never bother his head about a thing, just send him lots of news stories from FR about how the American people love what our boys are doing over there and fill his head with promises about what I was going to do to him when he gets back.
Disclaimer: Opinions posted on Free Republic are those of the individual posters and do not necessarily represent the opinion of Free Republic or its management. All materials posted herein are protected by copyright law and the exemption for fair use of copyrighted works.