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Internet links Florida National Guard soldiers to families at home: Soldiers stationed at base in Kuwait
[May 03, 2010]

Internet links Florida National Guard soldiers to families at home: Soldiers stationed at base in Kuwait

May 03, 2010 (Sun Sentinel - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- When 1st Sgt. James Root first went to war with the Florida National Guard in 1991, he and his wife exchanged handwritten letters that sometimes took three weeks to travel between Kuwait and Pembroke Pines. "It was old news before it got there," Anamarie Root said.

Now on his third war-zone deployment with the 124th Infantry Regiment, Root and other South Florida soldiers on a mission to Iraq stay in touch with daily e-mails, instant messaging, updates on Facebook, calls over Kuwaiti cell phones and, increasingly, via video conferencing through Skype.

"Words can't describe the relief I feel when I see he's OK and in good spirits," said Anamarie Root, 41, a Broward County schools administrator. "It feels like he's in the next room, not 10,000 miles away. Seeing him in real time has taken some of the stress off. We never had that before." Cpl. Jason Benton met his daughter in an Internet conference call less than a month ago. Isabella was nestled in the arms of his wife, Cathy, when the newborn's face filled the screen of Benton's laptop computer in his room at Camp Buehring, Kuwait.

"She was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen," said Benton, 28, a Miami mortgage broker just weeks into the year-long deployment when his second child was born. "From that moment I just wanted to come home. Separation is painful." Indeed, the ease and frequency of high-tech communication between soldiers and those left behind have prompted words of caution from some relatives and counselors who work with military families.

"The technology is good, and you want to keep those lines of communications open," said Gary Hodgson, a Marine Corps veteran employed by the Defense Department to assist families of deployed National Guard soldiers from South Florida with problems at home. "But you want our soldiers to keep their minds completely in the game.

"You don't want to distract them. Because he gets off the phone and he's in a Humvee, and instead of thinking about that IED [bomb] around the corner, he's thinking of some problem at home." With advice from the Guard's Family Readiness Groups, available to relatives of all 600 South Florida soldiers deployed with the 1st Battalion, most soldiers and their families have come up with their own guidelines to govern what they discuss.

At the soldiers' end of the line at Camp Buehring, off-limits is any talk of scheduling in their mission to provide security for convoys of supplies and troops moving in and out of Iraq.

"I tell them as little as possible," said Lt. Leonel Poveda, 33, referring to his wife, Maria, and their two children in Doral. "I wouldn't tell them about missions because if they don't hear from me for five or six days, that would be a problem. Keep it simple." With video conferencing, holding back can be tough.

"If I am having a bad day, I won't go into details," said Joell Willis, 28, wife of Sgt. Christopher Willis, of North Palm Beach. "But on Skype, all my emotions show, and he reads me pretty well.

"I just tell him, 'I'm strong, I'm taking care of everything.' " Lillie Giras, a nurse who lives in southwest Miami-Dade County, said she is in touch every day with her son, Sgt. Marc Iannuzzi, 29, who served a year in Afghanistan in 2004-05. "I don't know how families did it during the Vietnam War," said Giras, 51. "I can go on Facebook and see, 'Oh, he's OK, he's in a good mood.' " "I don't tell Marc negative stuff. I don't want to bombard him with mommy thoughts. He's got stuff to deal with." In Sunrise, the chief topic of conversation between Judy and Sgt. Scott Leach is daughter Shelby. Judy e-mails her husband a picture of the 11-month-old every other day, and they talk almost every day by Skype and phone.

"I write lists of things we need to talk about," said Judy Leach, 32. "Plans for the birthday party. She has one tooth coming. Things I need to get fixed. I had wasps in the house, and had to call an exterminator.

"Whatever is happening at that moment. I talk to him just like he was home." In its second deployment to Iraq in seven years, the 124th Infantry was activated with some 1,900 other Florida Guard troops that make up the 53rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team. And aside from a two-week leave, they will not return to their families and civilian jobs until early in 2011.

That means conversations that once took place around the dinner table now take place in front of a camera mounted on a computer.

Days ago, the Roots' three sons -- Austin, 13; Justis, 11; and Alec, 9 -- held up glowing report cards for their father to see. After offering congratulations, Sgt. Root looked his boys in the eye and asked if they could do more to help out around the house.

"For the kids, seeing him face-to-face is a little more intimidating than an e-mail," said Anamarie Root. "They know they can't bend the truth." Skyping also allows the folks at home to see how their soldiers live.

Joell Willis, a preschool teacher, said her husband, Christopher, has walked as far as the Internet connection will permit "to show me around his room, how the guys have moved their wall lockers to create some privacy." On a recent Tuesday, Cathy Benton talked to her husband for about an hour. Wearing a white T-shirt, Jason Benton, a former basketball player for Manhattan College, was sitting on his bed, bent over his laptop, looking into the camera. The springs of the upper bunk were visible behind his head. It was just before 5 p.m. here, but nearly 1 a.m. in Kuwait.

During a 30-minute conversation punctuated by static and dropped connections, the couple talked about the behavior of their son Allen, nearly 4; Isbaella's feeding schedule; and Jason's progress in an online master's degree course in finance.

"OK," said Cathy, signing off. "E-mail me when you get up." "Tell the kids I love them," typed Jason when his voice link was lost.

"OK," said Cathy. "Love you too." Mike Clary can be reached at [email protected] or at 305-810-5007.

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