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Technology helps troops stay in touch with loved ones

DOHA, Qatar—During the Persian Gulf War, soldiers stood in line for hours to phone their loved ones, or waited three weeks for the mail. Now they use the Internet to e-mail, pay bills and even send Valentines to their sweethearts.

"I've sent more flowers now than I ever have," said Army Capt. Joseph Tryon, 38, of Price, Utah. "You realize how simple things are important."

This Valentine's Day, instead of standing in line to use the phone, some soldiers will even be able to see and speak to loved ones via teleconferences. Such technology is proving to be a big morale boost for the troops, and for their families back home.

In the 13 years since Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, technology has transformed the military. Global Positioning Systems let forces easily navigate a desert with no distinguishable features. Knowing precise locations reduces the risk of friendly fire. And if Americans must bury the remains of enemy fighters, as they did in 1991, they can later direct humanitarian groups to the battle sites.

But even before the battles begin, technology also is helping to keep the troops in touch with the people they went overseas to protect.

"I had to wait in line three or four hours after Desert Storm to call my wife and tell her I was alive," said Marine Lt. Col. Steve Emerson of Philadelphia. "Now you just pop her an e-mail."

Pvt. Meredith Barrowman, 20, beams at the e-mails with pictures of her friend's new baby. Her grandmother keeps in touch with greeting cards she sends online. And Barrowman is using the Internet to take a communications class at an Army college.

As soon as her family in Tulsa, Okla., finds a place to link in, she'll start using video teleconferences to see and talk to 10 relatives at once.

"Everybody in my family, they would all pile in one room to see me," Barrowman said. "They miss me that much."

The military is building an Internet cafe that will have 20 to 30 computers, and many troops have Internet access in their offices.

Tryon said there was a 10-hour time difference between Qatar and his home in Utah, but that he had been able to arrange times when he could instant-message his family.

"It's the next best thing to a phone," said Tryon. "You get that rapid communication."

Tax time is also easier this time around. Soldiers can download W2 forms for their accountants to do their taxes, and they can pay bills so their finances don't fall into disarray. They can check their pay stubs, known in the military as Leave and Earning Statements, so that their spouses don't have to decipher military codes.

The Internet also helps the troops get equipment. Some military police realized they needed drop-down holsters to reach their guns easily while wearing flak vests. In the past, they would have had to order the holsters from their bases back home, which would then contact the manufacturer. Now the company will simply FedEx them in a few days.

"It makes supply and demand easier," said Army Staff Sgt. Patrick Savage of Roy, Utah.


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.