CAMP VIRGINIA, Kuwait—The last time America's soldiers came here to fight, they scribbled notes on the back of cardboard meal packets and dropped them like postcards in the mail. Those makeshift notes could take weeks to reach home; the replies sometimes never found nomad troops.
Today, soldiers and sailors can stay in touch back home through e-mail. The quick communication helps keep spirits high, but those millions of unbridled megabytes blazing through cyberspace have increased concerns about security leaks.
Sailors use satellite links in ship libraries and other public areas. Soldiers visit so-called "morale tents" where lines can sometimes stretch for hours.
Each night, Army Sgt. Tom (who declined to give his last name for security reasons) trudges across camp to a tent in the Kuwaiti desert to e-mail his wife, Heather, in Lawton, Okla.
"She tells me how my son is doing," said the sergeant. "I'm just glad to know what's going on."
"(E-mail) is no different than a telephone call," said Army Lt. Gen. Peter Cuviello. "It is critical now in this world, where we've gotten used to the uses of technology in our home lives, that we have this opportunity for soldiers and family members."
In World War II, soldiers and sailors had to rely on handwritten letters that could take months to arrive or 12-inch phonograph records that had just enough room for short messages. In Vietnam and Korea, service men and women used the mail, splurged on the rare phone call, used ham radio or sent taped messages on audiocassettes.
In Desert Storm in 1991, very few had e-mail accounts, but in Kosovo in 1998, Hotmail and Yahoo were as common as military rations. By the time U.S. troops landed in Afghanistan, tents with satellite connections put them just a click away from news from home.
Some sailors and soldiers keep online journals. The anonymous poster behind "L.T. Smash: Live from the Sandbox" (http://lt-smash.com/) gets more than 6,000 hits a day.
The military instructs service men and women not to send sensitive information about such things as troop location or troop morale. It also uses software to screen e-mail.
"(Service men and women) don't take for granted that their e-mail is totally private," said Richard Doherty, director of research for The Envisioneering Group, a Seaford, N.Y.-based research firm. "Their e-mail is probably as private as e-mail at any business.
E-mail policies vary from unit to unit and are usually left up to individual commanders.
"We trust that our soldiers know what violating operational security can do to jeopardize safety and mission, putting themselves and their fellow soldiers in harm's way by saying something about what it is they are about to do," Cuviello said.
The Air Force monitors use of government computers but denies a published report that it may limit or block e-mail use because sensitive photos of bases showed up on private Web sites.
"As of right now, there are no restrictions on sending of e-mail and photos," said spokeswoman Tricia York.
The Navy leaves e-mail use up to ship commanders but monitors e-mail sent and received on submarines because of the demand for stealth.
There are times when service people can't log onto e-mail because of limited network capacity. The capacity to communicate electronically—called bandwidth—will be in shorter supply during wartime.
Military units hope to keep e-mail available for as long as possible but likely will cut it off—at least temporarily—before an attack on Iraq.
"If hostilities should commence, the folks really involved with spearheading operations won't be doing e-mail anyway," Cuviello said. "They'll be in tanks, Bradleys and artillery pieces and stuff like that."
(Guynn is in Washington. Canon is in Kuwait, as are Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondents Juan Tamayo and Sara Olkon, who contributed to this report.)
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTO (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): usiraq-email