Technology Brings Families Together

By 2nd Lt. Amber Millerchip
Air Education and Training Command Public Affairs

RANDOLPH AIR FORCE BASE, Texas (AETCNS) — The conference room was filled with loud sounds of conversation, feelings of quiet excitement and nostalgia. There was a constant bustle of people arriving and leaving.

Among those waiting, some were talking and some were sharing hugs of comfort, while others just sat in solitude looking forward to hearing their name called.

All present were family members of someone deployed in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Halfway around the world in Iraq, another group of people, Army Reserve soldiers, waited with deep anticipation.

This was the scene May 30, when families gathered for the opportunity to spend about 13 minutes talking with their loved ones overseas.

Hosted by Air Education and Training Command, 20 members of the 13th Corps Support Command from Fort Hood, Texas, deployed to Iraq, were able to not only talk but also see their family members via video teleconference.

"A video teleconference is important because soldiers and families can actually see each other," said Capt. DeAnn Aparicio, Headquarters and Headquarters Company commander for the Special Troops Battalion of the 13th COSCOM in Iraq. "It is as close to being home as the soldiers can get aside from going on leave."

Video teleconferencing is two way interactive audio and visual communication.

Family members and soldiers sit in front of a television screen and converse as though the person is actually sitting across from them, said Senior Master Sgt. Frank J. Joy, Command Videoconference Network superintendent here. They can see the other's face, their gestures and how they express themselves.

This type of communication greatly increases feelings of reassurance, said Captain Aparicio. Nothing is more reassuring to a family than to see their loved one healthy. Just being able to look at each other can do more than words can say, the captain said.

Her husband, Sgt. 1st Class Jackson Aparicio, agreed.

Soldiers' letters tend to be a little sad, Sergeant Aparicio said. From the VTC, the family member can physically see how they feel and the state of their morale.

For Sergeant Aparicio, he could see in his wife's face that she is hanging in there with her deployment. Being on this side of the deployment for the first time, as a family member left behind, he said he now feels it's harder for the families than those deployed.

"I have no idea what's going on over there or what kind of danger she is in," Sergeant Aparicio said. "As a family member you usually think and imagine the worst. So it's a little scarier to be a family member than to be the actual soldier out there."

To the soldier, a VTC also offers many things a simple phone call cannot, Captain Aparicio said.

"Many have newborn or young children who are growing fast," Captain Aparicio said. "They can watch their babies take steps, say new words or just see how much their children have grown. This weekend was also Memorial Day weekend, a time when most families gather together, so this was a special occasion for these families."

This was the case for Staff Sgt. Martin Oviedo, in charge of the 13th COSCOM personal security detail, and his 1-month-old-daughter. The two finally met when she opened her eyes and woke up from a nap.

His other daughter also shared a special time with her father. She was able to show him several of her new elementary school awards and her trophy for best school reader.

Appreciation for the available technology was also a common feeling among the troops and family members.

When Glenda Hunt, another spouse, told her father, a World War II veteran, about her opportunity to see her husband via VTC, he said he was amazed at the communication advances in comparison to other conflicts, Mrs. Hunt said. In his day, it took up to three months to get a letter from the front to his mother.

Only recently has VTC become available to family members, Sergeant Aparicio said. When he was deployed to Somalia in 1993, VTC was hard to come by.

"We only had one phone line for our whole battalion of about 400 people," Sergeant Aparicio said. "You had to wait hours and hours in line just to get your 10 minutes. So this is great."

For most of the soldiers who participated in the May 30 VTC, it was the first time they had seen their loved ones since the beginning of their deployment almost five months ago, Captain Aparicio said. Twenty-one of the 117 members deployed have also been away from their homes since they mobilized to Fort Hood in March 2003.

The reservists are based out of San Marcos, so the majority of their families live anywhere between Houston, San Antonio and Austin, Captain Aparicio said. Although they have had two VTCs for families at Fort Hood since the unit deployed, the commute is too much for many of the families.

"The two-hour or more drive up to Fort Hood for 10-15 minutes with a loved one is a lot to ask of families, and especially children," Captain Aparicio said. "Our best option was to find a location to host a VTC that was central to my San Marcos folks."

This is the first time AETC has hosted a VTC for Army Reserve families.

According to Sergeant Joy, the facility has only hosted one or two morale calls in the past. Despite the technology available, requests have not come in. This was the first request for a large group of families.

"In Iraq we work with Air Force, Marine, Navy and civilian personnel, so it is great to see this teamwork carries on back in the States," Capt. Aparicio said. "We are a combined services team in war, and this VTC proves we are one team in the U.S. as well."

Opportunities to use the VTC are now going to be offered on a regular basis to the unit.

The 13th COSCOM is Fort Hood's third largest unit with more than 6,000 soldiers assigned. The unit's mission is to provide command and control and logistics support both to the battalion and to the 13th COSCOM headquarters.


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