Army Scout Christopher Rowlands turned 20 this June at Camp Katsu, 30 miles south of Baghdad.
His family found a way to be part of this milestone by sending him a birthday party in a box, complete with confetti, party hats, cards and gifts.
Cheri Dodson, Chris's mother, says that is just one of the ways they try to stay in touch with Chris, who is with the 101st Airborne based out of Fort Campbell, Ky. Chris joined the Army as soon as he graduated from Howland High School in 2006 and has been in Iraq since October 2007.
Jeannette Sanders and her son Ryan Owens, who as served in Iraq, use a Web cam to communicate. Staff Sgt. Owens now is stationed in Okinawa, Japan.
RIGHT, Army Scout Christopher
Special to the Tribune Chronicle
Communication between family members can be difficult, but when you are thousands of miles and many time zones apart, it is even harder.
There are more than 1.4 million active duty personnel as well as 800,000 members of the U.S. National Guard/Reserves and veterans from all arms of service, according to the American Red Cross. Regular communication with deployed personnel is extremely important because it can raise morale and help families cope with separation, according to the Department of Defense Web site for military spouses.
Jeannette Sanders of Warren knows how hard it is to keep in touch with family members serving in the military. Both of her sons were in Iraq at the height of the conflict there.
"Embedded news people sometimes allowed the boys to call," Sanders said, but otherwise there was no opportunity to talk with her sons Brent and Ryan Owens during the war. Communication is much easier now. Staff Sgt. Ryan Owens is stationed in Okinawa, Japan, and Sgt. Brent Owens is currently at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. Ryan and his mother use a webcam to communicate; they both invested in the cameras, which cost about $100, and can see and speak to each other on a regular basis.
The Airman/Family Readiness office at the Youngstown Air Reserve Station in Vienna helps Air Force personnel from the 910th, 757th, and 773rd Airlift Wings and 76th APS Division stay in touch with family at home. They provide packets of stationery for families so kids can keep moms and dads up to date on what is going on in their lives. AFRC also provides calling cards to troops.
Tech Sgt. Eric Rine, from the AFRC, said most military personnel have access to a computer in a centralized location for e-mail if they are not able to use a telephone.
That is how the Elsea brothers kept in touch with their dad, Lt. Colonel Bart Elsea, a pilot with the 910th. Phone calls were sometimes difficult said Brock, now 17 years old, because of time differences.
"When we were younger, sometimes it would be the middle of the night here when he called and we would be sleeping," remembers Brock. More often their communication was by e-mail.
Using a computer helps Chris Rowlands' mother keep in touch with her son in Iraq, too. Due to difficulties with telephone lines there, she has only talked with him once since he was home in April. She usually e-mails him two or three times a week and he responds promptly. They even negotiated the sale of his car here at home by e-mail, Dodson said.
The Red Cross of Trumbull County serves the second largest military population in Ohio, providing assistance to Kunkel Army Reserve, Youngstown Air Reserve Station and the Ohio Army National Guard Base, Ravenna Training and Logistics Site, in Newton Falls. It provides a worldwide communications and support network that serves as a crucial link between military service members and their families in times of emergency.
The American Red Cross offers a brochure called Get to Know Us Before You Need Us which is shared with families when a family member is deployed. Knowing in advance that communication links will be available and how to use the Red Cross services in an emergency brings peace of mind to the military members and to the families from whom they are separated.
Families who need to communicate with service members can contact the Red Cross in the event of serious illness, death, or after the birth of a child. The agency also can send a request that the service person be allowed to come home although that decision is made by the military commander. Family can request that a chaplain be present when the information is conveyed.
Over the past year, the Red Cross in this area has provided emergency contact services to 134 families, said Jessica Jaros, director of Emergency Services for the American Red Cross of Trumbull and Mercer County. The service is provided 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Generational differences complicate communication even more when service members are away.
Rose Hottenroth, Chris Rowlands' grandmother, says her daughter prints Chris' e-mails out so that she can read them and that she mostly writes to him. His grandparents in Florida load minutes onto his calling card so he can keep in touch with them and with his younger brothers in Cortland. Garrett Dodson, Chris' curly headed seven-year-old sibling, said his brother liked his new hairstyle. Cheri had e-mailed some short vacation videos she took on her digital camera and said she was working hard to get more up-to-date on the technology that would help Chris feel more a part of their lives.
The Terrill family in Kinsman has experienced firsthand the changes in the way technology has affected how they communicate with their sons in the military. All four of their boys, as well as another young man they raised, have been in the service. Clark Terrill was in the Navy from 1993 to '96, David from 1995 to '99, Nathan and Chester are still serving, and Ryan Dunnigan is in the Army. When Clark was in the Persian Gulf they wrote letters and received an occasional phone call from him; since he was on a ship he wasn't really reachable. E-mail became more common when their second son was in the Navy, and they now are able to communicate regularly with the boys by e-mailing back and forth, Sheila Terrill said.
Cheri Dodson credits technology with helping Chris Rowlands keep in touch with friends from home.
"He's seeing stuff for real that I wouldn't have wanted him to watch on TV," Dodson said. Using MySpace, posting photos, and reading friends' comments helps keep him "himself."
The senior member of the Terrill family, Chester, who was in the Navy in the 1960s, remembers saving his change in a sock and going to a phone booth to feed it into the pay phone and call home when he had enough saved up. When their older boys were serving, cell phones were less common but now they are able to use their phones when they are stateside.
All branches of the military have support offices to help family members and their service personnel keep in touch. Local community organizations or individuals who would like to contribute calling cards or other donations can contact the USO of Northern Ohio, The American Red Cross of Trumbull and Mercer County, or the Airman and Family Readiness Office at the Youngstown Air Reserve Station.