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E-mail the infantry, cell phones at sea

October 3, 2001

NEW YORK, Oct. 3 — As they’re sent off to battle, wherever that may be, how will the nation’s military men and women keep in touch with their families? The answer depends on several factors: which branch of the military they’re in, where they’re located, what their jobs are and the latest permutations of the war called “Operation Enduring Freedom.”

ADD THIS TO THE LIST of so many firsts for the Internet, a medium that was of course created initially for military use: the first military operation of such scope in which widespread commercial use of the medium will be a factor. As it never has before, even in more recent military actions, e-mail is now commonplace in civilian life, and the military is figuring out its use for service men and women.

Other technologies, like the ubiquitous cell phone, will challenge the military as well.

“You can count on us having discussions on how to balance convenience and the need for sailors to maintain contact with home, with operational security,” said Lt. Bill Speakes of the Navy.

“There are no restrictions about having a cell phone aboard a Navy ship, but there may be times when a commanding officer may dictate when it may or may not be used. It’s a time, place, and manner situation.”

And while sailors might bring personal computers on board, those would not be machines that get hooked up to the Internet. Speakes said that “any type of e-mail or Internet access would be tied to the ship’s,” for security reasons. Sailors are not told when e-mail connectivity, if it is available on board a particular vessel, will be available or not, he said: “That would obviously send a signal” and have the potential of breaching security.

The very existence of these communications technologies raises new issues and challenges for the military, which is naturally cryptic about details.

A spokeswoman for the Air Force, Maj. Donna Nicholas, said she didn’t know how to answer the question about whether cell phone calls by military personnel out in the field were monitored. “We’re all pretty vigilant about enforcing and adhering to restrictions,” she said. “Everyone has a built-in sensitivity to that.”

The Air Force, Nicholas said, has been testing videoconferencing systems that would allow service members to record video e-mail messages, or in some cases, would connect service members with family members back at home base at appointed times. Those systems are not yet in widespread use, she said.

Diane Grant, an Army spokeswoman, said troops communicate with home in a variety of ways — via “phone, Internet and letters” — and that there were no restrictions regarding cell phones, but she added that given the current climate, “we are not going to discuss current operations.”


Historically, communications during wartime have taken many forms, reflective of the technologies in vogue at the time. During World War II, a new communications form called V-mail was created, said Nancy Pope of the National Postal Museum. V-mail was “a form the postal service would give you. They would microfilm and shrink it down, carry the microfilm overseas. Instead of a ship wasting precious cargo space, they got 500 sacks of letters into one sack of microfilm,” Pope said. “When it got overseas it got to a processing center where it was blown up” to a larger size, so the servicemen could read it.

In Vietnam, Pope said, soldiers sometimes used reel-to-reel tape to send aural letters to their loved ones, and in Desert Storm, that idea was extended to videotape and sometimes fax. Phone calls and other innovations are less typical than letters, she said, because of the nature of secrecy and troop movements, as well as expense.

New methods of communication during wartime are being followed curiously by historians like Andrew Carroll, who in May published a book of military correspondence called “War Letters.” PBS is turning the book, comprised of letters to and from military personnel, into a documentary that will be aired this coming Veteran’s Day.

While safety, not historical record, is the paramount concern during military actions, Carroll said, he has been thinking about the issue of modern-day communications and how it might affect how the coming days, weeks and months might be recalled years from now.

“There’s something about pen and paper that’s more conducive to thoughtful writing,” he said. “From the veterans themselves and the families, there is nothing like going through the letters someone wrote during the time of war. For future generations it’s a much better connection than what I call a cold e-mail. I’ve held e-mails, and they’re just not the same.”

In modern times, there are more methods of communication than ever for military personnel to check in back home, even if it’s just for a quick hello.

“It could be situation-dependent (you might have different security concerns if you were a special ops troop as opposed to a sailor leaving Norfolk), it could be technology-dependent (one commander might engage with ham operators using Military Amateur Radio Services (MARS) — and another commander will invite AT&T to install a phone bank), and it could be service-dependent (one might use INMARSAT and another might use Iridium by another name),” wrote Lt. Col. Ken McClellan of the Defense Department. “The only method I would say is probably out of the question for communication is carrier pigeon.”




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