Americans have enjoyed unprecedented access to their troops this decade as two wars raged in distant lands.
Phone calls, e-mails and face-to-face Web chats are unimaginable luxuries compared with what anxious family members back home experienced during the wars in Europe, Korea and Vietnam.
But there are pros and cons to a digital age of instant communication.
Rachel Lenhardt decided it was worth paying an extra $180 a month for her husband, James, to have a dodgy Internet connection in Iraq. Instead of waiting sometimes hours for video chat at the public facility, he could sign on Skype from his tent and see his wife and five children instantly.
But about eight months into the 12-month deployment, Rachel was up late talking with her husband when his base came under attack. She watched live as her husband hit the dirt, then popped back up into camera view pulling on a helmet.
His roommate also came into camera view and the screen froze just as he looked at the camera.
“I could see the fear in his eyes,” Lenhardt said. “It made me realize, ‘This is real.’ ”
James Lenhardt could only give her a quick “gotta go” before ending the connection. An understandably anxious Rachel Lenhardt stayed up until 3 a.m., when her husband was able to connect back with her and tell her everything was OK.
For the Lenhardts, it was worth the anxiety in exchange for a chance to see one another. The children could see the stuffed animals and Spiderman sheets they sent with him to Iraq. He could hear about their day at school and remain a parent in the family.
They got a taste of what it’s like to send only letters when he went to basic training and “I didn’t like that at all,” Rachel Lenhardt said.
That was the norm during other wars, however.
Dial back to the Vietnam era, when phone calls were a rare treat. Soldiers connected stateside using the Military Affiliated Radio System, or MARS, which linked a chain of ham radio operators from a fire base in the jungle to anywhere in the United States – atmospheric conditions permitting, of course. As Army veteran Douglas Hastings tells it, the signal typically traveled to Saigon, the Philippines, Hawaii, San Francisco then somewhere on the East Coast.
The phone call was limited to five minutes and every time you finished talking, the speaker had to say “over” so that the radio operators across the network could switch who was transmitting and who was receiving.
“I had to think of the shortest way to say I was doing fine,” Hastings said.
Letters were the only option of communication for soldiers in World War II. Navy veteran Richard Craig traveled all over the Pacific in an amphibious troop carrier and went up to three months without hearing from home.
He recalls a 60-mile hump with a shipmate in the Philippines to retrieve 14 sacks of mail that had sat in Guadalcanal for five months. They hitchhiked the whole way back, sometimes getting 10 miles a stretch, often less.
By the time they arrived back to their ship, it had already left the beach for the night.
They spent a sleepless night in a leaky tent huddled on one of the two available cots.
The other cot was piled with mail sacks so they wouldn’t float away in the deluge.
The mail in the sacks, including their Christmas cards, were almost all moldy. But that didn’t matter.
“We were celebrities when we got back to the ship,” Craig said.