ABOARD THE USS JOHN RODGERS, Mediterranean Sea -- Mail call for American sailors at sea will never be the same.
Now it's e-mail call.
Most sailors deployed on six-month cruises have the chance for the first time in the service's history to send and receive electronic mail. Instead of waiting days or weeks for a letter to reach them, sailors and officers are hearing from their families and friends, often within 24 hours.
And what a difference a day makes, especially for morale, say sailors and their commanders.
Cryptologist David H.Yahr hears from his wife daily. Good news and bad.
During maneuvers off Spain last month, Yahr got word through e-mail that a fire destroyed his four-bedroom home in Florida. "The fire department was just putting it out when I was notified" through the ship's e-mail system, said Yahr, a father of three. "I knew my family was OK. They all got out. They even saved the cat."
Yahr called his family on one of the ship's 10 "sailor" phones. Yahr was able to calm his wife, Joy, and help her deal with insurance questions. Meanwhile, word of the Dec. 9 fire spread through the ship.
Within 24 hours, Yahr had received $2,500 in donations from his shipmates. He flew home on the next available flight. Yahr said e-mail also enabled him to return to the John Rodgers sooner than expected.
"We're doing all the coordinating with the insurance adjusters and everything by e-mail," said Yahr, who is on his first cruise.
Yahr acknowledges that he still resorts to pen and paper on occasion. "If you want to say private things, you write a letter," he said.
But the e-mail call that comes once a day is a big moment. The destroyer's communications center downloads the incoming mail. It is sorted by name, printed and delivered in the crew's mailboxes.
"When e-mail is called every night -- whoosh! It's amazing the uplift of the crew," said Lt. j.g. Laura Herath of Arnold, Md.
"This is my fourth time in the Mediterranean and I don't see how we did without it," said Lt. Ken Linkous, the ship's chief engineer, who was raised in Hyattsville, Md. "For one thing, it doesn't cost anything so it's easier on the wallet."
When Linkous learned he would have access to e-mail on the John Rodgers, he bought a computer for his family before the destroyer sailed from its home port of Mayport, Fla.
"I was able to keep up with the O's," added Linkous, an avid Baltimore Orioles fan whose wife and two small children live in Florida.
In his cabin, along with Orioles memorabilia, Linkous' two favorite e-mails are posted on his locker. Both are from his children; one is a hodgepodge of letters banged out by his 2-year-old son.
"The tyranny of distance is the biggest impact on morale," said Rear Adm. Kendell Pease, the Navy's chief spokesman. "And we're closing that distance. Now you can reach out and touch someone through the magic of technology. Mail call has taken on a whole new meaning."
Official Navy correspondence has reached ships electronically for years. But 2« years ago, the Navy's chief of operations decided to give crews access to e-mail. Today, sailors aboard some 300 of the Navy's 347 vessels have electronic access. The Navy has also equipped community centers in home ports so families who don't have computers can participate, said Pease.
"The first aircraft battle group (with e-mail access) that went to the Mediterranean had about 80,000 e-mail communications in six months," said Pease. "The last aircraft battle group, the Teddy Roosevelt's, logged 1.8 million."
Aboard the John Rodgers, crew members carry computer disks in their pockets, awaiting the designated time when the ship's communications center sends e-mails. Word processors are available in the destroyer's library for sailors who don't have computers.
The ship is halfway through a six-month cruise and the crew has sent 20,000 e-mails, said Capt. James M. Carr III, the destroyer's commanding officer.
"You have the reassurance that the mundane aspects of life -- like children getting to school, the rent being paid, the hiccups with a checkbook -- are OK. We think a sailor performs better if he has that reassurance that his family is taken care of," said Carr, a Naval Academy graduate. "I have not seen my sailors get down yet and we're halfway through our deployment."
Carr keeps his family abreast of the ship's port calls. He asks his children via e-mail if they can find him on a map. In a recent e-mail, Carr's son told him about the new sport he had discovered -- lacrosse.
"Can you find that on a map?" the son e-mailed his dad.