Originally created 11/21/00

Center keeps families in touch



FORT STEWART - Six weeks and 6,000 miles separate 1st Lt. Paul Bequette from his wife and two daughters.

But it takes only a few seconds for the family to converse through cyberspace.

"How was school today, Taylor?" 1st Lt. Bequette asks his 7-year-old.

"We went to music. We drawed pictures for Santa," she answers. "After Christmas, I'm going to send them to you."

"That'll be nice," 1st Lt. Bequette says.

Stacey Bequette and her daughters, Taylor and 2-year-old Darian, arrive each Friday at Fort Stewart's new Family Readiness Center. They sit in a room made from partitions that block the noise of a preschool playroom. First Lt. Bequette joins them from Camp Eagle in Tuzla, Bosnia.

The family talks through a video teleconference for 15 minutes before Susan Wilder, the center's director, steps in to say, "Time's up."

When Fort Stewart received orders last spring to send nearly 4,000 troops for peacekeeping in Bosnia, the Defense Department set aside money for the Family Readiness Center, Ms. Wilder said. Maps of Bosnia and photos of soldier camps hang on the walls along with clocks showing the time in places where Fort Stewart soldiers are deployed. There are meeting rooms for family support groups.

It's all geared toward helping Army families deal with long deployments. In the 30 days since video teleconferencing started, 120 families have met, Ms. Wilder said.

Two years ago, when thousands of Fort Stewart troops deployed to Kuwait for six months, the Internet wasn't as easy for soldiers to access. Now, many soldiers have laptop computers, and there are cybercafes at Camp Eagle. Nearly every battalion has digital cameras, so pictures can be sent through e-mail. And a Web site updates 3rd Infantry Division activities in the Balkans.

The Internet and satellite communications help families find instant answers to problems, Mrs. Bequette said. If she e-mails a question to her husband before bedtime, there's a response by the time she wakes up.

"I can't imagine not having the Internet," she said.

During the video conferences, the Bequettes mostly tell stories. Mrs. Bequette tells about the girls' antics and achievements. Taylor talks about school. First Lt. Bequette explains what he is doing. And Darian, well, she does what 2-year-olds do:

"Dad, look at my butt," she proudly exclaims as she turns her backside to the television screen.

"It helps get through the days when the stress builds up," 1st Lt. Bequette says of the conferences. "I can see them and it lightens the burdens of the day."

"It helps get through the days when the stress builds up. I can see them and it lightens the burdens of the day."- First Lt. Paul Bequette, on talking to his family by video conference