BAGRAM, Afghanistan -- U.S. forces hunting down al-Qaida and Taliban fighters have brought more than just firepower to this dust-ridden Afghan air base.
They've strung fiber optic cables through the treetops and installed satellite uplinks, providing thousands of American troops with a crucial link to home - the Internet.
"Most of the soldiers here use it," said Sgt. 1st Class Jeffrey Franklin, 34, from Blue Ridge, Va. "I e-mail my family to let 'em know I'm OK, that I hadn't hit no land mine."
The network at Bagram air base was set up by the U.S. Army's 11th Signal Brigade to facilitate communications between military units and help gather intelligence in the war on terrorism. But it's also helping soldiers keep in touch with their loved ones more than ever before.
"We didn't have all this during Desert Storm," 38-year-old Chief Warrant Officer 2 John Proctor said of the U.S.-led operation to push Iraqi forces out of Kuwait a decade ago. "It makes coping with being away from home a lot easier."
The Internet in its current form didn't exist back then. By the mid-1990s, U.S. troops deployed in parts of the former Yugoslavia had slow-speed links for the first time, and limited access to e-mail.
Afghanistan marks the first time such an elaborate network has been set up in a tactical theater to support combat troops.
At Bagram, it began modestly on Dec. 17 when a satellite dish, mounted on a four-wheel drive Humvee, was unfolded in one of the few parts of the base that had been cleared by minesweepers. Twenty-four hours later, cables were running into a single sandbagged green tent, filled with computers.
Today, the network has expanded several miles across the base, providing Internet access to 250 computers - many with T-1 speed Internet connections - at 45 different locations, most of them in tents.
That's no small feat in a place that has no telephone system of its own and no electricity. Full-time diesel-powered generators provide the juice to keep it all going.
The technology stands in stark contrast to the spartan surroundings. Few people in Afghanistan have phones and fewer still have ever seen the Internet.
At Bagram, most buildings and power lines were trashed during years of fighting between northern alliance troops and the Taliban. Army engineers have now strung up new bundles of cables, tying them across the tops of trees or on concrete power poles that have long been out of use.
The network provides inter-base telephone links as well, and soldiers can call the United States without having to pay an overseas rate.
But making calls is not always easy. U.S. troops can do so at the so-called "morale tent," but they often have to wait in line because only eight phones are available.
Proctor said e-mailing his wife and 12-year-old son was more convenient than calling because he could send e-mails several times a day. And there is also the time factor - Afghanistan is 8 1/2 hours ahead of the east coast.
"Day here is night there," said Proctor, from Albany, Ga.
For most troops, access is informal. Soldiers squeeze in time to send brief e-mails through their unit's computer terminal. All e-mail communications from troops in Afghanistan are subject to monitoring for security purposes.
For 120-man infantry companies with only one terminal, access can be difficult.
Capt. Steven Beecham, who is part of the 11th Signal Brigade, said there were plans to rig a special morale tent up as a cybercafe, but not for a few more months.
Specialist Jeremy Willey, of Lancaster, Ohio, sometimes uses the network to listen to Internet radio - local stations don't offer Western music. He insists access is not a problem.
"Everybody here uses the Internet. Whether it's to check sports scores or to write home to mom," the 25-year-old said.
Of course, the network has a much larger, though secret, role to play in the U.S.-led hunt for al-Qaida terrorists.
"Information is power," Proctor said. "You can have the biggest guns in the world, but if you don't know where to aim them, they're useless."
It should come as no surprise that the U.S. military has Internet in the field. Decades ago, the Defense Department funded the research that created it.
For all the e-mail exchanges, messages still arrive at Bagram the old way - with stamps on them.
"We still get a lot of letters, but they're usually from grandma," said Beecham, 30, of Pekin, Ill.
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