For years, soldiers stationed far from home have relied on letters, packages and occasional phone calls to stay in touch with loved ones. With video conferencing technology, military personnel can connect with family members back home in real time. For example, a Navy petty officer can join his wife and share his baby's first moments. An Army private can watch her daughter's graduation. A family can share a holiday meal and open gifts with their Marine son.
Family separation is one of the most negative aspects of troop deployment, according to "How Deployments Affect Service Members," a study by the Rand Corp. Researchers surveyed and conducted focus groups with U.S. military personnel stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan in 2003 and 2004. They found that being separated from family caused higher-than-usual stress and significantly reduced individuals' intention to re-enlist.
Military personnel in focus groups told the researchers that phones were unreliable, often broken and very expensive. E-mail also was unreliable and difficult to access, they said, because of the limited number of computers. The Rand Corp. researchers recommended that deployed personnel be given better access to communication channels with home to help reduce the stress of family separation [source: Rand Corp].
Military video conferencing provides such a way to keep families together. In this article, we'll talk about how video conferencing works, how the military uses this technology and how families connect using video conferencing.
Video Conferencing Technology and Connecting
Video conferencing allows people at two or more locations to see and hear each other at the same time, using computer and communications technology. They exchange visual information with Webcams (digital video cameras) and streaming video. Audio content may be distributed via computer or the telephone system.
The chief advantage of video conferencing is that audiences tend to absorb information better if they are both seeing and hearing it. To accomplish that, video conferencing programs combine Web page tools and Internet communication into one interface to create an interactive meeting environment. These tools include:
The simplest video conference requires two people, each with:
- A computer
- An Internet connection
- A telephone, if audio content isn't provided online
- A PC with a microphone, a Webcam or digital video camera, and a video capture card
Video input from the camera and audio input from the microphone are converted to digital data. Software is used to compress the data so that it can travel more quickly via ISDN lines, broadband Internet or WiFi. When the data reaches its destination, it's decompressed to be viewed on a computer monitor or television screen and heard through speakers. Acoustic echo cancellation software is used to remove sound interference and eliminate delays so that sound and visuals are in synch [source: The Tech-FAQ].
Video conferencing software can be purchased by itself, or the software and server space can be provided by a hosting service.
The U.S. military uses video conferencing in several different ways.
Connecting Commanders and Families
The U.S. Army first used digital communication technology in 1990 to broadcast a training course to five National Guard sites in Kentucky. Today, the Army uses digital communication technology -- including video conferencing -- for everything from training to war planning.
Every year, for example, 35,000 hours of training is broadcast to 1,200 U.S. military sites around the world. Video conferencing speeds up the work of the military justice system by connecting experts in one location with military tribunals or medical review boards in another. And, the Army's combat planning in Iraq includes daily video conferences to outline daily missions and review strategy with field commanders, plus additional conferences with troops.
These meetings are transmitted using the Aethra SuperNova video teleconference system. Because the details are top secret, these video conferences require secure transmissions. Video and audio signals are sent across hard-wired, fiber-optic connections to and from each conference site, over encoded military satellite systems, or a combination of both. Troops connect to the system from headquarters, the battlefield or nearby military bases [source: Special Operations Technology]. Over time, commanders recognized the need to let soldiers use that technology to connect with their families at home.
Next, we'll see how military video conferencing works for military personnel and their families.
What the Military Offers Families
Operation Desert Storm marked the beginning of a shift to electronic communication between troops and their families. During the Gulf War, companies such as AT&T provided phone connections from the Persian Gulf to the United States, so that personnel at some bases could make 10-minute "morale calls" home once or twice a month.
Morale calls still exist, but so do e-mail, chat rooms and video conferencing services via the Defense Switched Network (DSN), the military's global telecommunications network. This all connects to the military concept of "readiness" by troops and their families. Military readiness means troops are focused and ready for duty at all times, free from distractions due to personal problems or inadequate training. "Family readiness" refers to the family being prepared to deal having their loved ones sent on a military mission.
Video conferencing is usually arranged through Family Readiness Centers on U.S. military bases. Most military video conferencing options are open only to immediate family members such as spouses and children, parents and siblings. Video conferencing options, equipment and availability vary, depending on the branch of military service, the size of the base and other factors. At Fort Bragg, N.C., for example, Army families use video conferencing technology in the Family Readiness Center's conference room.
Some Navy ships are equipped for video conferencing, but these calls often require extra coordination between ship and shore. One 2005 conference between the USS Kearsarge and Fleet Forces Command Headquarters (FFCHQ) in Norfolk, Va., brought 60 military families to FFCHQ to see their loved ones by satellite signals sent from the ship.
If you want to get in touch with a relative in the military via video conferencing, and you may not know exactly where he or she is stationed overseas, these steps should help.
- Start by calling the military member's "home base" in the United States. The base operator will direct your call or provide a phone number to the Family Readiness Center or other agency. Conferences generally are set up from home base and run on the secure DSN.
- Once you've reached the Family Readiness Center, ask if video conferencing is available at that base or at a military base in your area. Not all bases are equipped for this, but you may be able to get directions to the location with the facilities you need.
- Be sure to have the military member's full name, rank, and unit (such as the 432nd Fighter Squadron, 3rd Infantry or other designation). You may need to provide this information to get the process started.
- Ask for details about the site's video conferencing, such as cost and availability; explain your special event, if any; and make arrangements to talk to your relative.
- If this doesn't work, try the Red Cross. Call your local Red Cross office, explain that you're trying to locate a family member in the military, and be ready to provide the service member's Social Security number.
Another option available through the military is video phones. At Scott AFB, Ill., the Readiness Center loans video phones to families at no charge. When Air Force members receive orders to go to Iraq or Afghanistan, they can check out the phones for their family. The names of families with loaner video phones are added to a special calling list sent to the Scott AFB telephone operator. Users connect the video phone to their phone line at home and dial the base operator, who verifies the caller's name is on the list. Once verified, the operator connects a free international call on the Defense Switched Network.
Now, let's look at other sources of video conferencing for military families.
Beyond the Military
Military bases don't have a monopoly on video technology used to connect families at home with members deployed to a war zone. Veteran support groups, churches and charities all offer video conferencing to connect families to loved ones. In some parts of the United States, the Red Cross runs "Operation Video Connect," which helps military families record audio and video messages for those deployed overseas. These messages are e-mailed to the troops as attachments or made available for viewing or downloading.
Freedom Calls Foundation is the largest not-for-profit organization working with the military and private industry to offer free video conferencing to families, especially during holidays when the separation can affect morale the most. The foundation has organized video conferencing at football games and graduations -- and even made a military wedding possible for a bride in Iraq and a groom in Colorado. The foundation receives no funding from the military and relies on help from individuals and corporations in monetary donations, equipment, technology and expertise.
Besides maintaining an international satellite network, the foundation has also constructed Freedom Calls communication centers at five military bases in Iraq and Afghanistan. Camp Taji, north of Baghdad, had one of the first, which offers free video teleconferencing and high-speed Internet systems with e-mail and Web-based phone lines. The facility serves 15,000 troops and has 40 computers, four enterprise class video conferencing units and 30 telephones. Camp residents and families sign up for satellite time and can note special events that require video conferencing, such as teacher-parent conferences. Freedom Calls maintains 10,000 sites in the United States where families can go to video conference. The foundation also provides Web cameras and software to enable families to conference from their homes.
Video conferencing technology has become "mission critical" to the U.S. military, according to the Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association Web site. And while video conferencing isn't as widely available as e-mail to the average soldier, that's changing as technology improves. If past performance is any indication, as wartime use of video conferencing becomes more refined, morale building and readiness uses will also evolve.
For more information about military video conferencing and related topics, check out the links on the next page.