ARLINGTON, Va. — Army and Air Force Exchange Service officials are touting their new “550-unit Military Exchange Global Prepaid Phone Card,” which they say has the lowest rates available for troop calls from the Middle East region to the United States.

The card’s per-minute rates to the United States from Kuwait are 21 cents per minute; from Iraq and Afghanistan, 35 cents per minute; and from satellite telephones in Iraq, 85 cents per minute, according to AAFES spokesman Judd Anstey.

The AAFES cards, which will cost $39, “are shipping now” and “will be available in AAFES exchanges worldwide and on the AAFES Internet within the next few weeks,” Anstey said.

The Dallas-based AAFES organization currently stocks 50-, 100- and 200-unit Military Exchange Global Prepaid Cards. Prior to the 550 cards, the 200-unit card was the largest available denomination, Anstey said.

For domestic calls in the United States, a unit is one minute in length. For calls from abroad, the number varies. AAFES could not, by press time, say how many units per minute calls were from the three countries.

In addition to lower rates, having more time on a single card is easier for servicemembers, who won’t have to return to AAFES stores to get their cards “reloaded” with more minutes as often, AAFES officials said.

AAFES has set up four phone “call centers” in Iraq, Kuwait, Kurdistan and Afghanistan. The organization has also handed out 700 satellite phones to different units in Iraq, spokesman Fred Bluhm said.

Telephone service currently looms large as a morale issue for soldiers in Iraq, many of who rarely have access to any kind of phone.

Aware of the psychological value of “reaching out and touching” loved ones by phone, commanders are trying several different ways to telephone access for their people — but it’s slow going, Brig. Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, commander of the 35,000 Iraq-deployed troops of the Wiesbaden-based 1st Armored Division, said during an early August interview.

“I feel like I’ve broken the code on computers [getting Internet access to troops], but not on phones,” Dempsey said.

“Telephones have been a hard [issue],” agreed Col. Ben Hodges, commander of the “Bastogne Bulldogs,” the 101st’s 327th Infantry Regiment, 1st Brigade, in a late July interview in Mosul, Iraq.

Dempsey tried to get commercial vendor MCI to consolidate phone banks at some of the 1st AD’s camps, but was “not doing so well” on that effort.

He is also trying to get DSN lines to all his battalions, Dempsey said.

Soldiers with the 2nd Armor Cavalry Regiment soldiers at “Camp Marlboro” in Baghdad already have 24-hour access to DSN phones, though getting an international call through the military phone system can take over an hour, troopers at the camp said in August.

Some unit commanders dedicate their official-use, unit-owned Thuraya satellite phones for morale calls for certain periods of time each week, but that solution can get out of hand for larger groups, commanders said.

One of Hodges’ units, Delta Co., which lives at “Dog Base,” a former Saddam palace in Mosul, tried the Thuraya route, “but we wore them out doing morale calls, and now we have to get them fixed,” Hodges said.

Another way to keep soldiers connected with home is for unit commanders in Iraq bring in local entrepreneurs to provide satellite phones to servicemembers.

But the fees the Iraqis charge typically range anywhere from $1 to $2 a minute to call stateside, which adds up quickly, soldiers said.

Sign Up for Daily Headlines

Sign up to receive a daily email of today's top military news stories from Stars and Stripes and top news outlets from around the world.

Sign Up Now