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CAMP RED CLOUD, South Korea — An online virtual Family Readiness Group to support soldiers who deployed to Iraq from South Korea last year will serve as the blueprint for an Army-wide program to support families of deployed soldiers.

The virtual Family Readiness Group system, which debuts Oct. 1, will replicate major components of FRGs online, Jay M. Burcham, of the U.S. Army Community and Family Support Center, stated in an Army news release last week.

“This … is not just a Web site,” he said. “Soldiers downrange in Iraq, Korea or wherever they are deployed will be able to communicate with families around the world.”

The project began in June 2004 when work started on a virtual FRG to reach out to families of 2nd Brigade Combat Team (Strike Force) soldiers deploying to Iraq, Camp Casey-based Strike Force Rear Detachment commander Maj. John Atkins told Stars and Stripes.

“We met … to determine what we wanted to have on the Web site and the first version came out in August last year,” he said.

That version of the Strike Force site had sections allowing families to post information, ask questions and interact with each other, Atkins said.

“The 2nd Infantry Division provided up-to-date (online) command information as well as the capability to download photos, send newsletters and organize families by location and unit,” Burcham added. “This was a new concept to take the physical FRGs and turn them into a virtual context.”

DefenseWeb Technologies in San Diego completed the development and fielding of the Strike Force virtual FRG in five weeks.

An updated version of the site added instant messaging, forums and discussion groups, post cards, and file and document sharing.

There are 1,186 people registered to use the Strike Force site — www.desertstrike.armyfrg.org — and many others visit but have not registered because they do not want access to all of its features, Atkins said.

A lesson learned from the development of the Strike Force site was that every battalion deploying to a combat zone should have trained and dedicated Web site administrators.

“Maybe that is an additional duty for the chaplain or chaplain’s assistant, or maybe you canvas your unit for someone who is computer savvy,” Atkins said. “We didn’t have that luxury. Everything they (Strike Force) did in Iraq was on the run. They had to pick up administrating a Web page at the same time as fighting a war.”

And Atkins said it’s important to update the page regularly.

“Families quickly lose interest and feel alienated if there is nothing new posted up there,” he said.

What’s in a virtual FRG?

The Army-wide program broadens what was developed for 2nd ID and will feature a site with a unit virtual FRG locator, a kids and teens area, a phone tree organization chart, emergency family plans, blogs, a training tracker and metrics for the unit commander to determine the state of family readiness.

The site also will provide a place for users to obtain news relating to FRGs and their unit. Users will be able to make updates to phone and e-mail lists for rear detachment commanders and FRG leaders.

To maintain operational security users of the site must register and be authenticated by command-level administrators, Jay Burcham said.

Members of the National Guard see this as a great way to enhance family readiness, he added. It gives them the capability to maintain an FRG and communicate with their FRG members on a year-round basis, rather than just during deployments.

“This (virtual) FRG allows them to stay organized throughout the year with a known place where people can log in and communicate without the worry and expense of bringing families into Reserve or Guard headquarters, which could be 100 miles away,” Burcham said. “It is not designed to replace the existing physical FRGs, but to enhance them,” he added.

A waiting list area where units can sign up to establish a virtual FRG has been added to www.armyfrg.org.

— Seth Robson

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Seth Robson is a Tokyo-based reporter who has been with Stars and Stripes since 2003. He has been stationed in Japan, South Korea and Germany, with frequent assignments to Iraq, Afghanistan, Haiti, Australia and the Philippines.

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