Videoconferencing keeps troops connected
December 24, 2002
MISAWA AIR BASE, Japan — Families of deployed troops walk into a sparsely decorated room here and moments later are linked visually with Saudi Arabia, half a world away.
Videoconferencing, used for keeping loved ones in touch this holiday season, might be the next best thing to being there.
“It’s great — really, really great,” Staff Sgt. Tim Taylor of the 35th Medical Group said after seeing and speaking with his wife, Rica, a staff sergeant deployed to Prince Sultan Air Base in the desert near Riyadh. “Just like being in the same room with her.”
He brought along the couple’s 11-month-old daughter, Alofania, who at times appeared not quite sure whom she was seeing on the large-screen television in front of her.
“Oh, she recognized mommy; they play this finger game,” said Taylor, a medical administration specialist at the base hospital.
Rica Taylor, an information manager, left Misawa on Thanksgiving Day with other Misawa troops in the 13th Fighter Squadron as part of Aerospace Expeditionary Force 7. They were headed for a 90-day stint in Saudi Arabia.
“It was no turkey, just get on the airplane,” he recalled. This is the first Christmas of a seven-year marriage that the family has been apart. “But she made bedtime-story videotapes for Alofania before she left,” he said.
John Graves, community life element chief for Misawa’s Family Support Center, said the free service gives those deployed 15 minutes of videoconferencing.
“It helps to draw families closer together, to give them a oneness if only for a short time,” he said, alluding to the technology that uses a simple television camera mounted atop a TV set.
“Kids have the tendency to forget what mom or dad looks like after they’re deployed awhile. This helps for when the reunion comes.”
Users sit on a sofa with a living room backdrop, then a call is placed to the Prince Sultan base to complete the circuit.
The television screen’s images appear in a slow-motion fashion because, Graves explained, the phone line’s relatively slow 26,400-baud connection rate limits crystal-clear reception. “We may try to upgrade the line with an ISDN connection to improve the picture,” he said.
Integrated Service Digital Network is a telephone connection using digital instead of analog signals. It results in a higher quality picture.
Misawa troops are limited to two 15-minute calls per month. Graves said calls may be made Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays between 1 and 4 p.m. local time, or from 7 to 10 a.m. Saudi time.
Costs to get the system operating were minimal, he said: about $300 for the television camera and switching device. A television used for training purposes already was on hand.
Aubree Summerhays strolled into the viewing room after Taylor completed his call. She was eager to talk to her husband, Donald, an airman first class and an “Ammo” troop with the 35th Maintenance Squadron. He left Japan Dec. 2 for a 90-day desert deployment.
“We’ll celebrate Christmas when he gets back,” she said. “Meanwhile, I’m getting great support from the base; we keep in touch with e-mail and morale calls.”
Troops at Misawa are being encouraged to sign up to make calls on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, Graves said.
“Four of our people have volunteered to come in and help out,” he said.