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Technology and the Homefront: Keeping Military Families Connected in the Facebook Age

Tracy Connor
April 5, 2011

Long gone are the days when a soldier's wife might wait months for a letter to arrive in the mail.

Technology has narrowed the distance between the front and the homefront, and many service members can catch up with their spouse through Facebook status updates or IM with the kids.

A 2010 survey by Blue Star Families found that 89% of military families use email during deployments, and more than one solider has witnessed a birth through Skype.

The Internet is such an integral part of staying in touch the Defense Department offers tips on using Motomail, which prints and delivers emails to Marines without computer access, and TroopTube, an Uncle Sam-approved imitation of YouTube.

By and large, families and experts agree the explosion in e-communication is a boon, especially in these times of multiple deployments - but the excitement can be tinged with anxiety.

"It's a double-edged sword," says Michelle Sherman, a psychologist at the OU Health Sciences Center and the Oklahoma City Veteran Affairs Medical Center.

"Some families tell me, 'We don't do Skype,' because it's too upsetting.  It brings up all these feeling of loss and worry.  It's just too distressing."

How Much is Too Much Information?

Always-open lines of communication create a dilemma for service members and their loved ones: How open should they be?

"Do you tell a soldier that a relative is critically ill?  That the boiler just broke and there's no money?  That their son or daughter just flunked chemistry?" asks Jaine Darwin, a Cambridge, Mass., psychologist who co-founded Strategic Outreach to Families of All Reservists.  "Does the soldier tell the family that an hour before his best friend got his head shot off?"

Vivian Greentree, 31, who's been through four deployments with husband, Mike, a Navy lieutenant commander, says it was a "personal struggle" to strike a balance.

"You go through the whole day and try to recount it in an email, but make it the good version - nobody cried, nobody screamed," the Norfolk, Va., mom of two says.  "It was emotionally draining. I would find myself outright lying."

Some families decide to focus only on the positive during chats, but being too sunny has its dangers.  Military personnel wonder, "What arent't they telling me?"

Other common pitfalls:

  • Scheduling talk time.  It may be 3 a.m. in the States when the service member in Afghanistan can use the unit's Internet-capable computer for a Skype chat.  "It's a tremendous sense of being on call," Darwin says.
  • Communication gaps.  Families get so used to talking to a deployed service member on a regular basis, any interruption can be upsetting. "You assume the worst has happened," says Sherman.
  • War zone distraction.  While seeing loved ones' smiling faces can be a huge boost to morale for soldiers, the day-to-day minutiae of civilian life, particularly problems at home, can take their mind away from the mission.

Daddy Lives in Cyberspace

Using technology to communicate is particularly rewarding - and complicated - for families with small children.

In previous wartimes, a soldier might leave his pregnant wife and not return until the baby was a toddler - father and child virtual strangers.  That scenario is thankfully rare in the era of webcams.

Yet these modern methods can be confusing, particularly to younger kids.

"There are some very evocative pictures of small kids touching daddy on a screen," Darwin says.  "But some of them think Daddy lives in the computer."

And Sherman notes that older children may resist coming to the computer for an IM exchange or Skype session.  It's the digital equivalent of a teenager slamming the door to their room, but for the soldier with few opportunities to call home, it feels like a slap in the face.

As a result, some families prefer methods of staying connected that are less pressured: giving a preschooler two clocks with the time at home and the time where the parent is stationed; sending audio messages back and forth; opening birthday and holiday gifts bought before deployments.

DVDS and Daddy Dolls

Sesame Workshop's web-based portal Family Connections has 4,500 registered users; Assistant Vice President Lynn Chwatsky describes it as "Facebook for military families."  Children can upload photos or artwork, and the deployed parent can comment or post - all within the comforting realm of Elmo and Co.

The Defense Department has partnered with United Through Reading, which creates DVDs of troops reading stories and sends them home.  "Typically, they'll try to make it cheery in the background. You'll have a tent in Iraq that has a shower curtain with Donald Duck on it," said CEO Sally Ann Zoll.

About 300,000 families participated last year, including Sunny Rydl, 28, whose husband Robert is on his third deployment in four years on the USS Bulkeley in the Middle East.  The ship does not have Skype and 5-year-old Ryan and 6-year-old Madison are too young for email.

"But every time they go and check the mail and see a DVD, their faces light up," she says of the monthly envelopes.

The non-profit Hug-a-Hero has distributed hundreds of dolls made from photos of moms and dads heading overseas.  Greentree created her own version - a laminated photo of her husband on a barbecue skewer.

Her sons, M.J., 6, and Walker, 4, take it to the pool, on bike rides, to the White House Easter egg roll.  She uses her iPhone to take pictures of "Mike on a Stick" at the events and email them to her husband.  He feels included, and the kids keep their spirits high by doing something goofy with Dad.

"They're smiling in these pictures," she says.  "They're not these empty, sad eyes of kids who miss their Dad."

Because her husband's ship didn't have Skype, Greentree relied on daily emails with her husband.  But what she and the children really looked forward to was snail mail - letters on fancy stationery that would arrive every so often.  She deleted most of the emails but saved every handwritten note.

"It's true they are only an email away," she says.  "But you can't ever replace a good old fashioned love letter."

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