For families with military members serving overseas, technology means hearing the voices and seeing the faces they carry in their hearts.
Before cellphones and social media, staying in touch meant expensive long-distance phone calls, when possible, and letters the rest of the time. And when a family member was in harm's way, too much time between letters could be almost unbearable.
These days, video chatting, social media, email and texting provide almost instant connections across space and time — though there’s still some charm to the traditional methods.
“We did send letters, because (the children) have never received a letter in the mail,” said Kayla Harris of Mount Zion, who last week welcomed home her husband, Sgt. 1st Class Jesse Harris. “When Dad wrote them a letter, it was the neatest thing ever.”
Jesse Harris was among 135 soldiers from the Illinois National Guard 3637th Maintenance Company who returned last week after a 10-month deployment in Kuwait. He was eagerly greeted at the Abraham Lincoln Capital Airport in Springfield by his wife and their four children, ages 8, 9, 10 and 11.
They're a blended family: The girls are his daughters and the boys are her sons, who call Jesse Harris "Dad" since their father is deceased.
During the deployment, Kayla Harris said, the soldiers were able to buy SIM cards for their phones that would enable them to use Kuwaiti cell towers. They could also buy Wi-Fi packs and pay a monthly service fee so they could Skype, video call and use Facebook Messenger. Telephone service, however, was prohibitively expensive.
Kayla Harris also played an important role in helping families stay connected. She is the Family Readiness Group leader for the unit, which means she has received training to act as a liaison between families, commanders and soldiers.
Despite the available technology, some families had to wait a long while between contacts with their soldier, she said. Groups were deployed throughout the region, including some to Jordan and Syria, where cellphone and internet contact wasn't possible.
Understandably, the families at home worried. But, she said, when a soldier had to be out of touch during the deployment, it was always possible to get messages through somehow — even if it took a while.
Kayla Harris also connects the family at home with help when something comes up while their soldier is away, such as needed home repairs or a sick child.
"When people are deployed, so many rumors fly and speculation of what might be happening," she said. "It's really nice to be able to say, 'Call the FRG leader; she's in constant contact with the commander.'"
Tracking the day-to-day
Illinois has 20,038 active-duty military members among all the branches of service, another 24,054 in the National Guard and Reserves, and 12,450 civilian employees, according to the most recently available U.S. Department of Defense statistics.
Nationally, the number of active-duty troops overseas is at a 60-year low, according to a 2017 analysis from the Pew Research Center. Still, the number of troops deployed is nearly 200,000, and that doesn't include National Guard forces.
Staying in touch with family while away is important for both the person serving and for the family at home. Military.com, a 19-year-old online membership organization for soldiers, families and veterans, suggests the family at home ensure they have a support network of friends and keep busy while a spouse is away.
It's important to understand that they'll go through periods of mourning and loneliness, just as they would with a death, when they see their military member off to a deployment.
Technology, and the connection it provides, can help ease those pangs.
“When Pete was at Fort Hood, we would have dinner together. Online,” said Sharon Barricklow of Shelbyville, whose son is spending the next nine months in Poland with the Army. Barricklow writes as a correspondent for the Herald & Review.
But when a soldier is on a secret mission, contact can be sporadic.
“The first tour he did, I got one phone call from him and missed a phone call from him, but it was untraceable,” said Sara Bodzin, a Decatur teacher whose brother has been on two such missions with the Marines. “I went another seven months without being able to hear from him.
“The second time was a lot easier for me because he was able to video chat,” Bodzin said of her brother, whom she could not identify by name because of his duty assignment.
He still couldn't text or call the second time, but with Facebook's messenger feature and video chat, calls and texts weren't so important, she said.
Keeping close and involving the military member with family events while he or she is gone also helps with reintegration when the deployment is over.
That was the case for Army Capt. Luke Dunaway, who left for his most recent deployment three weeks after the birth of his son, Andrew, who is now 10 months old.
“I would try to send videos and pictures every day to keep him up on the milestones,” said Emily Dunaway, Luke Dunaway’s wife. “If a day or two went by (without new pictures), he'd be asking for more pictures of him and just what our day-to-day was looking like.”
The Dunaways are originally from Shelbyville and now live in West Point, New York, where Luke Dunaway attended the U.S. Military Academy and is training to be an instructor.
She went home to Shelbyville to stay with family during that deployment so she'd have their support and help. Once back at Fort Drum, New York, she was able to keep busy with work and volunteering with the Family Readiness Group on base.
Capt. Dunaway was involved with the same group while deployed, and the two were able to work together.
“There are all sorts of challenges for each family,” Emily Dunaway said. “If he had soldiers who had a problem and a spouse here, he could communicate with the soldier there.”
Consistent communication helps a soldier make an easier transition back into family life when he comes home, she said. Because he was familiar with the daily routine at home that developed while he was gone and they had a plan in place, he was able to take over some of the care of Drew and catch up on time with his son.
‘Family’ all over the world
Rene Chaney's husband Travis is career Air Force, and two of their children are in the military. Daughter Kristel is in the Air Force and son Bryon is in the Marines.
“We're thankful for social media,” said Rene Chaney from the family's current home in New Mexico. Travis Chaney is a Decatur native, and the couple met through his military service. She's a civilian employee with the U.S. Department of Defense.
“We do everything we can to get together, all of us. There's nine of us, and for Thanksgiving we're going to take the camper and go to Florida where our daughter is stationed. Bryon will be back from deployment and he's going to fly to New Mexico and drive with us to Florida.
“We just plan stuff like that to keep everybody close.”
When Travis Chaney is deployed, they make extensive use of social media and the video-chatting service Skype. They’ve even held birthday parties with him attending via video chat.
When he comes home, it's an adjustment, but the regular contact makes it easier.
“He has to get back into our schedule and his work schedule, and he's not been there for the daily routine,” Rene Chaney said. “So it still takes some time to adjust.”
It helps, she said, that military families look out for one another and friends become extended family because they're all going through the same things. The Chaneys have “family” all over the world.
Kelly and Elena Delaney of Decatur have had extensive experience in being separated due to deployments. Kelly Delaney, a St. Teresa High School graduate, is a chief master sergeant in the Air Force and has served since 1981. He doesn't use social media, so the Delaneys stay in touch when he's away through tried-and-true letters, with the occasional video chat.
“Sometimes, if there's business we have to take care of, we email,” Elena Delaney said. “Our extended family will email him and they also send (snail) mail and packages of goodies.”
Because he’s often in another country, the time difference makes scheduling video chats tough, she said. He also works long hours during a deployment.
When their three children were young, FaceTime was the best option to let them communicate with their dad, but now that they're older, they send him texts, photos and email on their own.
“I always send pictures of things that he would find interesting, so he knows what we're up to,” she said. “Ten years ago, I wasn't as handy with sending pictures.”
Drew Snider is halfway through a six-year hitch with the Air Force, and his father, Mark, just returned from a visit with him at Hill Air Force Base outside of Salt Lake City, Utah.
Both of Drew Snider's grandfathers served and so did his uncle, and that had an influence on his decision to join, Mark Snider said.
“Right now, he is thinking he will probably be done (with the Air Force) at the end of the six years,” said Mark Snider, who lives in Shelbyville. “I'm a teacher, his mom is a teacher also, and he's thinking about becoming a teacher himself when he's done, though he really enjoys what he's doing.”
With Drew in the United States and working a regular schedule, visits are more easily accomplished than if he were deployed in another part of the world. With Facebook, calls and texts, father and son stay in regular communication. Technology has made life much easier for military families, Mark Snider said.
“I can't imagine if we could only communicate by letters and could only receive them every so often,” he said. “One of the good things about technology is, it makes it easier to stay in touch.”
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