Pop culture, social media, Skype and other modern media better connect the front lines to the home front.
Soldiers' letters have long linked historians from the home front to the front lines.
Those studying the exit from Afghanistan and Iraq, the subject of this month's Minnesota International Center's "Great Decisions" discussion, had better be tech-savvy. Because the private thoughts of privates, generals and every rank in between are now mostly conveyed via pixels, not pens.
"There's been a cultural shift," said Maj. Paul Rickert, a public affairs officer. "We e-mail now, with the capability to do visual teleconferencing available. There may not even be as many e-mails. From a historical perspective that's unfortunate, because there won't be as many records as in wars past."
Rickert, a member of the Minnesota National Guard's 1st Brigade Combat Team of the 34th Infantry Division -- known as the "Red Bulls" -- is on his fourth deployment in the post-9/11 era. I spoke to him at Camp Buehring in Kuwait while covering a program to prepare soldiers for postdeployment employment and educational opportunities. (A story on my trip will run in Sunday's Opinion section.)
"It's my easiest deployment," Rickert, of Cottage Grove, said. "Not because the work is any easier, but when I call home over a Skype connection, all the nonverbal that you get from seeing someone that you are talking to I can actually get. ... I call home every day. It keeps my morale up."
Access to technology in Kuwait is also a plus for Sgt. Jodi Johnson of St. Paul, who spoke from Camp Arifjan. She escorted convoys in Iraq during her first deployment.
"Last deployment I was on the road a lot and didn't have a lot of structured time with tech, access to phones and computers like I do here. ... So I lost a lot of contact with a lot of friends," said Johnson, who is now engaged.
"I didn't know what Skype was on my last deployment -- never heard of it. On this deployment every day, pretty much, I use Skype."
It's not just Skype: The sky's the limit at Camp Buehring. Despite its desert location, modern media makes the base an oasis of communication and pop-culture access.
Soldiers' social media usage is facilitated by Wi-Fi cards bought at the PX, where flat-screen TVs, DVDs, CDs, magazines, books and video games and other media are sold. Soldiers dine amid the din of ESPN and cable news networks on big screens, and even bigger theater screens show recent movies.
And on Sunday -- very late on Sundays, local time -- screens large and small reveal rivalries that also play out back home.
"Both my parents grew up in Wisconsin," Staff Sgt. Adam Chapin of Edina said, explaining how a Red Bull from Vikings country became a Green Bay Packers fan. "I watched every regular season game, and the playoffs, which ended up a big, huge disappointment."
Rickert, who grew up in Wisconsin as a Packer fan, said that Internet speeds at the camp would dip on Sundays because so many soldiers were streaming football coverage.
"The media access that we have is phenomenal," he added. "It's been a significant change, with a significant impact for soldiers and their families."
Although Greatest Generation family members often still prefer letters, today's soldiers have had some success pushing those back home toward their media of choice.
"I actually had to convince my dad to start a Facebook account -- he still doesn't have a picture up yet -- just so he could communicate with me," Chapin said.
Yet for all the modern media exposure that allows soldiers to temporarily escape from the desolate desert, many at Camp Buehring are reminded why they're there, and what's at stake, thanks to an old-school P.A. system and a bugler's nightly recorded rendition of "Taps."
"'Taps' is the last song that's played before a soldier is put to rest," said Johnson, who worked with the military funeral honors program between deployments, "so it's emotional to think about the soldiers that have passed, whether it's combat related or not. To be where I am today -- for all the military members for what they have done before I was here -- is incredible to think about."
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Star Tribune Editorial Board and the Minnesota International Center are partners in "Great Decisions," a monthly dialogue discussing foreign-policy topics. Want to join the conversation? Go to www.micglobe.org.
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