12/18/05 - Soldiers' Video Visits - Teleconferencing Allows Families To See, Talk With Loved Ones Stationed In Iraq
Teleconferencing Allows Families To See, Talk With Loved Ones Stationed In Iraq
Denise Lewis beamed as she walked out of a conference room at Heritage Hall yesterday.
"That's all I wanted for Christmas," Lewis said as she tried to stop tears.
Thanks to a state-of-the-art video conferencing network, Denise and her husband, Mark Lewis, were able to talk to their son Adam stationed near Fallujah, Iraq, from a conference room in Heritage Hall in Lexington.
Yesterday was the first time the Louisville couple had seen their 21-year-old son since June.
"I thought I was going to cry through the entire 20 minutes," Denise Lewis said, laughing.
It was an emotional day for more than 50 families who participated in "Freedom Calls" before, during and after the University of Kentucky-University of Louisville game.
Freedom Calls was the brainchild of Rob Sprang, director of UK's HealthCare Kentucky TeleCare Network -- which connects health care professionals across the state.
Sprang suggested using the state's teleconferencing network to connect families with soldiers in Iraq after hearing about a similar program in Virginia. Sprang knew the state had enough video-conferencing equipment for families to use in Kentucky; the problem was finding similar video-conferencing equipment in Iraq. Sprang connected with a group called the Freedom Calls Foundation. The non-profit has installed three video-conferencing systems at three military bases in Iraq -- Camp Fallujah, Camp Taji and Al Asad Air base.
More families of Kentucky soldiers wanted to talk to their loved ones -- but those soldiers weren't near Freedom Calls Foundation's three sites, Sprang said.
"They're trying to raise money so they can put more (videoconferencing equipment) in all the bases in Iraq," Sprang said.
This is the second year for the Kentucky Freedom Calls. Last year, the event was at the University of Louisville, during the UK and U of L game. All of the equipment and food were donated for yesterday's program, Sprang said. The people who organized the event are all volunteers.
Many families have been able to talk on the phone or exchange e-mails with their soldiers. But being able to see and communicate in real time was almost as good as seeing someone in person, family members said yesterday.
Phillip Stith's wide grin and quick wit -- things difficult to convey in a telephone call -- came across the giant television screen in front of his wife, Amy, his parents and mother-in-law during yesterday's 20-minute teleconference.
But the 25-year-old Marine and Somerset native also conveyed a lot more just by looking at his wife, his mom said.
"You can see the way he looks at Amy," said Linda Stith, Phillip's mother. "You can't see that love look over the phone."
Lexington Councilwoman Linda Gorton and her husband, Charles, try to talk to their 24-year-old son once a week by telephone. But Clay Gorton has been especially busy -- his Army Reserve unit is training the Iraqi military in Fallujah -- and he hasn't had much time to talk.
Yesterday, as his parents gave Clay updates on family and friends and chatted about his plans when he returns, Linda Gorton suddenly stopped and looked at her youngest child on the television in front of her.
"It's so good to see you, honey," Gorton said.
Clay Gorton had told his parents weeks before that he had lost 15 pounds since arriving in Iraq in August. They were worried. But he looked good, Charles Gorton said.
"There's nothing like seeing him smile and laugh," Linda Gorton said.
Gorton said that, before Clay left for Iraq, she used to worry about little things.
Not any more.
"My first concern is making sure my child is safe," Linda Gorton said.
Experience brightens holidays for many
It wasn't the first piece of home Spc. Billy Jones was interested in - he did give a quick hello to family members first - but the question came pretty quickly.
"Who's winning the game?" Jones asked his family.
He was speaking from Iraq through a special video hookup yesterday during the University of Kentucky-University of Louisville basketball game .
Jones was pleased to hear that Kentucky was up by 15 at halftime . His family was just happy to see that he looked healthy and safe, for the moment - he was going to go on night patrol in about two hours.
"You get the phone calls, but you don't get to see him," Jones' wife, Rachel, said shortly before talking to her husband in a conference room at Rupp Arena. "So this is exciting."
Rachel Jones' family was one of about 50 families from Kentucky and Southern Indiana that talked to loved ones in Iraq, thanks to a national project called the Freedom Calls Foundation.
For many of them , the basketball game became an afterthought, well behind speaking to their sons and daughters.
"This is the best Christmas present ever," Denise Lewis told her son, Marine Cpl. Adam Lewis . He was at Camp Fallujah, one of three bases the troops assembled at for the calls .
As Adam Lewis' family wrapped up a 20-minute conference call, his girlfriend, 19-year-old Danielle Mora, leaned close to the camera to show Lewis her new bag.
It read: "Forget Prince Charming, I've got a U.S. Marine."
In Iraq, Lewis leaned closer to his screen, revealing the M-15 assault weapon he was holding, a stark reminder of the couple's differing circumstances .
"Isn't it cute ?" Mora said of her bag.
"I love you, Danielle," Lewis said.
Lewis' time in Iraq has not always been so pleasant.
Earlier this month, 10 Marines from his unit were killed when a powerful makeshift bomb exploded near Fallujah. Lewis was across the street from the explosion, his family said.
"I knew this would be important for him to have some touch with home," Denise Lewis said in an interview after the call . "It's been rough on him and on those of us at home."
This was the second straight year that the Kentucky Telehealth Network set up the video links during the UK-UofL game.
Rob Sprang, a project manager with the network, said the conferences cost the Freedom Calls Foundation between $300,000 and $400,000 in donated money and equipment.
"It's a great thing to do right before Christmas," he said.
Some soldiers received holiday wishes from Gov. Ernie Fletcher or Donna Smith, wife of UK basketball coach Tubby Smith.
The loudest ovation of the day came when soldiers were shown on video screens in the arena just before the game.
The soldiers - at Camp Fallujah, Camp Taji and Al Asad Air Base - mostly asked about family members, shared memories and, of course, asked about the Cardinals or Wildcats.
Joan Richardson's son, Sgt. James Richardson, even chided his mother for wearing a red Christmas vest while the rest of the family was decked out in Kentucky blue.
"It just made my Christmas to get to see him and see that he looked OK," she said.
Hoops & Troops Event Will Unite Kentucky Troops in Iraq with Loved Ones at Home
Kentucky soldiers and their families will once again this year have the opportunity to visit via satellite during the UK vs. U of L basketball game, thanks to this year’s "Freedom Calls from Rupp Arena" event.
On Saturday, Dec. 17, the national CBS feed of the UK vs. U of L basketball game will be broadcast on the Armed Forces Network. In turn, the videoconference signal from Camp Fallujah, Camp Taji and Al Asad Air Base in Iraq will be transmitted into Rupp Arena’s audio-visual system.
This will allow fans watching the game to see and hear the soldiers on the big-screen TVs in Rupp Arena, and the troops in Iraq will be able to see and hear coaches, players and dignitaries express their love, support and appreciation for their sacrifices.
"While we enjoy the holiday season and this great basketball rivalry, we can’t forget that the loved ones of many Kentuckians are away fighting for freedom," said Gov. Fletcher. "This event will allow us to honor and thank our soldiers for their service and bravery."
"Kentucky and Louisville is a tremendous rivalry that captures the attention of everyone in the commonwealth," said UK basketball coach Tubby Smith. "‘Freedom Calls from Rupp Arena’ allows those Kentuckians serving our nation overseas to reconnect - in some small way - to their families and friends back home. It’s an honor to be a part of this project."
During the Dec. 17 event, more than 40 Kentucky soldiers from Camp Fallujah, Camp Taji and Al Asad Air Base in Iraq will be invited to talk with their families from Rupp Arena. From one hour before until one hour after the game, three private videoconference rooms will be available for the families and soldiers to have some personal time together.
During the pregame, commercial breaks, halftime, and after the game, the audio and video feeds from the soldiers will be piped into Rupp Arena.
"It’s wonderful that families from this great state will have the opportunity to visit with their loved ones through Freedom Calls, particularly during the holiday season," said University of Louisville basketball coach Rick Pitino. "In addition to the connections with their families, I hope our game can offer an enjoyable distraction for our troops overseas. It was heartwarming for all of us to be involved with this venture in Freedom Hall last year."
Families and soldiers interested in participating in the Dec. 17 event should e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Families and soldiers will then be contacted to make arrangements to participate. Currently, Freedom Calls are only available at Camps Fallujah, Taji and Al Asad Air Base.
The idea for the original Freedom Calls event came from Rob Sprang, director of Kentucky TeleHealth Network (KTHN) at UK HealthCare. KTHN will connect to the Freedom Calls Foundation, a nonprofit foundation that raises funds to place communication centers at the front lines. KTHN also hosts "Family Freedom Festivals" throughout the year across the state, helping hundreds of soldiers spend time with their families via videoconference technology.
The Freedom Calls Foundation raises money to install equipment and network in Iraq. The program is sponsored by the generosity of KTHN, Kentucky TeleCare, St. Claire TeleCare and many others who contribute to the effort.
For more information, log on to the foundation’s Web site at www.freedomcalls.org.
Video Conferencing Lets Those In Iraq Visit Families Here
FRANKFORT -- April Fields was focused. Neither a bank of television cameras nor a chatting governor were going to distract her from staring at a jerky image of her son, Army Sgt. Joshua Fields, who was seated 5,000 miles away in Iraq.
Joshua Fields, a Lafayette High School graduate, sat in a conference room at Camp Taji, watching as his mother and father, David, helped publicize the second installment of Freedom Calls, a program that brings soldiers and their families together through video conferences.
This year's featured event will be in conjunction with the University of Kentucky basketball game against the University of Louisville on Dec. 17. Families of service members will gather at Rupp Arena, where they will be able to see and talk to their overseas relatives, and the game will be beamed to Iraq.
Yesterday, in a Capitol conference room, while Joshua Fields spoke of his allegiance to the Wildcats, and Gov. Ernie Fletcher talked about the cooperative effort to make the conversations possible, Mrs. Fields concentrated on her son.
"You want to capture every moment," Mrs. Fields said. "Silly little things that don't mean anything, but you can't catch on the phone."
It is that kind of closeness that family members cherish, said 1st Sgt. Roger Nickel, a member of the 101st Airborne Division who took advantage of the arrangement to talk with his wife earlier this year from a hookup in Madisonville.
"It was a great experience. We appreciate it," Nickel said from his seat alongside Fields in Iraq.
Joshua Fields is nearing the end of his yearlong tour in Iraq and his four-year hitch in the Army. Fields says he is coming back to Central Kentucky and enrolling at UK, where he wants to become an engineer.
Families of military personnel serving in Iraq can go to www.kthnschedule.com, a Web site co-sponsored by the Kentucky TeleHealth Network, or e-mail email@example.com to get on the list of people who want to take part.
Teleconferences set at UK-U of L game
Beaming from a huge screen, Fields warmly greeted his parents via teleconference as Gov. Ernie Fletcher announced an opportunity next month for other Kentucky families to see and talk to their loved ones in Iraq.
"I wish everyone in our family could be here," April Fields, of Richmond, Ky., told reporters after the call. "It's almost like a rush of adrenaline. I feel like he's here almost. He looks wonderful."
The families of 40 to 50 Kentucky servicemen and women in Iraq will have the same opportunity on Dec. 17 at the state's second "Freedom Calls" event, scheduled during the University of Kentucky-University of Louisville basketball game.
The calls, starting at noon and lasting until 5:30 p.m., will be conducted in private videoconference rooms in Heritage Hall, adjacent to Lexington's Rupp Arena, where the game will be played.
Event organizers said yesterday that 13 families have signed up so far, and that families wishing to participate should send an e-mail expressing their interest to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The CBS broadcast of the game will be carried on the Armed Forces Network. During the game, video of servicemen and women watching it from three camps in Iraq will periodically be shown on screens in Rupp Arena.
Joshua Fields, 21, enlisted in the Army three years ago during his senior year at Lexington's Lafayette High School. He serves in the 3rd Infantry Division, based at Fort Bragg, N.C.
Fields has been in Iraq since January. His mother said he is scheduled to return to Kentucky a week or two after Christmas.
"It's great to talk to you," April Fields told her son yesterday. "We love you."
"Great talking to you too mom, dad," replied Joshua Fields, speaking from Camp Taji, just north of Baghdad. "I love you, too."
Sign 'caught people's eye'
Fields said a fellow soldier, knowing that he is a UK fan, mentioned the game and the teleconferences to him.
Fields' father said he knows why.
"The big thing that caught people's eye was that he climbed out on an Iraqi tank and wrote 'Go Big Blue' on it," David Fields said.
April Fields said after her son painted the message, someone took his photo as he stood on the barrel.
"That photo has made its way everywhere. We e-mailed it to all of our family members," she said.
Works with Cardinal fan
"I work with one, but I try not to talk to him too much," Joshua Fields joked.
David Fields said his son plans to enroll at UK when he gets out of the Army.
The Fieldses, who are respiratory technicians, said families taking part in the calls are in for a thrilling experience.
"You can't even imagine what it's like. We talk on the phone and we e-mail. But to see him and interact with him is just unbelievable," April Fields said.
At the first "Freedom Calls" last year at Freedom Hall in Louisville, about 250 family members spoke with 40 servicemen and women in Iraq.
"Last year was tremendously successful," Fletcher said.
"Soldiers talking to their moms, their dads, their fiancees, wives and children. It was a neat experience. It was very touching."
The "Freedom Calls" event was the idea of Rob Sprang, director of the Kentucky TeleHealth Network - a state hospital teleconference network. Sprang said the company that supplies equipment to the network agreed to donate what is needed for the teleconferences.
Teleconferences connect families with soldiers stationed in Iraq
FRANKFORT - David and April Fields had not seen their son since September, but that changed yesterday when they got to see and talk to him via a Freedom Call in Kentucky's capitol.
Sgt. Joshua Fields, a Lexington native, has been stationed in Iraq since January, with the exception of a brief visit home in September. He was delighted to be able to see his parents.
"It's a great experience," he said. "I didn't know how easy it would be. If I had known it was this easy I would have tried to do it sooner. It sure is good to see them."
His mother said he will head home about a week after Christmas.
The Fields' Freedom Call took place shortly after Gov. Ernie Fletcher announced the "Freedom Calls from Rupp Arena" event scheduled to take place on Dec. 17 at the UK-Louisville basketball game.
"While we enjoy the holiday season and this great basketball rivalry, we can't forget that the loved ones of many Kentuckians are away fighting for freedom," Fletcher said. "This event will allow us to honor and thank our soldiers for their service and bravery."
The national CBS feed of the game will be broadcast on the Armed Forces Network. In turn, videoconference signals from Camp Fallujah, Camp Taji and Al Asad Air Base in Iraq will be transmitted into Rupp Arena's audio-visual system.
Not only will fans be able to see and hear the troops in Iraq, three private videoconference rooms will also be available for the families and soldiers to spend some time together. The first Freedom Calls will start around noon.
This is the second year of the event, which took place at Freedom Hall in Louisville for last year's game between UK and U of L.
Fletcher said he enjoyed being a part of the event last year.
"It was a neat experience, very touching," Fletcher said. "I look forward to a similar experience this year."
Rob Sprang, director of Kentucky TeleHealth Network at UK HealthCare, came up with the idea for the original Freedom Calls event and said the teleconferences and events will keep taking place as long as the soldiers are in Iraq.
"I hope we're not doing it next year," Sprang said. "I want them home."
Sprang said 13 families are currently registered to participate in the event. He also said anyone else who is interested in participating and has a family member near one of the three camps should send an email to email@example.com. Families and soldiers will be contacted to make arrangements for the event.
Sprang said he would love to have 40 or 50 families signed up to participate.
"We could handle 40 to 50 easily," he said.
To make the event possible, KTHN connects to the Freedom Calls Foundation, a non-profit foundation that raises funds to place communication centers at the front lines. The event is sponsored by KTHN, Kentucky TeleCare, St. Claire TeleCare and many others who contribute to the effort.
Sprang said broadcasting the UK vs. U of L rivalry to the sites in Iraq gives the soldiers a morale boost.
Joshua Fields is one of those soldiers.
"It gives me something to look forward to out here," he said. "Every other day seems like Groundhog Day."
Kentucky soldiers and their families will have the opportunity to visit via satellite during the UK vs. U of L basketball game. The idea for the original Freedom Calls event came from Rob Sprang, director of UK HealthCare’s Kentucky TeleCare Network. Sprang also is director of the statewide telehealth initiative, Kentucky TeleHealth Network (KTHN). The Freedom Calls Foundation raises money to install the equipment and network in Iraq. For more information, log on to the foundation's Web site.
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