From Iraq: 'The Internet is the only thing that has not improved here'

From Iraq: 'The Internet is the only thing that has not improved here'
On his days off, Specialist Scott Thurman, a flight medic, can be found outside his trailer using Skype to talk with his wife and friends or surfing the Web.

JOINT BASE BALAD, Iraq -- Sergeant Richard Vincent calls his wife every three days.

Her voice has a certain calming influence, which he needs considering he’s serving a 400-day deployment in Iraq.

This is Vincent's fourth deployment as a soldier -- but his first deployment as a father with children.

“It’s the hardest thing I’ve done in my life,” says Vincent, who misses moments like his daughter’s first ballet recital.

When Vincent and nearly 100 other soldiers from Oregon arrived in Balad, Iraq, in early May, they left behind lives that they have to put on hold.

The Internet is the only link to spouses, children, extended family and friends.

At Balad, the Internet is like a precious stone that is hard to get -- and easy to want.

Soldiers can walk to the cyber café and wait in line to use the irritatingly slow connection.

Or soldiers can walk to the food court, where the Internet pops up for at least 15 minutes depending on the day. But with birds zipping overhead, aggressive flies, 115 degree heat and dust infiltrating hard drives it’s not the best option.

“The Internet is the only thing that has not improved here," says Sergeant Jason Westlund, who was on a previous deployment in Iraq in 2004. “It [Internet] was free everywhere.”

Soon after his arrival in Iraq, Sergeant Tim Chiles, a crew chief, decided to take matters in his own hands and purchased a used satellite dish for $500. In order to keep the connection high-speed, only 11 soldiers split the $800 per month fee to keep the system running.

Another option is a monthly wireless plan called Balad-WiFi, which can be purchased via a card with a password for logging into the network. The only drawback to this plan is that the wireless works best outside, where dust, sun and heat conspire to take the system -- or the user -- offline.

On his days off, Specialist Scott Thurman, a flight medic, can be found outside his trailer using Skype to talk with his wife and friends or surfing the Web.

“It’s a bonus, not an expectation,” says Thurman, who on his last deployment with an infantry unit didn’t have Internet for weeks.

“Being able to call [on Skype] helps my wife,” says Thurman, “so she doesn’t feel out of touch and alone.”

Instead of purchasing a satellite dish or an Internet card, Vincent saves that money to take his family on a vacation when he returns home.

His wife sends him photos on e-mail, which he can receive at his office (above), but sometimes he wishes he could Skype with his kids, just to see their faces.

“My family means more to me than anything else,” says Vincent.

Cali Bagby is embedded with the Oregon Army National Guard from Charlie Company, 7th Battalion, 158th Aviation, a Medevac Unit based out of Salem, Ore., for KVAL.com. Her work has been published in the Washington Post and the Eugene Weekly.  | More stories | Visit her Web site