A Message to Soldiers: Hold on Please

Good article about the "operators" who help the soldiers get calls through.

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The battle lines stretch from the war zones of Afghanistan and Iraq to a small, quiet room in Brooklyn.

The lines are secured not by uniform or gunfire, but by the keyboard clatter and soft voices of three operators at the Fort Hamilton military base who spend their days helping thousands of American soldiers fight the dark forces of fear, anxiety, depression and loneliness that have invaded their battered, war-torn psyches.

Every day, some 1,500 phone calls are made by military people from outposts around the world to Operator 10, Operator 7 and Operator 5, three civilians working at Fort Hamilton who reroute those calls to loved ones throughout Westchester, Long Island and New York City's five boroughs. The operators are there to accept the federally financed calls, which would be too expensive for soldiers to make on their own.

To a great number of those frightened and uncertain callers on the other end of the line, some of whom signed up for military service long before their prom pictures were developed, Edith Alvarez, Sandra Iglesias and Iris Lugo are more than just faceless ID numbers transferring calls on Uncle Sam's dime. Although they are not required to lift soldiers' sagging spirits, the operators have transformed the center, one of hundreds around the world, into more than just a switchboard.

"Many times, all these soldiers want from us is to lend a listening ear," said Mrs. Alvarez, Operator 5, a 43-year-old from Staten Island. "Sometimes, we're all they have."

So they dial zero for operator, and when those lines begin to ring, as they did on Wednesday morning, the Fort Hamilton troop springs into action, often playing the additional roles of mother, therapist and best buddy for soldiers whose calls have surged as deployments have risen in recent years. Mrs. Alvarez was all of those things for a teenage soldier in Afghanistan who called one New Year's Eve and said he was having problems with his girlfriend who lived in the Bronx.

"I can't find her," Mrs. Alvarez recalled the young soldier as saying.

The call arrived just before 6 p.m., minutes before Mrs. Alvarez was to end her shift. She dialed several other numbers in vain until, finally, there were no numbers left to call. "But I just need somebody to talk to," she recalled his saying.

So Mrs. Alvarez and the soldier talked, and talked some more, their conversation set to an eerie soundtrack of rapid gunfire, soaring planes and a whirling sandstorm. Four and a half hours later, she had convinced a young man a world away to do what operators have been telling customers to do since the invention of the switchboard: hang on.

"We try and tell them that tomorrow will be a better day, and that hopefully, real soon, they'll be coming home," said Ms. Iglesias, Operator 10, a 34-year-old who lives in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. "Many times these are just kids we are talking to, kids barely out of high school."

There have been thousands of wrenching calls this past week alone, sharing the joyful news of newborn babies, the dreaded news of comrades lost and just about everything in between. The women, adopting a code of silence familiar to those entrusted with life-altering confidences, were loath to speak about the soldiers they had just counseled in soothing, steady tones.

Some of them have become friends, in a sense. "For the last four years, I've been talking with a soldier from Queens stationed overseas," said Mrs. Lugo, Operator 7, a 38-year-old from the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn. "He and his wife have been trying so hard to have a baby together, and it just hasn't happened yet.

"I'm really hoping it does," she said.

Several months ago, one soldier called from Iraq to ask for help in tracking down a car she had parked in Brooklyn that had been towed while she was off to war, while another called from Iraq to say he missed the taste of Oreos. Such news flashes, commentaries and questions sprout in other places like Kosovo, Germany, Italy, Spain and anywhere else a soldier's boots touch foreign soil.

"It's like listening to hundreds of soap operas a week, and trying to help some of the characters involved," Mrs. Alvarez said. "It's one thing when you're reading about our troops in the paper every day, but to actually be talking to them, and hearing them laugh and cry, well, that really hits home."

Angel Ortiz, a former soldier and operator at Fort Hamilton who now serves as the operators' supervisor, said that in hiring for such a position, he looked "for more than just an operator, but people with life experience."

Mr. Ortiz, 41, continued: "I need someone with patience, understanding and the ability to communicate with others. This is a very stressful job, because these women play a vital role in boosting the morale of our troops all across the world."

All three operators admit that most of the calls they take are not emotionally toll free, and that being a personal lifeline to needy soldiers is indeed a responsibility steeped in pressure. The job is a departure from their previous ones, running a grocery store, managing a drug store and entering data. Their shifts, which start at 7:30 a.m., all end by 6 p.m., when the calls are routed to operators at the Pentagon. But the job lasts beyond the time they punch out. "Some of the news, especially the bad news, can really rattle you," Ms. Iglesias said. "You can't help but take it home with you every night."

Anne Waterman-Campbell, 48, of Fort Greene, Brooklyn, worked alongside the operators as a temporary worker from May through August (she was Operator 3). Even in that short span, she said, some of the crying voices from those far-off battlefields, those who called her wondering when their own number might be called, still play in her mind like a bad dream.

"I had a woman in Iraq who called me and just started screaming into the phone, saying 'I can't take this anymore! I can't take being shot at! I want to go home!'

"As she screamed, I could hear gunfire in the background," Mrs. Campbell said. "I did everything I could to calm her down."

Just recently, Mrs. Alvarez was ready to do the same for a caller who was in a German hospital recovering from shrapnel wounds in both legs. He had been wounded while fighting in Iraq.

As it turned out, the caller was more in need of a tall glass of milk than he was in need of a short pep talk.

"I'm just calling to thank you for the Oreos," Mrs. Alvarez recalled his saying.

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Vincent M. Mallozzi
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