Naval Cyber Cafes Help Sailors/Soldiers/Marines Stay in Touch

By SUSANNE M. SCHAFER, Associated Press Writer Mon May 9, 1:27 PM ET

CHARLESTON NAVAL WEAPONS STATION, S.C. - Since the Navy began setting up "Internet cafes" for soldiers overseas to keep in touch with their loved ones, almost 200 of the high-tech tents have sprung up in war zones.

Two years ago, civilians working for the Navy started the $20 million program to set up communications systems -- basically tents with 20 laptop computers and eight telephones -- as a morale boost for Army soldiers stationed in Iraq.

Now there are 183 of the sites in Iraq, four in Afghanistan and even two aboard oil platforms in the Persian Gulf that are manned by the U.S. military, said project manager and retired Marine Steve Rhorer.

"I manage it all from here," he says, opening his arms wide during a recent interview in his small office cubicle at the military base just a few miles up the river from historic downtown Charleston.

Rhorer is part of the Navy's research and development arm known as SPAWAR, which designs and installs communications gear and maintains other high-tech items for many government agencies that involve gleaning battlefield intelligence, surveillance information or support for military aircraft control towers.

The mobile communication stations were developed here. Each unit is contained in a 640-square-foot tent outfitted with printers, air conditioning, generators and satellite communication sets. Each site is designed to serve about 1,000 soldiers.

Rhorer said his unit hopes to begin sending smaller tents to more remote areas of Iraq and Afghanistan to serve groups of 400 to 500 soldiers. "We want to expand. We are looking at half-size cafes," he said.

The cyber cafes' No. 1 enemy isn't insurgent attacks; it's the dust, Rhorer said. "The dust is just a killer. You are involved in constant preventive maintenance," he said.

Showing how the Voice-Over-Internet-Protocol system works, Rhorer dialed up a co-worker in Iraq, Troy Caffey, a civilian with 31 years in the Navy.

Caffey, who spoke from a site north of Baghdad, said he's pleased the systems have helped soldiers stay in contact with their families and friends.

"In all the years I was in the Navy, there was a lot of separation anxiety. I don't feel any of that here at all," he said.

In recent years, e-mail communication has become easier for sailors on some larger ships and at some high-tech military bases around the world, but it was not available to most soldiers in the field.

Caffey said the cafe at his base is very busy. Even at 4 a.m., "there's always someone here. ... This place is in constant use 24 hours a day," he said.

The e-mail service is free and phone calls cost about 4.7 cents a minute. Soldiers can pay by credit card or families can prepay for them.

Copyright 2005 The Associated Press.

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[TELECOM Digest Editor's Note: Some long time readers will recall that the time I moved from Chicago back home here to Kansas I had a job for a few months as a civilian employee for the U.S. Army in Junction City, Kansas working at Fort Riley where I was teaching some guys _how_ to operate/maintain cybercafes. This was in 1999, or prior to the most recent conflict. Even back then, the Army wanted to make the transition to email/internet where the soldiers were concerned. The Army wanted some 'internet experts' (I guess they thought I was one) to teach the guys what to do, so they in turn could show new recruits in overseas bases, etc. Then my brain had to blow apart in November of that year, sort of like the exploding frogs in Belgium last month, so that ended my role in it. PAT]
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Lisa Minter
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