Staying in touch with the home front: BYOD in the US military

Nothing can take the place of being with family, but the consumerization of IT has given military personnel the next best thing.
Written by Toni Bowers, Contributor

James R Smotherman's greatest fear when he left for his fourth military deployment to Iraq was that his 13-month-old daughter wouldn't know who he was when he returned. But in a testament to technology's human value, this needn't have worried him. Smotherman, Chief Warrant Officer 2, was able to Skype with his wife as often as four times a week, depending on the mission.

He said, "My daughter knew exactly who I was when I got home."

Keeping in touch

It may not be the military game-changer that a GOLIS missile guidance system is, but communication with the home front is, arguably, more meaningful. For military personnel thousands of miles away, regular communication can keep them present in the daily lives of their families and can make a huge difference in terms of morale. But what may surprise you about the communications technology used by the modern military is its relatively "unmilitary" flavor.

The consumerization of IT has changed the landscape of communications, and modern military personnel have embraced it. Communications with the home front is light years away from what it was in previous wars.

A short, incomplete history of the "letter home"

My father is a Navy veteran. He was a Signalman on the USS Brock, an APD-93 hi-speed ship that transported Higgins boats during World War II. When we talk about video conferencing and emailing, he just shakes his head in amazement. To him, it seems like something from Star Trek because it's so far removed from the days when he was deployed and could go months without getting a handwritten letter from home.

"If you were stationed on a ship, sometimes you could be too far out to send letters or get them from home. If we were way out in the Pacific, a month could go by before you could get to a port that had mail waiting for you. Sometimes, a mail boat would come out to meet the ship if it was close enough. Then you'd get a month's worth of mail at one time." A pretty tough road for stateside relatives waiting for word about a sailor's safety.


Perhaps one of the earliest technological advances that eased communications for the many military personnel involved in World War II was V-mail. Based on the earlier British Airgraph process, V-mail correspondence started out on small letter sheets that would be censored, photographed, and then transported as thumbnail-size images on microfilm. Once they arrived, they'd be blown up to 60 percent of their original size and printed.

Letters to be microfilmed for V-mail were registered, sorted, and prepared for photographing at the Pentagon building, Washington, DC.

Some 37 mail bags, required to carry 150,000 one-page letters, could be replaced by a single mail sack, making correspondence much easier to manage in a combat zone. V-mail also deterred espionage activities because the photocopies didn't allow the reproduction of invisible ink and microprinting.


As I said, today's methods of communication seem surreal to a WWII vet. They're a far cry from the handwritten letter. In my research for this article, however, I expected the opposite to be true; that the military would have some kind of specially engineered machines with top-secret acronyms longer than my arm. But that doesn't seem to be the case.

Charles E Higginbotham II was a soldier during the first Gulf War:

"I had the dubious pleasure of being 'sysadmin' on the only Defense Data Network (unclassified) email host in theater. The BBN C70 I worked on was in the basement of the JUSMAT building in Ankara, Turkey, in 1992. It was old before I got there, but it served as the gateway to the world for thousands of troops during that conflict."

But in the 2000s, things improved considerably for military personnel who wanted to communicate with their families. One soldier, David (last name withheld at his request), served in Iraq in 2010 and was in the commo (communications) section of his battalion. (David stressed that his perception is based on only what he saw while in the country, and is not an official statement from the government.) He recalled the "rec sheds" in Iraq that served as the standard soldiers' outlet for communications. These sheds were filled with desktops and webcams all connected to a satellite dish outside the shed. "The entire setup in the shed consisted of a case that had two 24-port Cisco switches, a router, and a modem. That was it."

All the video equipment was consumer-level as well. "Whatever you found at a Best Buy, we had it there: Logitech webcams using standard Dell systems on Windows XP."

Robert B (last name withheld at his request), was able to weigh in on the technology differences between his deployments in Iraq and his current deployment in Afghanistan. "When I was in Iraq, a group of us got together and paid between $75 and $100/month for a satellite Internet system through UK-based Bentley Walker. We were able to use this to Skype with video going in both directions, as long as weather permitted. Of course, we also used email quite a bit back then, but I was in a position where I could use Skype every day, and sometimes twice a day."

Now that he's in Afghanistan, things are a little different: "We have the exact same system through Bentley Walker. This time, it's more difficult to push video, so I've only done it twice, but I receive video most of the time. Also, where most of us were dragging around a laptop in Iraq, this time, most of us have at least one laptop plus an iPad or the occasional Android tablet. I've been known to use Skype on my iPhone 4 over Wi-Fi."

More common this time around is Facebook. Robert keeps in touch with nearly all of his family that way, particularly his teenage daughters. (I guess in that way, things are no different from the civilian experience.) He can also take care of home-centered business from Afghanistan. For example, his wife recently scanned a check and sent it for him to sign, re-scan, and send back to her for deposit in the bank.

Changes in technology between deployments

Many of the military personnel who were kind enough to offer their input for this piece had several deployments under their belts, and could attest to technological changes that occurred in a few short years.

James R Smotherman has had five combat deployments to Iraq; the last one being 12 months in Baghdad. He said, "During my first deployment, everything was obviously a lot less accessible, but even as soon as my second, we had Internet in our rooms. We had passed the hat amongst our platoon (about 25 men) and bought our own satellite dish and service, each paying the platoon sergeant every month, who would then pay the provider."

By the time he left Iraq in 2011, there were options for VoIP phones, cable service, and Internet, all from their rooms, which had either been hardwired for LAN or had the service of a wireless router that had been run through the living areas. Speeds had increased significantly too. "In 2003, it took over a minute to load a webpage — and that was just checking email. In 2011, I could Skype with my family and browse the Internet at the same time with little latency issues. This was of course in Baghdad, and I lived on the largest military complex in Iraq."

Indeed, the part of the country he was in played a big part in accessibility. In 2006 in Mahmudiyah, he said, "there was no Internet service in the CHU (containerized housing unit) because there were no CHUs. We lived in tents that didn't have wireless routing yet. We had two Internet cafés though — one commercial, one MWR (military-run Morale, Welfare, and Recreation) — and until someone spread a virus through the use of MySpace (which was subsequently banned in the MWR cafe), both offered relatively good service."


TechRepublic has run hundreds of articles concerning best security practices for protecting corporate data. One area that I was eager to learn more about from the enlisted folks I spoke to was how, with all of these avenues of communication so freely available, were they are able to keep security under control. Certainly, it must be a priority when the stake is much more than the loss of business intelligence.

What I learned was that there are two types of information systems. You have the SIPRNet (Secret Internet Protocol Router Network), which handles all classified information, such as that issued by the US Department of Defense. This is a system of interconnected computers that transmit information by packet switching over TCP/IP protocols in a completely secure environment, like the classified version of the Internet that civilians use.

The system military personnel use to communicate with family and friends at home is called NIPRNet (Non-classified IP Router Network).

David said, "The SIPRNet system requires you to use your CAC card for log-in, and you have to have proper clearance. The SIPR systems were also not connected to the open network and were completely cut off from the outside. Also, there was absolutely no Wi-Fi to be found. Everything had to be a wired connection for security. You had the green CAT5 for NIPR and the red for SIPR."

With so many of those interviewed for this story referencing Facebook as a communications godsend, I had to wonder how security risks were mitigated with the NIPRNet. According to Robert, Operational Security (OPSEC) is always a concern and a constant part of the fight. However, interception of the satellite communication itself is a comparatively minor concern. The danger, he said, is the possibility that a soldier will say something to a friend or family member without realizing that he or she is giving away too much information. "With the Internet, it happens very rapidly, can't be easily taken back, and could potentially give access to real-time information of intelligence value. The biggest threat to OPSEC is the double-edged sword: social media, and especially Facebook."

Soldiers also like to take photographs that can include things they shouldn't, like a photo that includes embedded GPS coordinates, along with "This is the headquarters where I work."

Training is key

For the most part, according to David, soldiers do what is right while in a country. "All soldiers are briefed on what they can and can't tell their friends and family. Even the soldiers' families are briefed by the FRG (Family Readiness Group) on what to share with people outside the family." David saw only one instance in which a soldier sent an email to a family member on a NIPR system explaining why he wouldn't be available at a certain time (he would be on a mission) — information that was deemed classified. The slip wasn't intentional, but the soldier was demoted and lost security clearance; the mission was rescheduled.

The military also has to take special care in the delicate matter of family notification in the event of a casualty. Chief Warrant Officer Smotherman said in that case, there would be a communication blackout time where access to the commercial Internet would be turned off so that the next of kin could be notified through proper channels, rather than via a random email from a buddy who "just wanted to help."

Almost like being there…almost

Everyone I spoke to in preparation for this article made the point that, although the technology is wonderful, it can never take the place of actually being there with family. You may be able to Skype with your husband or wife about the day's activities, but you won't be there to offer a hug. You may get to see your son's happy face as he tells you about his new bike, but you won't be there to hold the seat for him as he takes his first ride without training wheels. You can see your daughter all dressed up for her first day of school, but you won't be there in the auditorium as she turns and waves before heading off with her new class.

Technology can never take the place of actually being there. But when you're honor-bound to a job that takes you thousands of miles away from your loved ones, as James Smotherman would say, it's the next best thing.

Elise and Daddy 2
James Smotherman, CW2 USARMY FORSCOM (US), getting a welcome home from his daughter Elise, who knew exactly who he was.
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