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Family uses technology to cope with deployment separation

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Sonny Cohrs
  • 12th Flying Training Wing Public Affairs
Technology like e-mail, Web video cameras and text-based messaging help bridge the gap between Texas and Afghanistan -- nearly 8,000 miles as the crow flies.

Gone are the days from past wars when service members would wait weeks or even months to get letters from home. The letters are now digitized and delivered instantly through e-mail servers. Trips to the post office are reserved for care packages of snacks, toiletries, children's drawings and other items meant to bring comfort in the war zone.

Saturday morning cartoons are put on hold when J.J., 7, and Elena, 4, talk to their daddy using Web cams, which render smiles and silly faces on each end back and forth while playing games online.

"With my son I play dominos, checkers -- his favorite -- and sometimes pool," writes Staff Sgt. Juan Gutierrez, 12th Dental Squadron dental logistics NCOIC. "With my daughter we color and draw pictures or play tic-tac-toe."

Once the conversation and video games are over, it's time for bed in Afghanistan thanks to the nine-and-a-half hour time difference.

"We're always saying goodnight," Mrs. Gutierrez said. "When he's getting up, I'm going to bed and when he's going to bed I'm getting up."

Sergeant Gutierrez is currently serving as the Dental Clinic NCOIC Task Force Medical, Bagram Airfield. At six months, this deployment is longer than his previous temporary duty assignments; however, deploying isn't new to Sergeant Gutierrez, who spent five years as a civil engineer. His first deployment was three months; his second was four. Even though this is his family's longest separation, it's not necessarily the most difficult because they usually talk every day.

Goodbyes were bittersweet this time, because the day Sergeant Gutierrez of deployed, Mrs. Gutierrez and the kids left to visit family in Florida for the summer.

Coming home to an empty house was difficult.

"Overall, things are fine because I have good friends and neighbors who take care of me," Mrs. Gutierrez said.
She said her husband's unit checks in on her and the kids as well.

"They try to call me about once a week and make themselves available. They said if I needed anything to call," she said.

Even though she has a support system in place, she said talking to her husband every day is what matters most. Internet communication is a highlight of each day for the family.

"The difference between this and previous deployments is communication," Mrs. Gutierrez said. "On previous deployments we only had two 15-minute phone calls per week. With him having the Internet, we can talk every day."

Her husband agreed, adding his constant connection was unheard of just a few years ago.

"Communication has improved, even from my previous deployments since 2002," he said.

In addition to "talking" over the Internet, the couple communicates by mobile phones. Their communication system makes the separation more bearable, the couple said.

"I used the DSN (phones) until I was able to get Internet access in my room," Sergeant Gutierrez said. "The DSN line is not really reliable all the time and it seems like it is a hit and miss with the connection. Other times it is great to have as a back-up to call my wife when we are disconnected unexpectedly while we are online chatting."

Yes, even at $100 per month for satellite Internet in Afghanistan, Sergeant Gutierrez' connection isn't 100 percent reliable. His wife tries not to panic when their connection is lost.

"You cannot automatically assume the worst because then the deployment would be completely stressful every day," she said. "If the Internet goes down, he usually walks to the clinic and calls through the DSN operators. We got disconnected all of a sudden the other day -- it was a power outage."

One Saturday morning, Elena read her "Book of Colors" she made in pre-school to her father while J.J. shared his excitement about his recent spelling test score -- a 96 percent.

"We share pictures through e-mail and while we're chatting -- the first day of school, open house and stuff like that," Mrs. Gutierrez said.

She said she plans to send pictures and video from family celebrations fractured by the deployment. He'll miss Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's. He'll also miss the kids' birthdays and a wedding anniversary in November. He'll likely miss his wife's birthday in January as well.

But just being with his family is what Sergeant Gutierrez said he misses most. Like all deployed parents, he longs for the warm embrace of his kids each night before bed.

Elena is looking forward to cooler weather and the holidays -- not because of presents under the tree, but because she knows that's around the time her daddy comes home.

"It's hard for Elena because she doesn't grasp the concept of time yet," Mrs. Gutierrez said. "She knows it's after Christmas, so she is always asking if it's Christmas yet. I tell her not yet. But any time any one of us is sad and missing daddy, we always do a family hug."

When he returns in January, Sergeant Gutierrez will add his embrace to the family hug, making it complete once again.