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U.S. Troops Hope to Reach Out and E-Mail Someone

February 04, 1996|ELIZABETH WEISE | ASSOCIATED PRESS

SAN FRANCISCO — In World War II, the song went, "This is the Army, Mr. Jones--no private rooms or telephones."

For the '90s update, you can add Internet accounts to the chorus.

It's not that the Army didn't try. When it began to look as if U.S. troops would be sent to Bosnia, the programmers at the Pentagon went into overdrive.

"We met for several very long, drawn-out meetings about how we could do this," said Maj. Bruce Fitch, project manager for Defense Link, the Pentagon's World Wide Web site. "I put a system together on our end that had a menu and all the units, and you could click on it and it would send mail--but where would it go?"

That was the problem. After 3 1/2 years of civil war, the infrastructure in Bosnia was so poor that the Army had to bring in its own generators and water. Powering up a couple thousand computers so soldiers could e-mail the folks back home just wasn't in the cards.

"We're dealing with a country that's devastated. If it had been anywhere else in the world, it wouldn't have been a problem," Fitch said. "But here, what bandwidth we do have really has to go to supporting the operation rather than having a vast number of people sending e-mail."

In the midst of the Internet explosion, instantaneous communication is clearly a feature of civilian life that soldiers aren't happy to give up.

"People have gotten used to e-mail. They can lift up a telephone or send electronic mail--and now their son or daughter is in Bosnia and they have to go back to paper mail," said Richard Silva, a Pentagon spokesman.

Enough soldiers on their way to the Balkans were going through e-mail withdrawal that one enterprising German managed to sell some of them laptop computers linked to the Internet via satellite.

Unfortunately, the satellite didn't happen to pass over Bosnia, so the expensive equipment was useless.

The compromise solution the Pentagon came up with to get the troops wired was BosniaLINK, a World Wide Web site that went on line Dec. 18. It lets people send greetings to soldiers in the field, and includes maps and updates on the situation.

But it's not instantaneous communication. The collected messages from home are distributed to the military's internal news services and then read over military radio and television.

The notes, more than 20,000 and counting, can't be individually addressed--but people try anyway.

"To CPT Kimberly Smith and the members of the 67th FST: Stay safe, stay warm, and the chocolates are on the way!" read one note from Lacey, Wash.

Someone sent this: "We are really proud of you and your fellow soldiers, Patrick. The yellow ribbon is on the door. Your dad says hello. Love, Angie, Jean and everyone at St. Paul's Apartment."

Pentagon programmers are working on a plan to compress the messages onto floppy disks, a kind of electronic mailbag that could be easily delivered to the troops.

BosniaLINK can be reached via the World Wide Web at http://www.dtic.mil/bosnia

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