It was a day of emotional ups and downs for Kursten Byrne as she celebrated her twins' third birthday recently without the boys' father, a rifle company commander serving in Iraq.
Marine Capt. Patrick Byrne could not play with his sons and two daughters on the beach that day. But hours later, he saw it all in photos his wife had uploaded onto a new website.
"The kids picked out their favorite pictures for Daddy, and Patrick got to see everything we did that day," said Byrne, who lives at Camp Pendleton in San Diego County. "It keeps him connected to what we're doing back home. He doesn't miss out on anything."
The Byrnes are subscribers to www.websitesforheroes.com, an interactive service for military families that is being marketed as an alternative to YouTube and MySpace, among 11 sites blocked on military computers by the Pentagon in May.
Although the Pentagon said the sites had been blocked to preserve precious bandwidth, critics argue the move would stem an unfiltered source of information available to the public from troops fighting overseas.
"There's an information war going on that's as important" as the shooting war, said Noah Shachtman, who runs a national security blog for Wired magazine. "There's no more effective, honest and believable spokesperson for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan than the soldier who posts information on YouTube and MySpace."
Websites for Heroes went up this summer. The collaborative effort by Irvine-based DigitalPost Interactive and Caliber Media Group in Newport Beach has attracted about 400 subscribers.
"We stayed in touch with our families through letters that took weeks to reach us," said Vietnam veteran Terry Gniffke, president of Caliber Media Group. "These sites allow a service member near-instant communication with loved ones."
Corporate and individual sponsors are paying for the service for 12 months. Families apply at the website and are subsidized. After this first year, families will be charged $99 a year for the ad-free service.
Though not endorsed by the Pentagon, the military is not blocking access to the password-protected site. Unlike YouTube and MySpace, the site does not allow public access.
Retired Navy Cmdr. Rudolph Brewington, spokesman for the Navy family support group LifeLines Services Network, said Websites for Heroes was filling a void.
"It keeps the family connected, and we don't have to worry about security and bandwidth," he said. Websites for Heroes uses technology that compresses photo and video files to almost half their normal size. The site's message boards help coordinate family life.
"I post what we're going to do on a particular day," Kursten Byrne said. "But more importantly, if [my husband] has a chance to call home he can look at the calendar to see if we're at home. I've never missed any of his calls."
Information about donating or sponsoring families can be found on the website. Fort Worth, Texas, resident Jay Provo sponsored 10 families at a cost of $1,000 in honor of his son-in-law. Army Specialist Jason K. Chappell of Hemet was killed in Iraq in 2004 while serving with the 1st Squadron, 9th Cavalry.
Cindy Hayes of Los Angeles is building her family's site while her husband, Army Staff Sgt. Zachary Hayes, prepares to return to Iraq for his second tour.
"I wish we had this on his first tour. This time he'll be able to view our 6-year-old daughter every day and watch her progress with golf lessons," Hayes said. "He won't miss anything that goes on around here, including the lawn we just planted at our new house. He'll be able to watch it grow."