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A virtual visit for Marine families

Laughter and tears are exchanged during video calls to loved ones in Iraq from San Diego's Supercomputer Center.

December 16, 2007|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO — Teresa Reynolds, daughter Kelsea, son Tyler and their miniature dachshund Sable settled into chairs Saturday morning at the San Diego Supercomputer Center for an early Christmas present.

A satellite connection was established, and soon Marine Master Gunnery Sgt.-select Kenneth Reynolds was on the screen from the air base at Al Asad, Iraq, as part of a program to keep military families in touch with deployed loved ones through teleconferencing.

There was laughter, a few tears, some jokes about shipping Sable to Iraq in a Christmas stocking, and then some inquiries from Dad about how Kelsea, 16, and Tyler, 12, were doing in school.

Finally the joking and asking of questions fell away.

"I miss you," Kenneth Reynolds, a noncommissioned officer in charge of a crew of air controllers, said quietly.

"I miss you, too, sweetheart," his wife said.

For nearly two years, the Supercomputer Center at UC San Diego has been helping Marine and Navy families communicate with relatives in Al Asad and Fallouja.

The families Saturday were from Marine Corps Air Station Miramar. On other weekends, the families have been from Camp Pendleton.

Civilian support for military members and their families is evident year-round in San Diego County, where the Navy and Marine bases are a defining part of the region's social and political landscape, which sets it apart from the rest of Southern California.

Now, amid the seventh holiday season that local troops have been deployed in Iraq or Afghanistan, support for the families appears strong -- both among corporations and the public.

The Armed Services YMCA, in conjunction with Sony, helped 103 families make DVDs last week to ship to family members in Iraq.

A coalition of credit unions provided teleconferencing at Camp Pendleton. And more than 1,200 Christmas trees were delivered to Camp Pendleton and Miramar by FedEx and a private foundation.

KOCT, the community-access channel in Oceanside, has held 13 teleconferencing sessions in the last 18 months between family members and troops in Fallouja.

On Saturday, what was billed as the season's largest Christmas party for military families in Southern California was underway at San Diego Harley- Davidson.

More than 2,000 family members (and some Harley devotees) enjoyed barbecue, a rock 'n' roll band, games for the children and $60,000 worth of free Harley regalia.

Among the cosponsors were the Armed Services YMCA, the Yellow Ribbon Team and Harley dealership owner "New York Myke" Shelby, a onetime mayoral candidate.

"I want to make sure these guys are never treated like we were," said Shelby, who served in the Air Force in Vietnam. "We've got to keep the focus on the military and their families and keep on thanking them."

The San Diego-based Yellow Ribbon Team has sponsored numerous programs for military members and families, including paying for 70 wounded military members to fly from San Diego to their homes for the holidays.

Although the details are not finalized, the Yellow Ribbon Team also plans a DVD recording session at Thursday's Poinsettia Bowl at Qualcomm Stadium when Navy meets Utah.

"It's just not enough to say thank you and move on. That's weak," said Doug Johnson, one of the Yellow Ribbon co-founders. "We've got to put legs on this thing."

Meanwhile, at the Supercomputer Center, each family crammed a lot of talking into 30 minutes. There were patterns to the conversations.

"It's happy at the beginning, then sad at the end," said Anna Halverson, whose husband, Lance Cpl. Matt Halverson, a radar technician, is on his first deployment.

Spouses have learned to watch what they say.

The deployed spouses do not mention if they have had to leave the safety of the base to go "outside the wire" on any missions. The stay-behind spouses do not mention the daily troubles: cars that break down or the squabbling kids.

"You don't want to burden them with the small stuff that they can't do anything about," said Lisa Butterfield, whose husband, Jason, a Navy air traffic controller, is on his third deployment.

Jim R. D'Aoust, the center's project manager for the National Partnership For Advanced Computational Infrastructure, has been holding the teleconference sessions several times a month since early 2006. The effort is helped by the New Jersey-based Freedom Calls Foundation, which arranges the downlinks in Iraq.

And how long is D'Aoust prepared to keep the program going?

"Until all the Marines come home," he said.

--

tony.perry@latimes.com

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