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Published: Saturday, 10/2/2004

GIs set sights on family, friends

BY DAVID PATCH
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Tori Muehlfeld talks with her husband, Dustin, who is stationed in Iraq, at Toys 'R' Us in West Toledo. Tori Muehlfeld talks with her husband, Dustin, who is stationed in Iraq, at Toys 'R' Us in West Toledo.
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Dustin and Tori Muehlfeld married in February. Dustin shipped out to Iraq with the Army Reserve in March. The Perrysburg couple haven't seen each other since then.

Until yesterday.

Mrs. Muehlfeld was one of the first of an estimated 75 to 100 relatives who video-conferenced yesterday evening with their soldier husbands, or brothers, or sons, or fathers using a Web camera and a satellite computer hook-up between a Toys 'R' Us store in West Toledo and a military base in the "Sunni Triangle" of northern Iraq.

While the Muehlfelds talk by phone or e-mail "about once a week," getting to see her sergeant husband - if only on a slightly jumpy, time-delayed computer image - was "awesome," Mrs. Muehlfeld said.

"This is the best thing that's happened for us," said Paula Stone of Adrian, mother of Army Spec. Darrick Stone, who was accompanied by Mr. Stone's wife, Tiffany, and their infant and toddler children. "We feel blessed that they did this for us. We're so thankful. It's a wonderful thing."

The hook-up was arranged by the Freedom Calls Foundation, a Brooklyn, N.Y., charity that, starting with an array of computer conference calls last Mother's Day, has been building a network of communications centers in the United States and at military bases and hospitals overseas that soldiers and their families may use to visit online at no charge.

Yesterday was the first such teleconference in Toledo, but Edward Bukstel, the foundation's co-founder, said a full-time facility should be operating here by Thanksgiving.

None of the 20 soldiers involved in yesterday's teleconferences was female, but today, a female soldier will be able to watch live through a Freedom Call as her daughter gets married in Des Moines, Mr. Bukstel said.

Each family in Toledo was allowed up to 20 minutes to chat. They came from as far away as Illinois, though most were from northwest Ohio or southeast Michigan.

Some of the relatives, like Mrs. Muehlfeld, came alone, while other soldiers' extended families participated. Most of the soldiers are members of the 983rd Reserve Engineer Battalion, which has several bases in the Toledo area and has been attached to the 980th Engineers from Texas.

The conversations were, for the most part, routine: laced with "I love you" and "I miss you" and otherwise leaning toward topics like personal appearance, the weather, friends, and relatives. Far more important than any words, the relatives said, was simply being able to see their loved ones.

"He's safe, he's alive," said Tiffany Stone, who noted that her husband's military work sometimes involves driving in truck convoys that have become notorious targets for Iraqi rebels.

Specialist Stone was home on two weeks' leave in July, so the face of Olivia, age 5 months, was not completely unfamiliar to him. But Mrs. Stone said she wondered if Austin, their 20-month-old son, would recognize Daddy on the computer screen - and he did.

Sometimes the Stones go three weeks or more without hearing from Darrick, but he "always tells us, 'If you don't hear anything, that's good news," Paula Stone said.

Tracy Squier of Coldwater, Mich., said for her, the teleconference was a bit of a turnabout, because Staff Sgt. Tim Squier had to get up at 1 a.m. Iraq time to participate.

When he phones home, she said, "He usually wakes us up at 3 in the morning."

The Freedom Calls system cost about $350,000 to set up, and operations cost about $30,000 a month, Mr. Bukstel said. The foundation relies on public donations, solicited on its Web site, and corporate sponsors to pay its bills.

"The technology's there. The hard part is making sure the soldiers and their families can get together at the same time," Mr. Bukstel said. "It's just a pleasure to help out these soldiers."

Contact David Patch at:

dpatch@theblade.com

or 419-724-6094.



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