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*Note this article was published in the U.S. Army Communicator
Keeping families informed during Operation Enduring Freedom.
By CPT David J. Stern, USAR

As a member of the 164th Corps Support Group of Mesa, Arizona, I was activated and ordered to Karshi-Kanabad Airbase (K2) in Uzbekistan from June to December of 2002. Serving as the group signal officer, I was tasked to develop a way to assist the Family Readiness Group in keeping the families informed. Arranging for a donation of the internet website, AZARMYFAMILY.COM, and electronic newsletter software from SISCORP, a website and electronic newsletter was used to distribute information, stories, promotion photos, contests, and other items of interest to families and friends. The bottom line upfront for this project is best described by Marilyn Ward, the mother of a soldier, who said “I loved the newsletter. It made me feel that I was still in touch with my son, even if only to a degree.”

INTRODUCING THE WEB ADDRESS DURING THE FRG MEETING

Before leaving the reserve center, the unit Family Readiness Group (FRG) held a deployment briefing for the families. During the briefing, the domain name for the website was announced to the families and a sign up sheet was passed around for the email addresses of all those present. From that point, the newsletters and website information was passed via family members, FRG volunteers, and the other family related support channels. The newsletter started with about 100 email addresses and the group’s distribution list ended the deployment with 321.

PUBLISHING THE NEWSLETTER AND UPDATING THE WEBPAGE

As one of the group commander’s priorities, the website was updated three times a week and the electronic newsletter was sent to everyone on the distribution list once a week. The newsletter software had the ability to send a simple text email or a webpage, most subscribers chose the “webpage” version.

The website and newsletters contained links to the email addresses of the FRG volunteers, phone numbers and email addresses of the chaplain staff, information about TRI-CARE, and other issues affecting family members. The newsletters also contained information to subscribe additional family members to the distribution list and to send comments or suggestions for the newsletter and website.

One of the nice features of the newsletter was the ability to include families in the training that the group was receiving. For example, at the mobilization station the group conducted Force Protection Level One Training. The same training was available to the public through the Internet so we placed a web link on the webpage and newsletter to allow the family members to participate in the same training we were receiving. In addition, for the redeployment of the unit, we digitized a set of reunion videos and made them available on the website for family and friends.

MANAGING EMAIL ADDRESSES AND NEWSLETTERS

With the donated website and electronic newsletter tools, updating the website or sending quick updates to the families could be accomplished from anywhere in the world with an internet connection. This allowed volunteers in the United States to assist with the website (in addition to volunteers within the unit.) The software had some nice features including the ability to import the addresses from virtually any spreadsheet, notification of email addresses that were returned with the reason why (i.e. Mailbox was full), as well as general statistics and the ability to send html emails.

LESSONS LEARNED: INFORMATION SECURITY

As the project proceeded, the group’s S2 section was intimately involved with the development and editing of pages for the website. As the website was hosted on a commercial system; soldiers, family members, and FRG volunteers all had the ability to publish pages and updates. In order to ensure that no inadvertent disclosures were made to the viewers of the site or newsletters, the S2 staff viewed all pages, photos, and text for classification before they were made public. What this brought to the fight was the ability to edit the items of concern or leave them entirely out. The S2 also brought us into compliance with appropriate guidelines by instructing the removal of the unit name and other identifying features of the unit/personnel.

PUTTING DOWN RUMORS

During the 164th CSG’s mobilization process, the national media began to report news of suspected chemical contamination at Karshi-Khanabad Airbase (K2), Uzbekistan. As this was the base that the group was to assume Command and Control of, this posed a significant issue for the soldiers, friends, and family of the unit.

The newsletter and website gave the group commander the ability to distribute a list of Questions and Answers as well as detailed information to the family and friends of the 164th CSG. The notable aspect of this accomplishment was that the information was received by the families within 24 hours of it becoming national news. The end result; The unit went on training to complete the mobilization process - unaffected by the national media.

COMMENTS FROM THE FAMILIES

No project is complete without an After Action Review (AAR) and these are the comments of a few family members:

…You kept me informed as much as you could on the many days I could not actually hear Mark's voice. The pictures were great, the thoughts were great, the whole thing was great. …Michelle Paone

…It was nice to have the ability to get information out about my brother (Mc Kewan) while he was on the other side of the planet...LOL! But seriously, it was comforting to be able to have as much contact as the newsletter provided….David Mc Kewan

…Why I liked it were the pictures. It gave a clear indication of what the area was like and what you had to put up with over there. Always interesting to hear what you were going through - good and bad?! We back in the states appreciated knowing what it was like for you guys and to know that you had some comforts! We appreciated getting that newsletter and I for one shared it with friends and family. Diane Howard

FINAL COMMENTS

The electronic newsletter and Internet website gave the group and it’s FRG the ability to quickly and accurately distribute information to families. It allowed soldiers to complete the mission at hand instead of worrying about informing their families of such things as safe arrivals, departures, locations, etc. In addition, they allowed a security screening that ensured that Operational Security concerns were addressed and routinely communicated to families. If you would like to start your own newsletters, please feel free to contact me at david.stern@us.army.mil.
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Captain David J. Stern is a reservist assigned to the 164th Corps Support Group from Mesa, Arizona. In his civilian role he is the President of Stern Internet Services Corporation located in Sierra Vista, AZ. He holds a Masters Degree in Business Administration/Technology Management from the University of Phoenix and a Bachelors degree in Microelectronic Engineering from Rochester Institute of Technology. CPT Stern has served on active duty in positions of increasing importance such as Signal Battalion Detachment Commander, ASC Direct Support Engineer, Signal Battalion Logistics Officer, and Cable/Wire Platoon Leader.
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