It started with a Facebook photo -- a screenshot on my iPhone while FaceTime video chatting with my husband. Did you catch all that techno-talk? (I barely did.) I posted this image on my Facebook wall to give friends and family a visual "He's A-Okay" without having to type a thousand words.
One of those online friends commented: "How in the world did people wait for months to get a letter during the older wars?!"
My answer: I have no idea. My husband is an Army physician deployed to a military field hospital in the Afghani desert. I can't say he's particularly isolated, despite technically being at a remote, high-security installation. With satellites providing Internet, we really are afforded half a dozen different means of correspondence. It's an entirely new age. Vastly different from days gone by when loved ones put pen to paper and sent it on a hope and a prayer to soldiers 'over there.'
Message in a Bottle: A Brief American History Lesson
The first time our national postal service was confronted with a preponderance of correspondence between soldiers and their loved ones was during the Civil War. According to the National Postal Museum, this was the first war whereby countrymen were away from home for extended periods. On the whole, letter writing was the primary method of communicating with individuals outside of one's household -- a means of conveying personal sentiments as much as pressing business. Major newspapers in the 1860s relied on soldiers' letters to depict firsthand accounts of the battles and movement of troops from state to state.
Due to that migratory existence, the mail service was irregular, albeit dedicated. Post could be easily delivered when units were camped at a stable location. However, while on the march, the men went weeks or longer without word. Given the wartime constraints, the postal service made accommodations, allowing soldiers to send letters from wherever they were without stamps. The postage due was collected from the addressee if and when delivered.
In WWI, soldiers and their loved ones faced a colossal impediment: the Atlantic Ocean. Our men and women weren't on home turf anymore. Letters were shipped overseas by the boatloads, exacerbating the length of delivery time. Correspondence also caught the eye of the U.S. government. Letters from troops in the trenches were read and censored. Anything deemed a breach of defense security or an admittance of fear or failure was cut or blacked out. Loved ones receive cryptic messages. The sight of their soldier's handwriting was sometimes the only comprehensible indicator that he was alive -- or had been at the original post date.
Censorship of the soldiers' mail continued through WWII, though the invention of Victory Mail improved delivery efficiency. The 7x9-inch paper sheets were sent through the Military Postal System (MPS), censored then photographed onto microfilm. These film spools were shipped to MPS sites abroad where they were reprinted to original size, greatly reducing the parcel bulk to combat zones. Still, a family might receive a letter from their Joe on Monday only to have the War Department Chaplain's telegram arrive Wednesday. Letters, in whatever form, provided little peace of mind that a serviceman was alive and well at the moment of receipt.
Vietnam changed all that. It was the gateway to the modern era of wartime communication. Using MARS (Military Auxiliary Radio System), soldiers could call home and speak directly to their families. Letter writing through the MPS continued, of course, but the radio provided soldiers and their families a guarantee of immediate wellbeing -- and we wanted more.
By the Gulf War, the U.S. Armed Forces and MPS were experimenting with a new kind of technology: electronic mail. My dad was a soldier deployed to Iraq in the early '90s. I remember waiting anxiously at our MS-DOS computer for his messages to appear. Neon green words across the black screen were more thrilling than Santa's thumbprints on the cookie plate. It was a magical portal to my absent father. I remember thinking to myself: His fingers just typed and hit send. My fingers are typing now. He's not that far. I'm not that far. We might as well have been holding hands.
In addition, my family sent care packages, letters and cassette tapes recorded with long, rambling messages cataloging everyday moments. I still have those. In one, my dad is washing his uniform in an unseen tub while encouraging me to be patient and kind to my baby brothers, the water audibly splashing and sloshing in the background. In another, a siren goes off and the tape clicks to a heart-seizing stop before quickly returning: "Sorry sweetie, that was nothing, just a practice raid." Each cassette was dated. So even as a child, I didn't worry. I could do the math. He'd emailed the day before and the recording was weeks ago. He was fine. Safe today.
Soldier correspondence has advanced with the gusto of progressive technology and our growing global community. When my husband deployed last month, he took with him a personal laptop, cell phone and tablet in his rucksack. While only the laptop was military issued, all three were deemed essential for communication.
During the journey from Fort Benning's training camp to his Army field hospital, he was able to email, post on Facebook, iPhone text message, Viber call and video FaceTime from nearly every stop. All of which are free and available to everyone, serviceman or civilian. I was practically packed in his uniform pocket and given a view of his European layover, a glimpse at Kuwait, and a visual tour of his new Afghani home away from home.
He texts me daily. Simply stuff like Good morning and Sleep well; How's the lawn looking? and Can you order me some Jolly Ranchers? It's the ordinary message that make it seem as if he's just across town and not the globe. In the mornings, if he has a free moment, he emails friends and family links to newspaper articles he's read -- no doubt he'll do the same for this one -- and uploads Instagrams of the dust-shrouded skies on Facebook. We both downloaded the Viber app, which allows you to see when the other person was last active: Online today at 2:53 PM.
We live in remarkable times, and I'm entirely grateful that I'm able to correspond with my soldier as quickly as it takes to peck out: How. was. your. day? He's living 11.5 hours ahead of me, seeing the sun while I wait for the moon to set and his daylight to make its way to my corner. I give our forefathers and mothers much credit. Their steadfast faith is an attribute I admire and seek to emulate. Yet, I'm anxious when I FaceTime my husband and he doesn't pick up; when I text and he doesn't respond within the hour; when emails go unanswered for half a day. Some might judge me harshly for this--part of an instant gratification generation. But I know if my grandmother had the technology, she would've used it as liberally when my grandfather was on the frontlines.
Despite the digitized modes and modern resources at our disposal, my husband also took along plain paper, cards and envelopes. Because nothing compares to what we really wan t-- our faraway soldiers returned. Letters are the only means of correspondence that still allow us to tangibly experience our absent one's reality, together yet apart. Paper rustling rough between our fingers; grits of foreign sands stuck to envelop glue; the smell of ink, heat and a journey baked into the page; grooves of handwriting that cannot be replicated by computer or photograph or blinking curser on a screen. Each loop is as much my husband as a heartbeat. I cherish his letters and so, I cease my iPhone texting and emailing to pick up a pen and write, Dear Love...