Charity Unites Troops in Iraq with Family for Milestones by Video

By: Associated Press
By: Associated Press

MOBILE, Ala. (AP) - From his post in Iraq last month, Marine Sergeant Chad Matthews watched by video as his wife, Cynthia, gave birth in a Mobile hospital.

It was a heartwarming connection from half a world away that is becoming increasingly feasible from a war zone for the first time.

Freedom Calls Foundation, a New Jersey-based charity born in the wake of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, is making the video hookups available at milestone events for thousands of military families, including about 100 births a month.

Cynthia Matthews says she felt like her husband was in the hospital room with her. She watched her husband's image on the computer screen as he encouraged her during the March 24th birth of their son, Braxton.

Unlike previous wars, satellites have replaced telegrams and long phone lines to share homefront news with fighting forces overseas.

In an interview, Freedom Calls founder and executive director John Harlow tells The Associated Press some calls organized by the charity are for small things -- a 4-year-old girl wanted to show her father in Iraq that she had learned how to tie her shoe laces.

And there are sad calls. A soldier's sister was dying and she wanted to tell him goodbye.

Other recent events connected by Freedom Calls include a surprise proposal and a wedding on Valentine's Day, an Army ROTC graduate who was able to have her husband administer her oath of office from Iraq, and a Marine who participated in the in vitro fertilization of his first child in Texas from the front lines.

Harlow says he began organizing the charity in 2003 after hearing about a soldier with a $7,000 phone bill for calls back home. He felt the soldiers were being "commercially exploited."

The Freedom Calls satellite network includes secure high-quality multiparty video conferencing on a computer over a broadband Internet connection.

The foundation provides free communications for the soldiers, whose assignments overseas have increased their fondness for laptops and high-speed Internet.

Harlow says the Foundation is doing about a million minutes a month in phone calls and about 2,000 video conferences a month. He says about 100 births a month are being seen by soldiers and Marines on duty in Iraq.

In Mobile, Dawn Hicks, manager of telemedicine programs at the University of South Alabama hospital, says she set up the video conferencing equipment for Freedom Calls that was used by the Matthews couple.

The equipment makes the link to an Internet address at the Freedom Calls center in Iraq.

On the opposite end of the state, Robert Middleton, a NASA retiree and senior research engineer at the University of Alabama at Huntsville, took the video clip and put it online, using UAH's "streaming video server" that's used for distance-learning teaching.

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(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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