By Staff Sgt. Michel Sauret
Multi-National Division - Center
CAMP VICTORY, Iraq – The same goal drives just about every morale and recreation effort offered to deployed service members: bring a part of home closer to our heroes.
The Freedom Calls Foundation is one such program bringing service members face-to-face with their loved ones through free-of-charge video conferences for more than four years now.
Freedom Calls has centers on Camp Victory, Camp Taji, Camp Fallujah, Camp Taqaddum and al-Asad Airbase. The Foundation's network offers 50 soft-phones and 20 hard-phones, 6 video conferencing stations, 10 video email stations and 50 computers with email and internet access.
"The foundation was formed as a public charity because we believe family is important, especially in wartime and that deployed Soldiers, (Sailors), Marines and Airmen should not be commercially exploited to keep in touch with their families at home," said John Harlow, executive director.
"Providing state-of-the-art communication free of charge is the least that the American people can do to show their appreciation for the sacrifices being made by our Soldiers and their families."
Service members are allowed to schedule up to one conference per month and can now participate in milestone family events like school graduations, anniversaries, birthdays and other special moments.
"I would have to say the most touching (video teleconference) I have helped coordinate was for a child birth. I think the VTC lasted 12 to 18 hours but the soldier got to see his little girl born from Iraq, and then got to go home on leave and spend time with his newborn little girl," said Spc. Jeremy Crews, of Folkston, Ga., who works as the video teleconference coordinator for Camp Victory.
The video center is located inside the distance learning center, Building 27B, behind the Coalition Café.
The scheduling process is simple. Interested service members must schedule their video conference with the coordinator a minimum of 14 days prior to the requested date. Technicians will set up the room 30 minutes prior to actual video transmission; the service member must report during the set-up time to ensure all functions are in working order. No more than 12 people can fit in the room at a time.
Also, educational use of the facility takes priority over freedom calls because the video equipment is provided for education purposes.
The Foundation's network is working to increase the number of installations at military hospitals in the U.S. to allow service members interaction with their newborn children and loved ones who have become ill. Also, for those families who do not have broadband connections at home, Family Readiness Centers are now incorporating video rooms in their installations.
"It allows a more personal connection with the family instead of just a phone call here or there saying 'I'm all right' or 'Everything is good.' It allows the family or loved ones to get a face-to-face (connection) and personally see that everything is ok and where it is supposed to be with their loved one," Crews said.
Because of its benefit, Crews said he would like to see more people use the program.
"Using the video teleconference equipment is a great start," he said. "Most people will come in and ask about a VTC, but will never follow up on it. They love the idea that it is possible and that people are willing to work with them to set it up, but I would have to say about 45 percent of the people that ask about it never follow up."
Crews also suggested service members consider the time difference when setting up the call and be flexible because of the center's educational requirements.
The program does ask for help through public donations and corporate contributions to maintain the program, which is free for service members. It costs tens of thousands of dollars per month to maintain satellite links to Freedom Calls Centers at military bases on the front lines. The program provides more than 2,000 enterprise class family video conferences and more than 1.5 million minutes of free telephone calls every month, saving military families $4 million a year in calling card costs.
Soon, Crews will be replaced by Spc. Gary Niemeyer, who will serve as the new point of contact for setting up video conferences.
For more information or to find ways to support this program, visit: www.freedomcalls.org
This work, Freedom Calls connects Soldiers to home, by MSG Michel Sauret, identified by DVIDS, is free of known copyright restrictions under U.S. copyright law.