American Supports You: Troops, Families Get Secure Connection

By Paul X. Rutz
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, April 27, 2006  - Military families will soon have a new and secure way to keep in touch with their deployed loved ones.

"Connect and Join," an Internet-based communications company, provides a forum for military families to keep in touch when their loved ones deploy, said the company's founder and president, Linda Dennis, during an interview at the Pentagon April 25. The multidimensional Web site goes live at the end of this month. Dennis said the Web forum would be available to military families for $5 per month, half the normal charge.

"We have taken together all of the important elements of life at home and combined them in one portal," she said. "You have your photographs that capture the memories; you have your writing, your journaling, that brings forward the word. Then you have a calendar system that brings forward the little tiny moments that sometimes you forget to say on the telephone or in a letter or an e-mail."

The site also includes suggestions for projects families can make at home and send via the post office, as well as an archival tool for making scrapbooks to keep once servicemembers have returned home.

A former Air Force wife with a background in child education, Dennis said she was inspired to develop the portal after hearing a speech by a National Guard colonel who had deployed to Kosovo in the 1990s. He showed his audience photos of soldiers standing in long lines waiting to check e-mail, noting that often they couldn't download attachments their families had sent. That sparked the idea to create an easy-to-use communications tool that didn't force its users to download large amounts of data and could be viewed any time.

Dennis said her staff of 19 educators has worked 18 months to develop the site, in partnership with University of South Carolina technical experts and psychologists.

They began by talking with focus groups, mostly military spouses, who built their own family sites using prototype software.

An important part of the development included creating software that is simple to use and requires no formal training. "Kids today are fearless," she said. "They get on and hit the mouse, and they go. But we had in the room 60-year-old women ... who had never used a computer. ... For Connect and Join to be successful beyond an idea, we had to be sure we could train them."

Along with ease of use, the project's major goal is security, Dennis said. Each registration is limited to five users: the family editor, the deployed servicemember, and three other members. Nothing can be posted for public viewing, and each site is unique to the family creating it.

"It's all private, password protected," she said. "It's just between the deployed soldier and the family members. And the family editor is really the key because the family editor controls all the content."

As an added safeguard, the company has put filters in place to screen out unseemly content, which keep the portal family friendly, she said.

Dr. Frederic Medway, a psychology professor at the University of South Carolina, said his research on family separation issues shows several reasons why better communication leads to healthier families. He has joined the project as evaluation director, working with Connect and Join on two aspects of development.

First, Medway said, he wants "to make sure that the product itself is psychologically friendly, it ties into the different developmental needs that children have or families have, and that it reflects what we know in terms of best practice about military family research."

Second, he said, he wants to use the site to gather data on how families behave while a loved one is deployed, using what he learns to help families even more.

"We're using the information to continually make the product better," he said. He hopes the site will help answer questions psychologists still have about the effect long-term separation has on families.

Medway said psychologists already know a lot about how to help families better cope with separation. Families fare better when they are well-informed; live in communities with good support; have help from local schools and other institutions; and use available mental health services to help them deal with anxiety, depression or post-traumatic stress disorder, he said.

Homecoming can also be a difficult adjustment period, he said. Communication about small and big things helps make that transition easier.

"We know from many, many years of research that oftentimes military personnel come back home and they feel like things have really changed a lot," Medway said. "Hopefully one promise of Connect and Join is it will bridge that gap and make the soldier feel more a part of the family and have more input."

Dennis said the project has seen a lot of media attention recently, including news articles and invitations to appear on talk shows. She believes that only helps military families.

She said her company also recently joined America Supports You, a Defense Department program that highlights grassroots and corporate support for the nation's troops.

"We are all about giving support to the families, and ultimately that supports the troops," she said.

Related Sites:

Connect and Join []

America Supports You []

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