Technology advances for soldiers a double-edged sword on battlefield
Robert Brooke heard bullets humming past his head.
Moments later, when his first firefight in Iraq ended and his men were accounted for, he pulled out a cellphone and called his father — who was sitting thousands of miles away in an Applebee's restaurant.
“He said, ‘We got them. ... It was really fun,' ” recalled Roger Brooke of Swissvale. “I'm in Applebee's, and he's standing on top of a Humvee behind a 50-caliber gun. What was interesting for me was, I was speaking in a very upbeat voice, but my wife said the color just drained from my face. I was sitting there, completely ashen.”
Roger Brooke, 60, a native of South Africa who served in the military there as a paratrooper in the 1970s, could not have called his father seconds after a gunfight to provide details.
Advances in communications technology have brought soldiers in the battlefield closer to loved ones at home. They can communicate daily, via locally purchased cellphones, email, Skype or social media.
But that closeness comes at a cost, military officials and analysts say. It can become a distraction, they note, because it can bring the comforts and complications of home into the war zone.
“It puts soldiers in two realities: You're in a war zone with your commander in one ear and your family back home in another ear,” said Morten G. Ender, a sociology professor with the U.S. Military Academy's Department of Behavioral Sciences and Leadership.
“Family members know they can pick up their cellphone and immediately call a loved one in war zones and ask questions about some of the most mundane problems in life,” Ender said. “In past wars, the wife would have to figure it out alone. Now she simply picks up the phone and calls her husband, who may be in the middle of an ambush. He says, ‘OK, baby I gotta go. I'm taking sniper fire.' ”
Few rules in place
Military leaders say they're aware of the double-edged sword communications technology brings, and they train troops to use such technology with restraint and intelligence. Pre-deployment seminars counsel them and family members about what should and should not be communicated.
They regularly review and update social media guidelines, officials said.
Yet few regulations are in place to ban or restrict troops' social media use, except under extreme circumstances, officials said.
“When there are significant battles, we shut it down — and that's absolutely the case if there's a death,” said Col. Irving Smith, a professor of sociology at the U.S. Military Academy. “The last thing you want is for some wife or husband to go on their social media and find out their loved one has been killed.
“We shut it down to protect not only soldiers and their families, but operational security as well.”
Officials said they are learning to deal with consequences of communications technology, even as they try to understand its full impact.
“This is a big deal for us. We're required to take annual training on this,” Smith said. “We want soldiers to be in touch; soldiers care for their families. On the other hand, it creates this burden. Now they have to think about home. ‘Is the dishwasher broken? Is my girlfriend cheating on me?' All these things are ancillary to the mission.”
Smith said troops who spend too much time on social media can make it harder on themselves when they try to readjust to civilian life.
“They can get a false sense of what's really going on (at home). ... You're only seeing a small part of that world through Skype,” he said. “They're living in this virtual world, but not really a part of what they think they are a part of. It can make the resumption of responsibilities when they return home harder.”
For Roger Brooke, a psychology professor at Duquesne University, the closeness allowed him to help his son process startling, often horrific, experiences of war.
“It was very helpful to be able to talk with Dad and (wife) Jules and the kids,” said Robert Brooke, 33, of Dormont, who served three tours with the Army in Iraq. “Just to remind yourself that there are normal people around.”
During his first tour in 2004, soldiers communicated with family sparingly, usually during a five-minute call from a pay phone once a week, he said. During his second tour, from 2006 to 2007, “there were more phones and computers.”
By his last tour, which ended in 2009, phones and Internet access were ubiquitous.
“It was the same outpost, but now every room had Internet,” he said. “We went from 20 phones for 1,000 soldiers to instant access for everyone.”
For younger generations, technology is not a luxury but a way of life, and the military must continue to figure out how to manage it, said Andrew T. Stephen, assistant professor of business administration in the University of Pittsburgh's Joseph M. Katz Graduate School of Business.
“This is a generation who will be in the same room as a friend but (instant message) them instead of getting up and talking face to face,” Stephen said. “It's so innate. They're the first generation that has not known what it's like for the Internet to not exist or be as sophisticated as it now is.
“They just use this stuff all the time. It's an extension of themselves.”
Not all calls home work out as intended.
When a roadside bomb severely concussed Robert Brooke, he didn't want his wife to learn about his injuries through secondhand sources.
“I called Julie to tell her I was OK, but I was so out of it, I wasn't answering any of her questions,” he said. “That was not a good idea at all. It made her more worried.”
He said being so close to family while so far away was “a distraction, but also a big help.”
“Were people ever distracted? Well, certainly they were, that is true,” he said. “But it's not the only truth. You do have both sides.”
He turned to his father and said: “I do wonder if I burdened you and Jules too much.”
“You didn't,” Roger Brooke said. “That's what I'm there for. It was a privilege.”
Chris Togneri is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-380-5632 or firstname.lastname@example.org.