Social media allow military families a deeper connection
“You could break away from the monotony of everyday stress and feel like you’re back home for a bit,” said Murphy, who is now stationed at Fort Leavenworth, Kan.
The connection made his deployment more bearable and eased his return home about a month ago, especially with the couple’s 2- and 4-year-old daughters, he and his wife, Bianca, said.
“He was part of their day-to-day life, so there was no adjustment that this was some stranger in a uniform,” Bianca Murphy said.
Social media networks and fast Internet connections in remote parts of the world are revolutionizing what it means to be deployed to a war zone or other post, experts say. Researchers are only beginning to assess the impact on the military and the homefront, both during and after a deployment.
“No other military in the history of warfare has had that level of access to their families,” said Benjamin Karney, a social psychologist at University of California-Los Angeles, who studies marriage and family relationships in the military.
Karney and three other researchers recently began a three-year study for the Department of Defense to track how 8,000 military families handle stress before, during and after deployments.
Until about two years ago, the military had blocked most access to Facebook and similar sites because of concerns over security breaches, said Don Faul, vice president of online operations for Facebook. Now, military commanders advise troops and their families on how to keep themselves and their units safe online.
Use of those sites has boomed, said Tara Crooks, co-founder of the Army Wife Network, an Oklahoma-based company offering support and advice for military spouses.
“I don’t know a military family member who isn’t on Facebook,” she said.
Katelyn Rowley, a 24-year-old senior airman with the Delaware Air National Guard, said she used Facebook and Skype to keep in touch with her fiancé and family during her six-month deployment to Kuwait last year.
“I was able to talk to family every day if I wanted to, which is awesome,” said Rowley, of Smyrna, Del. “You don’t feel like you’re missing out on things. I can’t imagine deploying for long periods of time and relying only on letters.”
Karney said the Pentagon wants to know whether such a connection strengthens family bonds and eases the post-deployment transition, or if it might distract servicemembers from their mission and expose fractures in their personal relationships. The truth might be a little of both, he said.
“For the families that are strong to begin with, this technology is probably a tremendous help to them,” Karney said. “For families having problems, maybe the technology will exacerbate their problems.”
In previous deployments to Iraq and South America with the Delaware Air National Guard, Master Sgt. Clifford Snyder relied on letters and brief phone calls to keep in touch with his wife and three children in Camden, Del.
“The kids grew so much during those times,” Snyder said. “You felt when you first got home like a visitor in the house.”
During his most recent six-month deployment to Iraq in 2009-10, he checked in with them on Facebook and video-chatted with them on Skype almost daily.
“I got to see the kids, and they were able to give me updates on how school was going and stuff,” Snyder said. “I felt like I was there for the whole time.”
Faul said one of Facebook’s most popular features among military families is the ability to create groups, so only certain people can see their comments and pictures. Many spouses create secret groups for intimate conversations, he said.
“It’s just the two of you who are seeing it,” said Jason Krafsky, a relationship speaker and blogger with his wife, Kelli, who call themselves the Social Media Couple.
Those conversations might prove awkward when the deployment ends, Krafsky said.
“You’re used to typing everything out and contemplating what you’re saying before you hit send, so going from Facebook to face to face can create this weird dynamic,” Krafsky said.
The Murphys’ daughters got so used to using Skype to talk with their father in Iraq that their youngest girl still wants to do it, Bianca Murphy said.
“Even though he’s sitting in the living room, she’ll say, ‘No, Mommy, I need to talk to him on the computer,’ ” she said.
Kat Mathis, of Colorado Springs, said Skype has made a huge difference during the deployment of her husband, Army Spc. Chris Mathis, to Afghanistan. Their 4-month-old daughter was a newborn when he left and will be 10 months old by the time he returns, she said.
“I’ll put the video camera on and put her on the floor and he’ll sort of play with her,” Mathis said. “That’s the closest he can come. He loves it. He gets to see her grow.”