RICHLAND — In a few weeks, two iPods donated by a congregation in Richland will be flying to a military hospital in Afghanistan. Using them, soldiers there will be able to talk to their families face to face in real time.
Some for the first time since being deployed.
It’s not that video technology isn’t readily available, but some soldiers either can’t afford the pricey electronics, or don’t have access to an internet connection.
Military internet connections are just that, for official military business. No chatting with your wife before she gives birth, or Granddad who is facing heart surgery. And if you are the one confined to a hospital bed, well, computer cords are only so long.
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Phones are fine, but there are times when families need to see each other face-to-face.
Now, thanks to the generosity of the congregation of All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Richland, a few more soldiers at an undisclosed hospital in Afghanistan can visit with family and friends through built-in webcams and Skype accounts.
The two iPod Touch units, chargers and applications were funded by the Outreach Committee of the church.
“This is the kind of thing the Outreach Committee does,” said Allen Haffner of Richland. “We reach out to people outside the church. In this case it’s continents away.”
There’s no charge for the soldiers to use the iPods and Skype accounts.
The video conferencing is free to their families too. All they need is a computer or smartphone, internet access and a free Skype account.
Earlier this week, Haffner and other members of the Outreach Committee watched as Bruce Schmoetzer of Richland demonstrated how the iPods work.
In seconds, Schmoetzer, who owns a high-technology consulting firm, Wilke Systems International, had established a video link between the two units.
“It’s that simple,” he said. “You just push this one button.”
In a few weeks, once Schmoetzer has both units programmed, they will be sent to a chaplain stationed at a military hospital in Afghanistan.
“We tried going through what might be considered normal military channels, but I was unable to get any feedback from the Chaplain Corps,” he said.
“We couldn’t donate them directly to the hospital. The military isn’t allowed to ask for, or accept, donations,” Schmoetzer said. “It became easier once it became a friend of a friend thing.”
It was a conversation between friends that started the project they have been calling Family/Baby Cam.
Schmoetzer’s wife, the Rev. Jane Schmoetzer, rector at All Saints’, attended seminary school with Air Force Chaplain Capt. Mark Juchter, who is stationed in the Las Vegas area. The chaplain at the Afghanistan military hospital is a friend of Juchter’s.
“Mark (Juchter) and I were talking this past year about finding a way for troops overseas to talk, face to face, with their families. It started when Mark mentioned one young soldier who had been frustrated he couldn’t find a way to have a presence in the delivery room as his baby was born,” Bruce Schmoetzer said.
“I said the technology’s out there. Let’s see what I can find,” Schmoetzer said.
What he found were two iPod Touch 4Gs (fourth generation), hand-held computers with touch screens and built-in webcams. “The whole project cost just over $500,” Schmoetzer said.
He is finishing loading the applications, testing the machines and setting up Skype accounts. By mid-October, they will be on their way to the chaplain’s APO address.
“She’ll be the one to determine when and who can use them. There’s no limits technically. I think it will be like a library scenario where your time is limited simply because of the demand,” Schmoetzer said.
If the feedback from Afghanistan is favorable, the Schmoetzers and members of All Saints’ Outreach Committee may contact other congregations for more iPod donations.
“This is a pilot project for us. We’ll give it a few months and see if they work out,” Schmoetzer said.