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New Program Connects Wounded Warriors with Loved Ones

Capt. Erick Saks - 455th Air Expeditionary Wing Public Affairs

BAGRAM AIRFIELD, Afghanistan (AFNS)(12/14/2010)-- Members of the 455th Contingency Aeromedical Staging Facility staff teamed up with Airmen from the 455th Expeditionary Communication Squadron to offer wounded warriors a way to communicate with loved ones as the wounded warriors make their journey home.

The 455th ECS completed the installation of a wireless morale network Dec. 5, for the Craig Joint Theater Hospital CASF and intensive care unit here to allow injured servicemembers awaiting medical evacuation to access the Internet.

"When I arrived here in July, the staff made a commitment to leave the CASF better than we found it," said Lt. Col. Bridget Brozyna, the CASF flight commander. "We conducted a survey to see what the patients wanted that they weren't getting, and overwhelmingly, they asked for Internet access."

The CASF staff members care for injured servicemembers who are able to cognitively function, such as those with broken bones or concussions, the colonel said.

Patients come from throughout Afghanistan and generally spend two days to a week before departing the facility. Prior to the installation of the network, patients had to travel to one of the relatively distant morale network access points on Bagram AF to access the Internet.

"We've pushed patients in wheelchairs across base so they could get online to speak with their family," Colonel Brozyna said. "Our goal is to do anything we can, medically and mentally, to help the patients."

The colonel praised the effort made by the 455th ECS Airmen to get the network installed.

Airman 1st Class Esteban Cervantes, the manager of the 455th Air Expeditionary Wing's morale network, headed up a team including Senior Airman Andrew Trainer, a cable maintenance technician, and Senior Airman David Wilson, a network management operator, to install the network in the hospital.

Once initiated, the project took 30 days to complete, including the acquisition of all materials and the installation of more than 300 feet of wiring, Airman Cervantes said. And, the entire project cost less than $500 to complete, largely by reusing materials that were available through the Defense Reutilization and Marketing Office.

"We got a list of all the materials in theater on DRMO and found what we needed to do the job," Airman Cervantes said. "We're always looking for ways to save the taxpayers' money."

From a professional standpoint, Airman Wilson said the project was a "comm guy's dream."

"Back home, we were working on existing, old networks," the Airman said. "During this project, we got to build a network from the ground up."

Personally, building a network to connect wounded warriors with their families, affected all three Airmen.

"These guys are real heroes," Airman Trainer said. "We are happy to give back to them."

During the short time the morale network has been available in the CASF, Colonel Brozyna said she has already seen a significant response from the transiting patients.

"The patients have been thrilled with the access," she said. "Since the network was installed, there isn't a moment that someone isn't online. It really helps to improve their morale as they wait."

The colonel recalled a Marine who recently stayed at the CASF during his redeployment.

"He got to see pictures of his baby daughter for the first time here," she said. "He was so excited. It made us all cry. He just said 'thank you, thank you, thank you!'"

Army Staff Sgt. Kris Sapp, a 101st Airborne Division fire support specialist, was wounded in Afghanistan's Ghazni province as the result of an improvised explosive device attack. He expressed his and his family's gratitude that he was able to communicate with his loved ones through the new system during his stay in the CASF.

"Since I've been here, I've been able to contact my family and friends to let them know I'm somewhat OK," the Soldier said. "I was able to reassure them that I've got all of my fingers and all of my toes."

The convenience of having Internet access in the CASF is especially important to Sergeant Sapp, who is still sensitive to bright light. He said walking across the base to use the Internet was out of the question.

This is not the staff sergeant's first time through the medical evacuation process. In 2005, he was wounded by a roadside bomb while deployed to Iraq. That time, however, it took significantly longer before he was able to communicate home.

"This time, it was about two days before I was able to reach my family," Sergeant Sapp said. "In Iraq, it took about a week."

The communications squadron Airmen and CASF staff members both expressed their interest in continuing to improve access. Airman Cervantes said he expects that the capability of the morale network will continually evolve and expand.

Colonel Brozyna said she hopes to expand the availability of the morale network in the CASF from two to at least four computers, and she is looking into the feasibility of offering headsets so patients can make Internet calls.

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