CAMP LEATHERNECK, Afghanistan --
Saying goodbye to their families has always been one of the hardest parts of deployment for troops, and now there's a way for them to stay connected with their families while deployed overseas.
The United Through Reading program helps service members stay connected with their loved ones who are supporting them back at home by allowing troops to record and read aloud books to their children, and then mail the recordings to their families on DVD's.
"The program was designed so that deployed Marines and sailors can keep in touch with their children back home and vice versa," said Petty Officer 2nd Class Christopher D. Herrera, religious program specialist for Headquarters and Service Company, 1st Marine Logistics Group (Forward). "The family can also get in touch with [the service members] by sending a reaction video of the children back to them."
The program provides an opportunity to reduce the stress of military families separated by deployment, said Herrera, 34, from Killeen, Texas. It also reduces the anxiety upon reunion and helps the children recognize their deployed parents when they see the Marines and sailors for the first time when service members come back from their deployment.
"It's a great way for the Marines [and sailors] to keep bonding with the families even when they're not around for an important part of their child development," said Herrera. "It helps the children remember who they are by constantly seeing the deployed parent's face."
Service members can sign up for a recording session by contacting their unit's religious program specialist, who can be found in the Chaplain's office. They can then select a book title that they want to read to their kids. After that, they will be directed to a United Through Reading center, where they can record their read aloud.
"[Service members] can request whether they want to read a book or series of books," said Petty Officer 3rd Class Richard Mensah, religious program specialist for 2nd Combat Engineer Battalion, who serves as a liaison for troops who want to participate in the program.
Herrera is working on finding a location to open up a United Through Reading center for deployed Marines and sailors of 1st MLG (FWD). For the time being, service members deployed to Camp Leatherneck, Afghanistan, can participate in the program at the United Through Reading center located inside the Chaplain's office by the Life Support Area 2.
"Marines can come and use the program as many times as they want," said Mensah, 21, from Ghana, Africa. "I have had over 50 Marines and sailors come and participate in the program in a period of six months. If they want to make five recordings, I'll allow them to do it."
According to Mensah, Marines and sailors who have participated in the program always come back and tell him how wonderful the program is and how much their families love it.
"From the last deployment, we had a lot of Marines that ended up crying when they saw the reaction videos of their children," said Herrera. "After working and being busy all day at whatever job they're doing, their mind is not really focused on their children. Seeing those videos put them in tears."
Religious program specialists run the program for Marines and sailors in their units. They try to inform service members in their unit about the program and make it available for everyone to use.
"Since our Marines are everywhere, I go out to some of the [forward operating bases] with some books, a video camera and a tripod and do the recordings there so those Marines have the opportunity to use the program," Mensah said.
Mensah modified the program so even Marines without children can still send messages home to their families. The program was meant for the troops to read books to their children, but he expands the program by allowing troops to send messages back home in ways that Marines felt comfortable.
"I have people who have made a song and sang it to the camera to send it back to their families," Mensah said.
Even though deployed service members have to say goodbye to their families, they still get to be a part of their families' lives even halfway around the world.