CAMP TAQADDUM, Iraq -- With the help of a little technology, deployed parents and their young children can share the joy of reading a book together even while thousands of miles apart.
By taking a few moments out of their busy schedules service members here can send video recordings of themselves to their children and families back home thanks to the United Through Reading program. Organizers of the program say the videos help provide a more intimate connection to the stateside families than a phone call or letter can because they can see their deployed loved ones as they convey their message.
The UTR program was originally created by the Family Literacy Foundation to allow parents from all branches of military service to bond with their children while encouraging them to read.
Using a simple video camera, moms and dads read books that are either donated or brought along for the deployment all while the camera is recording.
The 1st Marine Logistics Group's chaplains and their staffs implemented the UTR program in late March and have already recorded almost 200 videos for families back home.
The program has expanded here from its original goal of connecting service members with their children., said Petty Officer 1st Class Mona A. Royal, the senior enlisted leader for the chaplain's office here.
Personnel at Camp Taqaddum can now utilize the UTR system to connect with any of their friends or loved ones.
"You can make it whatever you want to make it," said Maj. Christopher B. Shaw, the staff judge advocate for 1st MLG and a regular user of the program. "Whenever you have the time, you just go over to the chapel and within two or three minutes you are set up to create a DVD."
Religious program specialists such as Royal, a native of Roanoke Rapids, N.C., guide service members through the process.
The sessions can be made either by appointment or walk-in and are recorded in privacy.
Once a service member is finished, a mini-disc DVD is created and ready to be mailed home. Often service members will head straight for the post office when they are done recording, Royal said.
Some leave with a few tears on their face, she said. Many return almost weekly to record updates for their loved ones.
"It's allowed me to (have) ... a visual, verbal and familiar connection with my young children," said Shaw, a 34-year-old native of Boston. He and his wife Suzette have two children: Marcus, 8, and Thalia, 3.
Shaw said he is able to reinforce the importance of reading to his children through the UTR sessions and especially to Thalia, who carries around the books her father reads to her.
For service members like Petty Officer 3rd Class Sondra R. LaForge, a 23-year-old dental technician, the program can be a lifesaver for a parent missing a new born, she said.
The videos play a key role in keeping LaForge and her eight-month-old son, Logan, connected since the two only had a few short months together before she was deployed.
"I don't want my son to grow up and not know his mother, not recognize her voice and her features," said Christopher G. LaForge, Sondra's husband. Father and son currently live in Pascoag, R.I.
"I'm hoping that he'll remember me when I get back home," said Sondra, a native of Thomas, W. Va.
The videos get Logan excited when he sees his mother on the TV screen reading to him because they "put a face with the voice" and also reassures dad that his wife has not been hurt, said Christopher, 29.
"It makes (the deployment) a lot easier," he said. "It puts us at ease knowing that she's okay."
The videos can be watched on almost any DVD player, Royal said. But a VHS recording is available as well at the service member's request.
If a service member wants to mail the DVD home to his family, the post office here will mail it home for free, said Royal. Shipping is only incurred if a book weighing more than 10 pounds is included.
The response to the program has been enthusiastic, Royal said, but she and the rest of the religious staff want to spread the word, particularly to the junior-enlisted service members.
"I think it's a great program," Sondra said. "I recommend it not only for personnel that have kids, but for people that have families and loved ones that they care about and want to stay in contact with."
If a service member wants to communicate with their loved ones in a different medium other than e-mail or phone, the UTR program is right up their alley, Shaw said. All they need to do is use it.
Email Cpl. Redding at firstname.lastname@example.org.