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Active duty military stay in touch by using technology

MCCONNELL AIR FORCE BASE, Kan. -- Thousands of military men and women send videos to their children. But the latest trend features the parents as the stars of the videos. Children see and hear their parent reading a storybook to them from thousands of miles away.

It's part of United Through Reading, an organization that takes the sting out of long-term separations during military deployment while starting young children on the road to a lifelong love of reading.

"She reads along with him," Jan Rice said of 6-year-old Caroline as she watched videos of her deployed father, a Navy captain.

"Daddy asks questions, makes jokes and sometimes interjects in mid-page," said Mrs. Rice. "He'll look up and say, 'why, that's just what you do!'" And then Caroline giggles.

The tapes of her father reading Caroline's favorite books were made by UTR on the carrier he commands.

The 143,000 military men and women and their families who have participated are testimony to the importance and growth of the program, according to Betty Mohlenbrock, founder and president of the organization which was established in 1989 as the Family Literacy Foundation.

"Six to eight months of a child's life represents a significant amount of time to be separated," said Mrs. Mohlenbrock, an educator who knows the stress of separation first hand. 

As the wife of a naval flight surgeon deployed in Vietnam, she and their 2-year-old daughter coped with the pain of separation.

"United Through Reading helps children feel less anxiety - they don't feel like their parent will be gone forever."

Laura Bush recently accepted the position of honorary chair of UTR.
Increasing interest from military commands around the world illustrates the program's importance. They are participating in UTR as one way to take care of their families' emotional and behavioral health. 

The program is available on most Navy ships, Naval Mobile Construction Battalions, in many Marine Corps, Army National Guard, Air Force and Coast Guard units, and USO sites, including some in California, Hawaii and Washington state. 

Michele Coast's husband, a Marine lieutenant colonel who's been in Iraq four times in the past three years, is also an enthusiastic supporter. According to Mrs. Coast, the mailings have maintained a vital connection between dad and their three children.

"He had feared the children would forget him," said Mrs. Coast. "When he learned they watch the DVDs over and over again, that was just huge for him."

TriWest Healthcare Alliance supports United Through Reading and has provided significant financial support for it. The gift goes a long way toward alleviating the insecurity of a young child when a parent is suddenly absent for an extended period, according to Mrs. Mohlenbrock.

One military member participating in the program from northern Iraq said, "I am now going on my 49th month of deployment, and I have a 22-month-old son, Alex. United Through Reading has given me the medium to keep my images and my voice in front of my son on a daily basis. He is now saying 'daddy' to me on the phone when I call, he knows what I look like, and I built a bridge between me and my pride and joy."

There are two ways to access United Through Reading. Military commands can contact the organization to set it up especially for their units. Servicemembers can also visit select USO sites which offer the program. For more information on United Through Reading, visit www.read2kids.org or e-mail utr@read2kids.org. To find out more about USO sites offering the service, visit www.uso.org and click on "What We Do," and then "Special Programs."