Program allows Soldiers to connect with kids despite deployment

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The room evokes a child's reading room, which is the point. This is the United Through Reading room at the Camp Atterbury Joint Maneuver Training Center USO.

The United Through Reading program hosted by the USO allows troops to video record themselves reading books for their children to watch while they are deployed.

"We get about 25 readings per month depending on the flow and how busy the guys are at Camp Atterbury," said Diane Hawes, program manager for United Through Reading and a volunteer at the USO.

"It takes about a half an hour. Soldiers will come in and select a book. They are not limited to one book, because some of the children's books are quite thin and the disk allows for 25 minutes of time."

Once the camera is set up, Hawes leaves the room to allow the Soldier some privacy while reading. Soldiers can read more than one book during that time, since some children's books can be quite short. The Soldiers can also use this opportunity to talk to their family and let them know that they are not forgotten, said Hawes.

When the recording is finished the Soldier hand addresses a large envelope addressed to their family. The USO will then package the disk - which is in DVD format so it can be played on a television or computer - and the book to be mailed to the Soldier's family. The children can then play the DVD and follow along in the book.

"A lot of people are emotional when they go through the process," said Hawes. "I've seen some of the biggest guys tear up. Families are also encouraged to record or take photos of the children reading along to send back to the Soldier, to create a circle of communication."

Maj. Luis Martinez of the 130th Public Affairs Detachment with Kosovo Forces 13, a task force deploying for a peace-keeping mission to Kosovo, was planning to do this sort of thing on his own. The USO program, however, made it easier to connect with his children.

"I brought some books from home, but I was so busy I didn't get a chance," said Martinez. "One of the ladies [at the USO] was talking about this program, so I took advantage of it."

Martinez lives in New Jersey but his family is staying with relatives in Brazil. Despite his family's geographic location, they received the package prior to Martinez leaving for Kosovo.

"The program makes a difference in a child's life. My son is four and a half, and my wife says he lights up when he sees that video," said Martinez. "I've made one recording so far and I thought about doing a second DVD, but I didn't have enough time. So I will do it in country. It's another way of staying connected," he said.

Hawes said the United Through Reading program is accessible throughout the world. "A lot of the [bases] have the USO United Through Reading program there in Afghanistan, Iraq and a lot of countries around the world. Troops can continue the program while deployed and I try to give them information on what locations have the progam."

Spc. Steven Reed of the 745th Explosive Ordnance Disposal Company, also with KFOR 13, had first heard of the program while enlisted in the Marine Corps, however had never used it until now.

"I thought that this would be a good opportunity to read to my stepkids and for my wife to see me. I was unsure of how it would work out, but if anybody has the opportunity to do this, they should definitely do it," said Reed. "My wife said it was like having me there with them reading the book. It brought us together for that time and they really enjoyed it."