With social media, troops connect

BASRA, Iraq - Walk into a morale tent during evening at almost any military base in Iraq, and soldiers probably are waiting to use a computer.

And chances are high many of them will be displaying the signature blue bar of Facebook.

“I’m pretty much addicted to Facebook,” said Pfc. Jacob Cox, an artilleryman from Portland serving with Fort Lewis’ 17th Fires Brigade in southern Iraq.

“I’m checking it three, four times a day unless I’m out on a mission,” said Cox, a member of the brigade’s 1st Battalion, 377th Field Artillery Regiment.

Online social networks have redefined how many of the 115,000 American soldiers across Iraq communicate with family and friends back home. But the technology, with its ability to instantaneously share information with people thousands of miles away, also raises the possibility of security leaks.

And while the military has blocked Facebook and similar sites on its official networks, many units spread news stories and photographs to loved ones back home through official pages.

The phenomenon comes at an intersection of two trends: the explosion of social media sites and the sophisticated infrastructure that has emerged after more than six years of U.S. forces occupying bases in Iraq.

Few people had everyday access to the Internet outside of official work duties during the first years of the war, but soldiers now enjoy public computers in morale tents or receive an Internet connection in their rooms through a local vendor.

“Facebook is the main way I keep in contact with people while I’m over here,” Cox said.

Spc. Nick Harper of Alpha Battery, 1-377 Field Artillery, also checks Facebook daily to communicate with friends back home. During an Iraq deployment in 2006-07, the Burien native logged on once to discover a status message from the foreign-exchange student living with his aunt and uncle.

Harper’s sister, apparently, had given birth. The soldier was an uncle.

“And it was a week until I actually heard from my family with the news,” he said, laughing and shaking his head.

Harper’s comrade in 1-377 Field Artillery, Spc. Steven Watson, learned through MySpace that state officials had taken custody of one of his children from the child’s mother.

“That’s really not the way I would have liked to hear about it,” said Watson, 24.

Facebook’s ability to circumvent traditional communication policies has led the military to remind soldiers about what topics they should avoid. The soldiers in 1-377 Field Artillery said the reminder was part of a larger talk on safeguarding information.

“If something bad happens – like someone gets killed or someone gets hurt – they tell us not to post anything about it,” Cox said.

But a fallen soldier’s Facebook or MySpace profile often is jammed with solemn messages days before the Department of Defense releases the information. The nightmare scenario, military officials maintain, would be a family learning of a loved one’s death online before the dreaded knock on the door.

The military also warns service members not to disclose information about upcoming or ongoing missions – operational security, or “opsec” in military jargon.

“All service members are trained on opsec before deploying, and the most recent training does include portions on blogs, social media, etc.,” Sgt. Maj. Richard Puckett, a spokesman with the American military command in Baghdad, said in an e-mail.

Throughout Iraq, the reminders are everywhere. Posters and handbills remind service members not to violate opsec. Screen savers on work computers display slides warning soldiers not to disclose sensitive information online.

One slide shows a road morphing into binary code, like a scene from “The Matrix.” The caption: “You are the convoy security on the information superhighway.”

Meanwhile, individual military units have discovered Facebook as an efficient way to promote their messages and post news, images and video clips produced by their public affairs personnel.

Gen. Ray Odierno, the top American commander in Iraq, has a Facebook page. So do detachments of just a few soldiers.

About 12,000 Fort Lewis soldiers are deployed to Iraq, and many of the major units have Facebook accounts. I Corps, which is running daily operations across the country, boasts about 3,000 fans.

The page is “a way to garner feedback and establish dialogue with the American public and our families back at Fort Lewis,” Puckett wrote. “A number of parents, husbands, wives and children of I Corps soldiers are frequent visitors to the page and provide comments, posts and kudos for the work of the men and women stationed here.”

The 4th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division was the first major unit at Fort Lewis to create a Facebook page and has attracted almost 5,400 fans.

It links to media stories and content produced by the unit’s public affairs office – content, the 4th Brigade’s public affairs officer said, that traditionally was seen only by deployed soldiers receiving the unit magazine and newsletters.

The Facebook page helps link folks back home with the internally produced content.

“For the most part, it’s to inform family, friends and spouses about what we’re doing and to give them that direct access to stories, videos and photos we produce,” Capt. Chris Ophardt said.

Spc. Maurice Galloway, who runs the Facebook page for 17th Fires Brigade, said posting information online is easier than pitching story ideas to traditional media sources, such as newspapers and TV stations.

“It’s become an important method in getting your message out to the larger public,” he said.