Before this month, Jason Witte wouldn't hear from his brother for five or six weeks at a time. Calls from Fort Worth, Texas, to Iraq were just too expensive, he says.
"It was hard letting so much time pass in between talks," says Mr. Witte, whose twin brother, Army Capt. Jeremy Witte, is serving his second tour in Iraq this holiday season. "He's my brother and my best friend, but I rarely got to hear his voice."
But now, despite the distance, they see one another three times a week. The Wittes connect through Ustream.tv, a live Internet video service. With a video stream of Captain Witte on one side and a simple webcam hooked up the family laptop stateside, the brothers can talk face to face once again.
"Having served in the Army for five years, I know it's tough to be apart from your family during the holidays," says John Ham, one of the website's founders. "Talking to your family is great, but actually seeing them is huge."
Ustream is free and open to everyone, but the company has taken special pride in connecting military families to their loved ones serving abroad. This Christmas – the first since this young California start-up launched – Ustream has donated webcams to the families of the 316th Expeditionary Sustainment Command, an Army Reserve unit currently deployed in Iraq.
Since the site went live in March, hundreds of military families have logged on to share video chats with soldiers abroad – including the Wittes, who are not part of the 316th.
While Ustream's audience is far broader than the Army, the site grew from military roots. Mr. Ham and cofounder Brad Hunstable met while they were cadets at West Point. The company's new CEO, Chuck Wallace, is a former Air Force instructor. And former four-star Army general Wesley Clark serves on Ustream's advisory board.
What started as a way to connect buddies stationed around the world evolved into a site hosting professional video shorts, amateur wedding clips, live birthday party streams, and 1 million viewers a month, says Mr. Hunstable.
Ustream could only give away five cameras this year, due to military rules that limit the value of gifts a unit may accept. But a spokeswoman said the company would be happy to donate additional webcams directly to the families of the 316th, if they contact Ustream.
The holiday donation sprang from a recent conversation Ham had with his West Point roommate who serves in the 316th. The unit has more than 400 soldiers drawn from 43 states. That size makes organizing support for their families difficult, says Jackie Williams, head of the 316th's Family Readiness Group, the civilian group that maintains bonds between the families of soldiers.
"This is not your neighborhood unit," she says. So ensuring that "families get to talk to their soldier as often as possible is crucial."
Phone cards work, if you don't mind the sound quality, she says. The cards also are a personal expense, limiting how often some families can take advantage of them.
"But the Internet is free," says Ms. Williams. Soldiers have access to base computers, Internet cafes, and, sometimes, Web cameras.
Video connections can bring some relief to worried parents and spouses, and help children grasp the abstract idea of a far away country. "The kids in particular seem to love it," she says. "There's always that question, 'Where's Daddy?' And being able to not just hear his voice but look at Daddy's face on a computer screen is much more comforting for them."
Williams spoke with the Monitor before raffling off the donated cameras to the families.
Even if troops can't send back video, Ustream allows families to upload clips – first steps, school plays, special hellos – which can be shared as if it were on YouTube, but password protected.
The Ustream site, which is currently supported by ads, hopes to roll out premium features next year. But Hunstable says that all amateur video hosting and viewing will remain free.