In decades past, going to war meant being out of touch with loved ones for months, even years. Today, soldiers can remain in almost constant contact with thoseat home.
It's the preferred method of distraction for many troops serving long deployments here in Afghanistan – sometimes to their detriment.
Each American base, big or small, has some version of the Morale Welfare Room, in which troops can surf the Web and check e-mail free of charge, make cheap phone calls back home, and pick up one of the pamphlets with titles such as "How to avoid arguments."
"Do NOT let him take the red car!" a furious sergeant – who seems to have given the pamphlets a pass – insists into the receiver to his wife in Texas. Yelling would get him thrown out of the room, so he grits his teeth and tries again. Their teenage son wants to pick up his girlfriend at the airport, and Dad, nearly 8,000 miles distant, is having none of it.
A few booths away, a staff sergeant chats with his wife, who waves into the video camera installed in their Florida home. "It's a lifeline for us," notes Sgt. T.J. Wadington.
But such constant communication, warns Capt. George Tyger, a chaplain at Kalagush Forward Operating Base, in Nuristan, can be complicated. "A lot of these guys are experiencing anger, loneliness, and even depression, but are young and can't express themselves well," he says. "Talking every day can be tough." Moreover, he points out, micromanaging life at home from such a distance "is not usually helpful to the spouse at home, and also diverts the attention of the soldiers, which is often dangerous."
Patrick Dean, an Air Force psychiatrist based in Jalalabad, agrees. "It's a double-edged sword: If you have distance, you can put your mind totally in the game and focus. But on other hand, being in touch with loved ones is a way to get support and validation."
Whether trying to stave off boredom, calm their nerves, or find distraction from the pinings for – or problems at – home, troops in Afghanistan are also finding plenty of other ways to entertain themselves during their long deployments.
Bagram, about 15 miles north of Kabul, sets the standard. Some 12,000 troops and 8,000 civilian contractors are stationed at the base, which resembles a fortified small town – complete with a Pizza Hut, a Dairy Queen, and a beauty salon. There are university extension classes, churches, mosques, and even traffic jams.
Jalalabad, a large Air Force base in the east, has three gyms and shops selling everything from contacts solution to flat-screen TVs. The base also hosts a weekly bazaar, where preapproved Afghan merchants sell fake Rolex watches and pirated DVDs of the latest Hollywood flicks. Friday night "Jalalabad Idol" singing competitions are the rage.
At the smaller bases closer to the front lines, entertainment is a more homespun affair. In Nuristan Province's Kalagush Forward Operating Base, for example, troops train for marathons by running around the helicopter landing pad (70 laps equals about a quarter of a race).
Saturdays feature "campfire night," where officers sit around a red flashlight and tell dirty jokes.
"It is important to keep your mind active," stresses Captain Tyger, who spends a good part of his days here hammering away on a climbing wall he is building.
"Time drags for me here. In Iraq, I was shot at 24/7 and time flew," says Sgt. Isaac Hibdon, a gunner on his first deployment here. "It's not that I want to be killed. Obviously. But the boredom is tough."