- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 12, 2004

Marine Capt. Greg Starace saw his newborn daughter for the first time yesterday.

Capt. Starace’s wife Karina, 25, held the 5-month-old Maya in front of a laptop computer set up in a small conference room in the basement of the Hamilton Crowne Plaza hotel in the District’s Northwest.

With the help of a satellite, the image instantly bounced to the computer screen that Capt. Starace, 27, was viewing at his Marine base known as Camp Fallujah.

“Look at that, Maya,” Capt. Starace said when he saw his daughter. “What a princess.”

Yesterday, the Staraces were one of five military families with members stationed in Iraq who spoke with — and saw — their loved ones using videoconferencing technology. The event was set up by the Freedom Calls Foundation, a New York-based nonprofit organization that links military personnel and their families worldwide.

Ed Bukstel, co-founder and operations director of the organization, said the initiative began about a year ago. It can take hours to get a good connection, he said. But when family members first see their loved ones on the screen, they usually let out a holler.

“I love hearing that,” Mr. Bukstel said.

The foundation has been holding such events nationwide, and the one yesterday was the first for the District.

Mr. Bukstel said he has witnessed hundreds of special moments during the past year. He saw a couple get married through a videoconference call. He has watched fathers see their newborn children for the first time. And he has been on hand for many birthday celebrations.

But one moment stands out, he said.

“In Dallas, there was this 4-year-old little girl who had cancer,” he said. “She stood right in front of the screen with these pink crutches and kept saying, ‘Wait, Daddy, let me tell you another joke.’ They were laughing and having a great time. The mother, she just sat off to the side with a tear rolling down. Seeing that was a real punch in the gut.”

John B. Harlow II, the foundation’s executive director and co-founder, said the organization recently helped a soldier talk his wife through 12 hours of labor. He said the group also received a request to have a soldier attend his daughter’s parent-teacher conference.

“It’s our long-term vision that war fighters, with the technology that exists today, ought to be able to finish a day on the battlefield and virtually come home to their family and tuck their children into bed,” Mr. Harlow said.

Mr. Bukstel said it’s common for servicemen stationed overseas to see their newborns for the first time through a videoconference call.

Capt. Starace left for Iraq six months ago, just before Maya was born in July.

“It’s sort of bittersweet,” Mrs. Starace said after the family’s 30-minute call. “It’s kind of a weird way to meet your father. But I think it’s great. There’s only so much you can see in pictures. I’m glad we got to see him and he got to see and talk to us.”

Mrs. Starace and her children, Maya and 2-year-old Marco, drove from the family’s home in Jacksonville, N.C., to talk to Capt. Starace, an intelligence officer for the Marines. His father, Ed, also participated in the call.

Mrs. Starace said the family usually gets to communicate with Capt. Starace about once a week via e-mail, so yesterday was a special treat.

Juliet Wolf and her four children from Oakton celebrated Christmas 13 days early, as they sang Christmas carols and played the guitar for Marine Capt. Eric Wolf during the family’s 30-minute video phone call.

“This was great,” Mrs. Wolf said. “It was just wonderful to be able to talk to him, especially this time of year.”

Capt. Wolf, who has been in Iraq for three months, calls home three or four times a week. But those telephone calls usually don’t last long, Mrs. Wolf said.

“The phone calls are usually pretty grainy,” she said. “We’ve learned that when he calls, we say all the important stuff first.”

Videoconferencing can involve some glitches, especially if there are helicopters flying near the site from where the troops are calling home.

Earlier in the day, Marine Sgt. Daryl Willis, 33, of Baltimore, was asking his aunts and cousins to send him some beef jerky and the audio suddenly was lost. Sgt. Willis could hear his family, but they couldn’t hear him.

Losing the link isn’t uncommon, Mr. Bukstel said.

“You must be near some helicopters,” he said as he worked to fix the link. A few seconds later, Sgt. Willis nodded yes.

Ten minutes later, the link was re-established, so Sgt. Willis and his family skipped the conversation about beef jerky and got to the more important things in life.

“We love you so much, and we want you to come home,” said Mary Lee, one of the aunts, as her eyes welled up.

“Three more months,” he said. “Just three more months.”

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