- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 3, 2007

MOBILE, Ala. (AP) — From his post in Iraq, Marine Sgt. Chad Matthews watched by video as his wife, Cynthia, gave birth in a Mobile hospital, a heartwarming connection that hasn’t been possible in past wars.

Freedom Calls Foundation, a New Jersey-based charity born in the wake of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, makes the video hookups available for milestone events to thousands of military families. John B. Harlow II, founder and executive director of Freedom Calls, said coverage ideally would be expanded so that every service member coming in from a day’s duty could talk with his or her family back home.

But expenses are draining the charity’s $400,000 annual budget as demand for its services grows. It relies entirely on charitable donations, and about three out four requests are rejected.

“What we really need is cash to run the network. We’re in danger of being shut down, leaving thousands of military families in the lurch,” said Mr. Harlow, a lawyer and high-tech venture capitalist. “There is no government funding for this. We’d like to see some.”

Mr. Harlow said some calls organized by the charity are for small things — a 4-year-old girl wanted to show her father in Iraq that she had learned how to tie her shoelaces. And there are sad calls. A soldier’s sister was dying, and she wanted to tell him goodbye.

Satellite Internet connections have replaced the telegrams and long-distance phone lines of past wars to share home-front news with fighting forces overseas.

“I felt like he was in the room with me,” said Mrs. Matthews, who watched her husband’s image on a computer screen as he encouraged her during the March 24 birth of their son, Braxton. “He couldn’t physically touch me, but he was there.”

Mr. Harlow said he began organizing the charity in 2003 after hearing about a soldier with a $7,000 phone bill for calls back home. He felt service members were being “commercially exploited.”

Freedom Calls provided its first connections in 2004. Mr. Harlow said four call centers are set up in Iraq, including 50 computers and 20 telephones at Camp Taji, north of Baghdad, and video-conferencing operations in two locations in Anbar province.

“The military gives us the building, electricity, furniture and staffing,” Mr. Harlow said Thursday. In the U.S., he said, equipment is set up by hospitals, schools, universities, law firms and others “who have opened their doors.”

Military officials have asked for an expansion of the video locations, said Mr. Harlow, whose foundation is based in Morristown, N.J.

Mr. Harlow said the charity’s annual budget doesn’t allow it to help everyone who requests a war-front connection back home. Other video-conferencing options are available, but they are usually less flexible.

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