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Letters precious to U.S. troops in Afghan outposts

  • Story Highlights
  • U.S. troops warned Afghanistan is not Iraq -- where communication is easier
  • Troops in Afghan outposts communicate with loved ones by snail mail
  • "Handwriting and perfume -- you can't get through the phone or e-mail"
  • Wives comb news reports to find news or glimpse of husbands
By Larry Shaughnessy and Bethany Crudele
CNN
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- As more U.S. troops head to Afghanistan, more families back home long to hear from their loved ones in uniform.

Gia Ellis, wife of Marine Lt. Jason Ellis, plays a music simulation video game with her children Ava and Ethan.

Gia Ellis, wife of Marine Lt. Jason Ellis, holds her daughter Ava while watching a video.

But the nature of the battle in Afghanistan makes that much harder now than it has been for troops serving in Iraq. Instead of near instant contact through e-mail, texts or even video conference calls, families back home often have to rely on something that once was rare: hand-written letters.

"Can you imagine we're going back to paper and pen. It's so weird to write an actual letter but that's what we have to do," Gia Ellis told CNN Pentagon Correspondent Chris Lawrence during a visit to Camp Lejeune Marine Base in North Carolina last week.

The problem is two-fold: tactics and infrastructure, according to Marine spokesman Capt. Bill Pelletier, who is currently serving in Southern Afghanistan.

The new commander of NATO troops in Afghanistan is sending units out into remote villages to defend the locals from Taliban attacks. Rarely do those villages have modern communications systems. Some units have a satellite phones but the demand on the phones makes it hard for troops to use them to call home. Video Watch reporter on move with U.S. troops »

Families of U.S. Troops
Watch more on families at Camp Lejeune with Pentagon Correspondent Chris Lawrence.
Friday at 6 a.m.

"Personally I was spoiled last year," said Ellis, whose husband Jason served last year in Iraq and is currently in Afghanistan. "We could talk and see each other on webcam and e-mail almost every day. And this year with the initial push into Afghanistan it's completely different."

Some wives become news junkies, combing through news reports from the field hoping to learn more about their husbands or at least his unit.

"Because we're not getting the e-mails, it means a lot just to even try to find a picture, get a glimpse of them," said Melissa Pullen, the wife of a deployed Marine.

For older soldiers, previous deployments put the convenience of modern communication in perspective. Capt. David Luber remembers waiting to talk to his wife during a nine-month tour during Operation Desert Storm. With limited phone access and no e-mail, Luber recalls the angst he felt during his deployment.

"It was worse than I imagine prison in some respects. Men in prison know that they deserve to lose their freedom. They have telephones, television and green grass outside that they can be with for a time each day," Luber said.

Unable to reveal when or where his trips would end, Luber would go weeks without hearing his wife's voice. To make matters worse, Marines only received mail once their ship arrived at port. Sleepless nights and the torment of reckless seas were forgotten when he'd receive a bundle of letters, one for each consecutive day his wife, Belinda, wrote.

One by one Luber would put the letters in chronological order and read each one until he read the last.

"There are things that we say on paper that we are not so quick to speak, if at all," he says. "There's the handwriting and the perfume that you can't get through the phone or e-mail, so the letters were precious."

For younger troops and their families, the technological comforts of Iraq can make the new mission in Afghanistan difficult to adapt to.

"Our Marines have been told from day one that Afghanistan is not Iraq," Pelletier wrote in an e-mail to CNN. Troops are provided first and foremost with the "must haves" to help complete the mission, he wrote. This includes water, food, ammunition and an age old treasure for military personnel, mail.

There's already help on the way for those who prefer 21st century communications. Pelletier says an Internet café has been established at Camp Leatherneck in Afghanistan's Helmand Province, the remote area along Afghanistan's southern border with Pakistan where the Marines are involved in a long-term offensive.

Pelletier said that the Marine Corps plan to extend Internet service as the mission evolves. Until then, Ellis and Pullen will have to rely on hand-written letters to communicate with their husbands. And that might not be all bad.

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Luber is now a deputy program manager at the Office of Naval Research. It's been 18 years since his Desert Storm deployment, but the comfort and fragrance of his wife's letters linger.

"I still have them all and she has all mine," he said.

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