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E-mail aids military, but caution is needed

LETTER FROM THE MILITARY

Naval reserve officer Bill Bernsohn has written periodic essays for the Tribune since he was mobilized in January. His previous reports appeared Feb. 4 and Feb. 21. Here, he writes from his unit, based in the South Pacific.

As sailors here take in the images of a gathering war in the Persian Gulf, another picture comes to mind: a digitized underwater tableau that jumped out of an icon and materialized on my laptop screen, as clear as if I was hovering a few feet away.

In an instant, I looked at divers a thousand miles from me who were working a hydraulic drill press through the hull of a World War II vintage tanker sunk by the Japanese a half-century ago.

Color digital images, capturing details of a Navy mission in a remote atoll, spent just seconds traversing a quarter of the globe to get to my unit's compound in Hawaii. The pictures are just one example of how the Internet has transformed the way the military keeps in touch.

E-mail allows deployed sailors and soldiers to communicate in something close to English. Static interference and voice encoding can make even the simplest radio conversation hard to understand and often forces us to revert to a weird kind of shorthand.

The Navy has a passion for acronyms, and because written naval messages transmitted on radio waves have to be brief, a phrase like 'work together to get this job done' can easily morph into 'TAKE REF A FORAC, DIRLAUTH ALCON.' And if we're talking on encrypted voice circuits, people on the other end of the line sometimes sound as if they're inside a swimming pool.

Although some radios let us transmit digital data, e-mail is easier, and in many cases, more reliable, because we're looking at real words and complete sentences.

But in the Navy, e-mail has a split personality. The kind of online link that allows diving supervisors to transmit details of their job quickly or that lets me feel I'm still connected with my wife and son is the kind of communication we're used to. That's the Internet that keeps Yahoo and AOL in business. However, using e-mail Ñ or, especially, cell phones Ñ in the military means people like me have to be careful of what we say É and what I'm writing now will be screened by my chain of command.

The Navy has sensitive information it has to protect. That sensitive information is encrypted, and access for those who can view that information is tightly restricted. I've read about the high-tech gadgets that newsmagazines say are available to our fighting forces. But at commands like ours, people training for deployment are taught the fundamentals: how to read maps and a compass, how to protect convoys through potentially hostile neighborhoods and how not to depend on a global positioning satellite to keep safe.

For those of us with friends in the gulf, there's still the occasional call. Many commands have set up banks of commercial phones, linked by satellite to us and the mainland. But e-mails from Kuwait and Bahrain have dropped off, so many families here on Oahu turn increasingly to the paper, the radio or the TV to keep up a link with their loved ones.

Bill Bernsohn has been a reporter for KPAM (860 AM). He was called to active duty in the Pacific in late January.