Online support for significant others of military personnel overseas

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Tatiana Simpson, 17, of Sewell, finds comfort online among others like her who have sweethearts serving in combat zones overseas. Her beau in Iraq proposed long-distance. (Ron Tarver / Staff Photographer)

The first thing Tatiana Simpson did after her boyfriend proposed to her in a phone call from Iraq was to log on to Facebook.

"Right after it happened, I posted. I had to tell them," Simpson, 17, of Sewell, said of her social-networking friends.

Simpson says the Facebook page Army Girlfriends: For All the Girls Waiting Back Home is her favorite among the forums she uses to connect with others who are dating members of the military.

Simpson, who doesn't know anyone locally who is dating a service member, relies on the site for advice.

"The girls on Facebook are so easy to talk to, because you're going through the same thing they're going through," she said.

Like others, she has found support on Facebook from those who share her situation - the strain of having a boyfriend in the military, and often in a war zone. First-time deployments can unleash emotions and questions that are addressed in more than 1,000 Facebook forums. The military provides support groups, which helps, but most are limited to spouses and families of service members.

"The nice thing about Facebook and similar virtual worlds is it allows people the 24/7 opportunity for interaction, and the terrible constraint of distance is totally eliminated," said James Katz, director of the Center for Mobile Communication Studies at Rutgers University. "It opens up a whole new world, environment, for people to be able to share feelings and get support from others and learn from others."

Such support systems didn't exist for Jessica Caputo of the Tacony section of Philadelphia seven years ago, when her high school sweetheart was sent to Kuwait. Attending college near Pittsburgh, she fell into a funk in his absence.

Few of her dorm mates could relate to her, and she felt disconnected from her boyfriend's world, she said.

"As a girlfriend, you get no information in terms of what they're doing, how the battalion or unit is doing. All that information goes to his mom," she said.

In addition to military outreach, the USO also has a number of programs. But girlfriends, boyfriends, fiancées, and wives living away from the base can feel isolated, said Kristen Lowe, development associate at the Philadelphia-area Liberty USO: "It makes sense for them to seek out [others] to talk to online."

That was what Caputo tried to do in 2003, when she started looking for online support groups.

"I wanted to know, 'Are you having nightmares? Do you cry at night? Do you have the good dreams where he's home and then have to deal with waking up from them?' "

For comfort, Caputo turned to a journal she was writing. The results were an autobiographical book, The Other Side of War, self-published in February, and Facebook and MySpace pages.

"It's hard to emotionally tell another woman that you barely know what you're going through face to face," said Caputo, who has married her Marine boyfriend. "If at 3 a.m. you can't sleep because you had a bad dream, you can jump on the Internet."

Members count down to when their soldiers return home. They ask what to do if they haven't received a letter in weeks, what to say when he seems distant. Near-instantaneous responders post inspirational quotes, personal experiences, and even phone numbers.

Even when military girlfriends become military wives and can take advantage of more formal support, they often continue using Facebook.

Rochelle Recor-Diaz of Feltonville found child-rearing advice online when her husband left for his first of three Army tours in Iraq in 2003. Worried that her then-2-year-old son would forget what his father looked like, she found a tip on a forum about Flat Daddies, life-size picture cutouts of soldiers available through various websites. "We took him everywhere: out to eat, shopping, to the beach. Just seeing him really helped," said Recor-Diaz, who now lives with her two children and husband on an Army base in Hawaii.

Recor-Diaz now tells other Facebook users about Flat Daddies and provides advice on her favorite Facebook group, Faith Deployed: Spiritual Support for Military Wives.

In addition to the hundreds of daily comments posted on the group's page, creator Joycelyn Green of Iowa says she gets e-mails from some of the 13,000 women on her site with more private concerns.

A common regret is the overseas phone conversation that ends in an argument. "Then they feel terrible, because that's not how you're supposed to have what could be your last conversation," Green said.

The easy access to counsel and information often brings challenges. Heather Lynee Berwick, 21, started Army Girlfriends: For All the Girls Waiting Back Home and found some unwelcome posters among the 1,000 members.

Usually it's a prowler after available women, or an antiwar activist trying to voice a message, said Berwick, of New Hampshire. But "it's an open forum" Berwick said. "I haven't deleted anyone, because usually the girls will group together and stick up for themselves."

It's the camaraderie that brightens bleaker moments.

"These girls know how you feel, know how the long nights are, and what it's like to wait for a letter or sleep with the phone under your pillow," Berwick said.

"They know exactly what it's like to feel lonely but again to have so much pride in what your significant other is doing."

 


Contact staff writer Julia Terruso at 610-313-8110 or jterruso@phillynews.