Calling home: Wartime communication much different today

Members of the O'Brien family have experienced two generations of dealing with communications with family serving in the military. George Sr. served in Vietnam and communicated by letter to his wife, Louise. Their son George Jr. served in Panama and Iraq and communicated home with cell phones and computers.

Joey Kean is in the Army National Guard and has served two terms in Iraq. He spent a lot of time — when he could — sending messages to his father, Gene Kean of Lawrence.

Sgt. Joey Kean, Lawrence, spends time with his children last summer at Red Lobster in Topeka after returning from Iraq. From left, are his children Jace, 6, Joplin, 8, and London, 11.

During World War II, the only way American families and soldiers had to communicate was by letter.

Delivery time was unpredictable.

“For the people involved in combat, it could be weeks. In my case, that was typical,” Lawrence resident Roy Creek says.

Creek, a captain in the 82nd Airborne Division who jumped into Normandy on D-Day, says he was too busy most of the time to write home anyway.

Today, communications between deployed military personnel and their families is often instantaneous.

“We talked almost every other night,” Lawrence resident and retired Kansas Army National Guard Sgt. George O’Brien Jr. says about his tours of duty in Iraq. “For me, it was in the evening. It was morning in the U.S.”

When O’Brien says “talked,” he is referring mainly to e-mail and instant messaging over the Internet. He and his parents would try to be on the computer at the same time so they could have a cyberspace conversation.

But there also were voice communications. Cell phone or satellite phones were used for that.

Joey Kean, a sergeant in the Guard, says he was glad to be able to easily find out how his children were doing back in Lawrence while he was in Iraq. That was both good and bad, he says. When his son broke his arm Kean couldn’t allow himself to dwell on it.

“It was good to be able to communicate but sometimes it could cause focus problems with the mission.”

Kean and his father, Gene Kean, also an Army veteran, talked frequently by phone.

“Any e-mail from him was maybe a couple of lines saying ‘Dad, I’m safe. Don’t worry about me. I’m OK,'” Gene Kean said.

O’Brien’s father, George O’Brien Sr., served in the Navy and had three tours of duty on ships during the Vietnam War. Just as in World War II, the main communications with home were by letter. Sometimes he managed to make a phone call to his wife, Louise.

“If you knew someone in the radio control room of a ship and you were friends, then you could do it as long as you didn’t get caught,” O’Brien Sr. says.

In World War II, Creek was constantly on the move after D-Day, and it was difficult for letters from home to catch up with him, especially after he was wounded and spent three weeks in a hospital in France. He wrote home to give his family the hospital address but he was already released and back at the front by the time letters got to the hospital.

“For about three or four months I didn’t get any letters,” Creek says. “When they did catch up to me I had enough letters to read for a week.”

Censorship was heavy during Creek’s war days. Soldiers’ letters were scrutinized before they were delivered. Even though Creek says he never thought he included anything in his letters that would cause a problem if they fell into enemy hands, sometimes he was still censored. Censors would cut out what they didn’t like.

“You had little time to write and then you didn’t have any news you could tell,” Creek says. “By the time they (letters) got home sometimes there was so much cut out it looked like somebody was trying to make a paper doll.”

In Iraq, Kean and O’Brien Jr. didn’t experience any censorship. They knew what they were allowed to say. Both served with the Guard’s Lawrence based Company A, 2nd Battalion, 137th Infantry Regiment.

During their last tour in 2005-2006 one of the company’s soldiers, Jesse Davila, of Greensburg, was killed by an improvised explosive device. Outside communications were shut off to prevent word of the death from getting back home until Davila’s family could be notified.

“Before we found out about Jesse, they shut down the unit’s access to computers and phones,” Kean said. “That would happen anytime somebody was significantly injured.”