BANGOR, Maine — When West Enfield resident Vaughn Tilton, 92, was serving in the European Theater during World War II, he kept in touch with his loved ones in Maine through handwritten letters that took weeks to get home and sometimes got lost in the mail.
Communication for soldiers and their families has changed dramatically over the last six decades.
Nowadays his grandson Spc. Joshua Tilton, who is stationed in Kabul, Afghanistan, with the Maine Army National Guard’s 1136th Transportation Company, can communicate almost instantly with his loved ones in Maine thanks to Skype and Facebook.
Skype is an Internet program that allows users to make free telephone and video calls over the Web, and Facebook is an online social networking site.
Joshua Tilton used the George Jetson-style telecommunication tool on Tuesday to have a conversation with his wife, Elizabeth Tilton, who lives in Bangor.
“We Skype about an hour a day,” the Maine soldier said using Skype from the other side of the world.
Tilton, wearing camouflage and sitting in his tent, said most of the other 172 soldiers in his unit also use Skype and Facebook to keep in touch with friends and family.
“Most of them have girlfriends or wives they visit on a daily basis,” he said, his video feed from 6,364 miles away breaking up at points.
Traditional mail can’t compare, he said. “It can take anywhere from 10 days or more to get a letter from home.”
Elizabeth Tilton said even when the video signal isn’t clear, it’s better than nothing.
“He’s in a Third World country where people don’t have running water and it’s amazing I can talk to him,” she said.
In addition, the couple have used Skype and other Internet tools to compare houses they considered purchasing, to write an offer together for the one they decided to buy, and even to pick out a new refrigerator, Elizabeth Tilton said.
Skype also enabled a fellow 1136th soldier, Sgt. Emmett Mailman, to watch is his wife, Holly, deliver their son Owen Daig Mailman on Aug. 23, 2010. He was born at Penobscot Valley Hospital in Lincoln while Sgt. Mailman was in Kabul.
For soldiers deployed overseas and their families back home, the Internet and cell phones have made being apart easier, said Hermon resident Laura Smith, wife of Staff Sgt. Travis Smith of the 1136th, who served in Kuwait in 2003 and is now in Kabul.
“Back in ’03 we kept in touch basically with just letters and a phone call every once in a while because it was so expensive,” she said. “Skype has been great. We talk on Facebook almost daily and Skype every weekend.
“The letters have stopped,” Laura Smith added. “I do still send packages with goodies.”
She takes numerous photos just for her husband. “I upload a lot of pictures so he can see what’s doing on — Christmas, holidays and sporting events.”
The Smiths are the parents of four girls and a son, ages 12 to 26, so there is always plenty to photograph, she said.
“It seems like he’s not that far away because you can see him and talk to him,” Laura Smith said. “It’s great.”
Her husband’s family also keeps track of him through his Facebook page, she said.
“He doesn’t have to write a letter to everyone. He can say, ‘Hey, I’m doing all right’ and everybody knows it,” Laura Smith said.
Chief Warrant Officer James Belanger of Bangor, one of 81 Maine Army National Guard soldiers with the 286th Combat Sustainment Support Battalion who went to Afghanistan for a year in 2009, said Tuesday that he started helping fellow soldiers set up Skype to keep families connected. He said at least 90 percent of his unit used the Internet to stay in touch with loved ones.
By using Skype, the unit got to see family events, went to the 2009 Bangor Veterans Day parade and visited with then Gov. John Baldacci during Maine’s Military Appreciation Day on April 28, 2009.
The military briefs soldiers on what they can and cannot say over the Internet, Belanger said.
“Don’t talk about your job, where you’re going, what you’re doing,” is what they are told, he said. “Loose lips sink ships. We also advise them, obviously, to pay attention to what is in the background as well.”
Belanger, a 33-year veteran, has two sons — Sgt. Justin Belanger and James Belanger II, a Black Hawk helicopter pilot — who will be heading overseas this year with Bangor’s 126th Aviation unit. He definitely will be using Skype to keep in touch, he said.
Technology has changed tremendously in the nine years that the United States has been at war in Afghanistan, Belanger said. In the beginning, soldiers could call home, but it cost about $1 a minute so letters were still the main form of communication, he said.
Soldiers can now purchase cell phones once they land overseas and most have access to a personal laptop computer — either their own or a friend’s — so they can use Skype.
For the military men of the Tilton family, keeping in touch is the best part of the new technology.
Three generations of Army men all have different stories of how they stayed connected to loved ones in Maine. Vaughn Tilton wrote letters. His son, Dwight Tilton, who was stationed in Germany for 2½ years during the mid-1970s, also relied on letters and on rare occasions called home.
And now the youngest Tilton has the Internet.
Spc. Joshua Tilton got to speak to his parents and to his grandfather, who were in West Enfield, during a recent Skype session.
“Just seeing him and hearing him is all it takes” to reassure the family that Joshua is all right, Dwight Tilton said. “It’s amazing.”
How to set up Skype
To videoconference using Skype, a computer with a webcam and Internet access are required.
The first step is to go to Skype.com and download Skype onto your computer.
The next step is to add contacts, who also have to sign up with Skype. These contacts will automatically show up every time you log onto Skype and will indicate if they are online.
To make a video call, simply select a contact that is online and press the “call” button.
The free video connection should load immediately.