Web Cams Bring Soldiers Together With Kin

Tuesday, December 20th 2005, 10:53 am
By: News On 6

LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) _ It was minutes before tip-off of the big cross-state rivalry game, but the thundering applause in the packed university arena Saturday wasn't about basketball.

It was about the faces on the scoreboard screen _ dozens of Kentucky soldiers serving in Iraq who had been patched in by videoconference for a few hours to catch up with their families and watch the Kentucky Wildcats take on the Louisville Cardinals.

Even the soldier who was an admitted Louisville fan got cheers from the home court of the rival Wildcats _ until he predicted a Cardinals victory.

``This is the best Christmas present they could receive,'' Gov. Ernie Fletcher told the crowd as he brought the soldiers' families out onto the basketball court at the University of Kentucky. ``It's a good way for the commonwealth to thank our soldiers for their service.''

The connection was made through a program known as Freedom Calls, with most of the equipment donated from the Kentucky TeleHealth Network, which uses similar technology to link doctors with rural patients.

Before the game, some 50 families headed to the arena for their chance to have private 20-minute meetings with their soldiers in three videoconference rooms.

For many of the families, it was their first chance in months to interact with their loved ones. Phone conversations and e-mail just aren't the same, they said.

``What was so wonderful about it was that we could see him and he could see us,'' said Linda Gorton of Lexington, whose son, staff Sgt. Clayton Gorton, is at Camp Fallujah. ``I actually hugged the screen.''

She and her husband even sang ``We Wish You a Merry Christmas'' to their son.

Cpl. Patrick A. Kidd of Springfield, talking by Web cam with his parents and four siblings, quickly noticed his dad's sweater and had to rib him about it. It was red _ Louisville's color.

Michael Kidd insisted it was an honest mistake.

Similar teleconferences were held last year on game day in Louisville, where about 20 families participated. Unlike that game, though, it was the Kentucky fans who came away celebrating victory Saturday. The 23rd-ranked Wildcats beat No. 4 Louisville, now coached by former Kentucky coach Rick Pitino, 73-61.

The sharp video connection for the families gave Army Sgt. Joshua Fields' relatives a chance to see up close the conditions in Iraq.

``It looks like your hands are dirty, Josh,'' said his father, David Fields, of Richmond. ``Don't they have any soap?''

``My hands can't get clean, no matter what I do,'' the soldier explained.

Vicki Wright and 12 other family members couldn't wait to talk with her son, Lance Cpl. Matthew Wright.

``He has great news to tell me, and I had to wait until today,'' she said. ``I'm hoping he's getting ready to come home.''