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Army private keeps unit hooked to outside world

E-mail helps GIs stay in contact with loved ones

With the Army'S 101st Airborne Division, Northern Kuwait — "Remember, if you do not hear from me for several days, it is because we lost Internet, or we are gone. Then just watch news for us. Will always love you for eternity," Lt. John Knight, 31 years old, typed in a recent e-mail to his wife in Tennessee.

"I miss you so much I can hardly stand it," wrote Leza Knight, 28, who has kept the volume on her computer speakers turned up so she could hear the beeps throughout the house when her husband's messages arrived.

In the 101st Airborne's units here, data cables snake under sandbags and into tents. Inside, laptops sit open atop cardboard boxes and storage crates, ready for soldiers to hit "send" whenever they can.

Up to 300 soldiers have one colleague to thank for this service: Dustin Price, a 21-year-old private from northern Michigan. Since arriving here at Camp New York three weeks ago, he has spliced together nearly two miles of abandoned wires and modems left behind by a U.S. tank division. A crucial piece of the project: a hub-switching box — hooked into a government network — that he and his tent-mates originally brought so they could duel in computer games such as "Return to Castle Wolfenstein" and "Warcraft III."

Pvt. Price has wired 11 tents, providing e-mail and limited Internet access, as well as follow-up service. He takes no fees, save for a supply of anti-inflammatory pills the medics gave him to curb swelling in his right knee. The tents he has wired are crammed with as many as two dozen soldiers, many sleeping on the floor. The tents, usually equipped with one or two laptops, host constant visitors, who call them "Internet cafes." Other tech-savvy soldiers have linked into Pvt. Price's lines, creating more connections.

Still, many tents aren't wired, and with winds blasting up to 50 miles per hour, service does go down. Camp New York also has an official e-mail tent, where soldiers can use computers, but waits there can stretch to 90 minutes.

As battles loom, soldiers have less time to send messages home. But as more elements of the 101st head into Iraq, Pvt. Price has a plan to follow them with e-mail service, via satellite. He cautions that service may be limited, at least initially. "It all depends on how much CAT-5 I can get," he says, referring to the ethernet cable he is trying to obtain from other units.

Pvt. Price says he's long been fascinated by how things work. When he was 6, he took apart an electric piano and put it back together. He went on to work in construction and to build and test circuit boards at an automotive-systems manufacturer. He first spoke to an Army recruiter on Sept. 10, 2001, sealing his decision the next day.

In his current position, he's responsible for maintaining communications and computer equipment — "best I've ever seen," says his platoon leader, Lt. Scott McDonald, 32, for whom Pvt. Price also serves as a driver. "I don't have to ever worry about not having Internet service." E-mailing soldiers are essentially on the honor system. Commanders must trust them not to spread secrets much as they do with phone calls or letters.

When Lt. Knight, a medic who sometimes messages his wife when he can't sleep, arrived at Camp New York, he met with Lt. McDonald.

"You want Internet?" Lt. McDonald asked.

"You got to be kidding me," Lt. Knight answered.

"No man, we can hook you up. I got just the guy for you." Pvt. Price wired Lt. Knight's tent, which now holds 20 soldiers and their gear in a 30-by-15-foot space. Seventeen medics sleep and hold ad hoc classes in the main section. In the back, cordoned off by a heavy, white vinyl curtain, is a room the size of a small elevator. Behind it live three platoon leaders, their towels and underwear hanging from makeshift clothes lines. A single laptop sits on an MRE (Meals Ready-to-Eat) box, turned on its side.

"I keep saying, what we need to do in Iraq is take a cappuccino machine from a Starbucks, and we'll be set," Lt. Knight jokes.

Lots of e-mail covers mundane — which is not to say unimportant — matters. "LOST MY WALLET," Specialist Nick Pease typed in the subject line to his pregnant wife, Rachael, in Ravenswood, W.Va. She immediately canceled all the credit cards belonging to her husband, her high-school sweetheart.

Soldiers also type missives designed to keep the household in check. First-Sgt. John Bradshaw, 37, recently wrote to his 11-year-old daughter, four-year-old son and 36-year-old wife in Clarksville, Tenn.

"Shelby — You listen to me, just because I'm not there do not think you can do what you want. Like walking over to your friend's house etc. . . . I love you dearly. . . . Be a good girl and be a team with your mother. Thank you sweetie.

"Hunter — I miss you boy and look forward to . . . doing all the cool boy things with you — baseball, football and hunting. Be good for mom and keep your room clean. Help Shelby feed the dogs for me.

"Sweetie — Thanks for all you do and taking care of everything while I'm gone. I'm truly grateful. . . . Hopefully, this picture brightens your day in some sort of way. I love and miss you all. Take care and God bless.

Love, John/dad." In a p.s., First Sgt. Bradshaw apologized in advance if his picture attachment didn't work, offering to try again in the morning: "By then, one of these computer smart guys will be awake," he wrote.

In a tent about a half-mile away is Sgt. Jerome Draper, whose two sons, 12 and six, normally live with him but are now staying with their mother. To Jerome Jr., the eldest, he wrote: "I promise this is my last time being separated from you all. Continue to take care of your Mom and brother since you are the Big Dawg of the house. You're becoming a young man and I expect big things from you. Much love, Daddy. Holllllaaaa Back!"

Jerome Jr. did, with NCAA predictions and news that a test he'd taken had placed him in advanced algebra. "We are praying for you every day," he added.

Pvt. Price wires up laptops that soldiers brought from home, as well as ones owned by the Army. After hooking up a tent, he likes to joke: "You owe me $29.95 a month."

He works to maintain the network. Earlier this month, the e-mail system he set up was constantly going down, because a 1 1/2-mile cable snaking to a main communications hub wasn't protected. It whipped in the wind and was often snapped by five-ton trucks rumbling across the sand.

Pvt. Price set out to bury the line 8 inches underground in stretches that crossed truck routes. He hacked away with a 2-foot folding shovel. It took three days. By that time, though, he'd connected so many soldiers that he had help. The diggers used two-way radios during blinding sandstorms.

Plenty of other techs have wired other soldiers — such as Staff Sgt. Jeremy Rich, now traveling with the First Marine Regiment in Iraq. He recently typed a note to his wife, Lisa, reporting how he listens to an audio message she sent him of their 21-month-old son Avery: "I still listen to the voice recorder when I am having a rough day and the kid laughing can cheer me up."

In another exchange, Lisa was able to offer a response: "Avery wants to type something . . . v gikb9o8' o9 9'p; 0'; p0;'0p'0'pp0 "That's his version of love you.'"