Unlike the first Gulf War , and all others before it , when American troops had to rely primarily on the U.S. Postal Service to deliver messages home, men and women deployed abroad today have the Internet to keep them connected with their family and friends.
But standard Hotmail and Yahoo e-mail accounts pose a unique problem for the government when husbands, wives, parents and children can unwittingly leak sensitive security information to hackers by asking something as simple as "How was your day?" Exchanges like those can lead to information about where a unit is headed or what troubles are troops facing being captured in cyber space.
The concerns have led to high-tech companies such as DefenseWeb Technologies, Inc. to create customized Web services for the Department of Defense.
The private software company, which is based in Pacific Beach, was founded in 1998 with $20,000 in credit card debt and a spare back bedroom. It's now grown to include about 60 employees and annual revenues nearing $30 million a year.
The Army launched DefenseWeb's latest project, called the Virtual Family Readiness Group, on Oct. 1. When Internet access is available to them, deployed soldiers can log onto a special Army site similar to common public community-based sites. Features such as e-mail, calendar boards, resource information, photo galleries and blogs can all be found. Special children's and teen pages also are on the Army site, which DefenseWeb Chief Executive Officer Douglas Burke said he hopes can soon be adapted for Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force use.
"We don't have any contracts signed just yet, but we've made offers to everyone and hope to do that very soon," Burke said. "It's a very unique industry. It's not the sexy war fighting stuff you always hear about, but it's really important when you think about it."
Although DefenseWeb continues to provide technical support, day-to-day maintenance of the site is handled by Army volunteers, whether it's troops at home or local military family members. Tonya Bowers, Army program manager for DefenseWeb, said that the Army's recently launched site is designed to be updated by anyone with a "sixth-grade IT (information technology)" level.
"You have to keep in mind that these are volunteers managing this; they're not someone with great IT expertise," Bowers said. "Basically it's a simpler version of Microsoft's FrontPage."
Other DefenseWeb projects now in use by the military include the Family Advocacy System of Records application, which tracks child and spousal abuse cases in the Army while simultaneously distributing information about prevention and early identification to soldiers online. A different version of that application is also in use by the Air Force.
It took about $2 million to develop the first Family Advocacy System of Records application for the Air Force and only about $500,000 to adapt it to meet the Army's needs.
According to Burke, DefenseWeb does not have much direct competition in terms of other companies offering the same types of services, but indirect competition from other high-tech companies seeking government contracts in general is challenging. Burke said that's why his company deals exclusively with well being, quality of life and family-support programs designed to help the government keep forces more content in their jobs outside of the battlefields.
"Basically this has all been building since the first Gulf War," said Burke, referring to the government's need to keeps troops and their families happy if they are to stay in the armed forces for longer time periods. "For the first time we really saw images of war on television and that led to family members being at a heightened emotional state. Keeping family members happy can make a huge difference. If a guy is thinking about re-enlisting and his spouse says, 'No, don't do it. It's too hard on us,' chances are he's not going to do it."
As of this month, there are about 152,000 U.S. troops deployed in Iraq, and an additional 1,350 active duty and 24,500 National Guard members are in the Gulf, according to Army Brigadier Gen. Carter Ham, who reported those numbers to the media during a press briefing Oct. 6. Recruiting new soldiers, sailors and Marines and keeping those already enlisted in for another tour of duty is an issue being dealt with by the government.
Bill Carr, acting deputy undersecretary for military personnel policy, told the Armed Services Press Service last month that although retention and recruiting numbers were high this past summer, slumping numbers earlier in the year may lead to an unsuccessful year. Carr said that Army and Navy recruiters "face the stiffest headwinds" in filling their ranks.
Because all of DefenseWeb's projects deal exclusively with well being, quality of life and family support programs, the company has developed a three-year plan that involves working on health care issues in 2005, personnel and human resource issues in 2006 and education and training in 2007.
Burke said since 2003, the company has grown more than 100 percent annually and hopes to make greater than $30 million in annual sales in the next 18 months. Once that marker is met, Burke said he hopes DefenseWeb is acquired by a large high-tech defense contractor, such as San Diego-based Science Applications International Corp., which has more than 43,000 employees worldwide and pulls in annual revenues of $7.2 billion.
"Thirty million is really the marker you need to make to get these prime contractors to look at acquiring you, and I don't think we'll have any trouble getting there," Burke said.