Army MARS Offers Free Father's Day Messages for Soldiers Overseas
If Jeff Hammer, N9NIC, gets his way, he'll be an awfully busy soldier in the run-up to Father's Day on June 15. Captain Hammer, who represents the Army Military Affiliate Radio System (Army MARS) in Iraq, has appealed to the families of troops deployed overseas to "shower down with Father's Day messages" for their loved ones.
According to Army MARS Public Affairs Director Bill Sexton, AAA9PC/AAR1FP/N1IN, these free messages -- called MARSgrams -- date back to the Korean War when many thousands were delivered. The service continued during the Vietnam conflict and the first Gulf War, but had fallen off with the advent of e-mail and cell phones.
As the military's Middle East operations continue, Sexton said that the responses from that area indicate that the soldiers treasure the printed MARSgrams as mementos of their deployment: "It's not just a greeting. E-mail just isn't the same." MARSgram traffic spurted last Thanksgiving and Christmas, and Captain Hammer reports that he is "100 percent set up" to handle MARSgrams for Father's Day.
A National Guardsman from Indiana, Hammer arrived in Baghdad just this spring after previously serving in Afghanistan. In addition to volunteering for the MARS assignment, he is acting as station custodian for the Baghdad Amateur Radio Society. Hammer shipped in his own low-power ham station and began direct receipt of messages May 25; he has to shoehorn his volunteer Amateur Radio activity into his off-duty hours.
On Sunday, June 1, five soldiers including Hammer gathered for a meeting of the Baghdad ARS. Besides Hammer, three Amateur Radio operators are part of the group: Warrant Officer 2 Edward Mendez, N3BZA, who also operated the military MARS station ABM4USS in Korea for an Aviation Maintenance Company; Barry Coronado, KC8RTK, a Department of Defense employee, and Wayne Gale, W0GTO, a contractor.
The subject of Sunday's meeting was preparing for the hoped-for Father's Day surge. After a period of instruction on MARS procedure during which the participants wrote their own MARSgrams, Hammer took the members to his personal MARS station to attempt transmission despite difficult propagation conditions.
"We are only running 5 W on a Yaesu 817, but we wanted to give it a try if for no other reason than to see the equipment and demonstrate the procedure," Hammer messaged afterward. "God must have been smiling down on us because after only a few attempts we connected to AEN3QT in Qatar on 40 meters and got all the messages through without any problems."
Family members can easily send free MARSgrams overseas by entering their message on the MARSgram Web site. The Army MARS WinLink system will automatically relay the Iraq-bound messages to Hammer and his helpers; they will produce printouts and envelopes and hand them off to the Military Postal Service for final delivery. A MARSgram travels much faster than ordinary mail and can be delivered wherever American troops serve.
Army MARS is a Department of Defense-sponsored organization of more than 2700 Amateur Radio operators who provide emergency communications backup for government agencies in times of civil calamity; active-duty service personnel are welcome to join. Parallel MARS units serve the Air Force and Navy-Marine Corps, making the three-prong program more than 5000 members strong.