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Video program helps military families stay in touch

Walt Laskos adjusts the camera as Tiffany Hagler and her two daughters, Kaylie and Madison, prepare to tape a greeting for her husband, who is in Afghanistan. Walt Laskos adjusts the camera as Tiffany Hagler and her two daughters, Kaylie and Madison, prepare to tape a greeting for her husband, who is in Afghanistan. (Mark Wyatt/US Air Force)
By Dan Adams
Globe Correspondent / December 18, 2011
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HANSCOM AIR FORCE BASE - Alison Murray’s voice swells with obvious pride when she describes her son.

“He’s a beacon of hope for me.’’

Her son, Phillip Kiy, turned 21 last week. But unlike most 21-year-olds, Kiy didn’t celebrate his landmark birthday at a bar. Instead, he spent it with his Army artillery unit in Afghanistan.

Murray wasn’t about to let the occasion slip by unnoticed, however. With the help of Operation Best Wishes, a program started by a military credit union employee that lets military families send video messages to loved ones stationed overseas, Murray threw her son a virtual birthday party.

She baked four cupcakes, carefully packed up a picture of her son in uniform, and marshaled her two teenage daughters into the car before heading to Hanscom Air Force Base. There, in front of a green screen, the family sang happy birthday to the camera and, laughing, fed Kiy’s picture a cupcake.

“We have a whole skit,’’ said Murray, whose family has a military tradition that stretches back to World War I. “We’re kind of silly.’’

Walter Laskos started Operation Best Wishes in 2004, when he was an employee of a credit union that worked with military families in California. For the opening of a new webcast video studio, he decided to invite families to use the facility to send a video message to their deployed family members.

“It went over big,’’ Laskos said.

It was the right idea at the right time. In 2004, thousands of troops had been deployed to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, leaving their families separated over the holidays. It was also before videotelephony services like Skype came into widespread use.

Soon, Laskos was taking his webcast setup on the road to other credit unions on military bases, sometimes as many as 13 in a year. At each base, he was greeted by a full list of waiting families.

Laskos donates his time and expertise, while the host military credit union splits the cost of his travel with the Defense Credit Union Council.

This is the first year Laskos brought his studio to the Hanscom Federal Credit Union at Hanscom Air Force Base. The base houses families from several branches of the military, and has about 80 men and women deployed abroad.

Those troops will be able to access and replay the messages from their families online by entering a password in the Operation Best Wishes website. Unlike Skype, the videos can be replayed over and over at the convenience of the military personnel.

Air Force Chief Master Sergeant Kevin Call, command chief of Hanscom’s Electronic Systems Center and a highly decorated airman who served in the Persian Gulf War, helped oversee the event. He remembers the pre-Internet era of military service well.

“In the Gulf War, it was either writing letters or waiting in line for 15 minutes to make a short phone call.’’

Now, Call says, there’s actually a danger of talking to family too often, which can heighten the sense of separation. While serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom, he limited his calls and Skype sessions.

“It’s great to be able to touch base whenever you want, but I didn’t want to do it too often. It’s tough to be deployed. You run out of things to talk about. We’d talk maybe twice a week so we could collect things to talk about.’’

For some, though, there’s no such thing as too much contact. That’s the case for Tiffany Hagler, whose husband, Army Sergeant Sheridan Hagler, is deployed in Afghanistan until next summer.

“I’m so grateful for the technology there is today compared to 40 or 50 years ago,’’ Hagler said.

“I’m not waiting on that letter; I’m able to talk to him once a day.’’

Hagler said her husband was overjoyed when he saw her webcast, which featured their daughters Madison and Kaylie singing Christmas songs.

“He loved it. He said, ‘I’m so happy you did this; it put me in the best mood ever. It’s a little piece of home I get to see over and over again.’ ’’

While some deployed members of the military are on established bases and have regular access to the Internet, others are in remote areas that have little or tenuous connectivity. That often means resorting to less personal ways of keeping in touch.

But Laskos said that even for those who can easily keep in touch online, his program offers something more tangible and helps bridge tricky time zone differences.

“You can create a message that is there when the service member has liberty, and he can watch it then as many times as he wants. It doesn’t get worn out and it doesn’t get torn. They don’t have to wait in line, they don’t have to stay up at different times of the day. It gives flexibility.’’

Laskos, who has recorded hundreds of messages since 2004, still remembers a few favorites.

“One of them that stands out was at Camp Pendleton,’’ a Marine facility in Southern California, he said. “This lady came in with a baby stroller, and in the stroller were two chihuahuas with little lacy outfits. When you think of a Marine, you’re thinking of someone who could bite steel. But these were his two little girls.’’

Appropriateness is rarely an issue, but sometimes Laskos has to step in.

“We’ve had an occasional one where we have to remind the spouse that this is a G-rated program.’’

Mostly, however, Laskos simply feels honored to be with the families.

“You are in a very privileged place to share that kind of sacred time with them.’’

Laskos said he was recently contacted by the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, which expressed interest in using his technology to help wounded service members keep in contact with members of their still-deployed units.

“Here are guys that are injured, they get plucked from battlefield, and wake up stateside. But they still have buddies back in Iraq. Sending a message back to their unit, it helps them heal, it’s part of therapy. . . Those units, they’re like a brotherhood. They’re covering each others’ butts, they trust one another with their lives. When one gets injured, it’s like your brother or sister getting hurt.’’

Two of Laskos’ last takers for the day were Krista Madden and her 18-month-old son Trey.

Madden’s husband, Timothy, is on his sixth deployment as a detective in the Air Force’s Office of Special Investigations. He won’t return from Kunsan Air Base in South Korea until September.

Madden showed her husband how tall Trey had grown, and shared the results of his recent doctor’s checkup: all clear.

Madden said Trey was cooperative for most of the filming, but balked when she pointed at the camera and asked him to say goodbye.

“He knew the cameraman wasn’t Daddy.’’

Dan Adams can be reached at dadams@globe.com.

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