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To airmen, from the Air Force: New IM tool

The new service highlights the Internet's central role in keeping enlisted men and women in touch with home.

The Air Force has launched an instant messaging service for enlisted people stationed abroad to communicate with their families and loved ones.

The new program, called "Friends and Family Instant Messenger," will let airmen chat with anybody with an Internet connection. It was launched earlier this week. Airmen must first send an invitation to family members and friends--limited to five--to register on the Air Force's Web portal to begin chatting. The service is a departure from the military body's former policy of keeping instant messaging for internal use only.

"Instant messaging has been a commercialization and socialization phenomenon in the commercial sector," Joe Besselman, program director for global combat support systems at Hanscom Air Force Base, said in a statement. "Air Force leaders wanted to give that to airmen and to have that available in their work unit so they could chat with one another socially and also accomplish the mission."

But unlike America Online, Microsoft and Yahoo, the Air Force has implemented a number of security restrictions with its instant messaging service. Users cannot send images, audio or other documents through the system. Messages are also encrypted to prevent unauthorized access.

The Internet, especially instant messaging, has become a central way for soldiers in Iraq to communicate with people at home. The military has set up about 200 Internet cafes throughout the war-torn country, from which people can send e-mails, chat through an instant messaging service and, in some places, use Net phones to call home.

In Logistics Support Area Anaconda, north of Baghdad, instant messaging has become the preferred method of communicating to people at home, according to Cathy Wilkinson, an Army spokeswoman based there.

"Most of the people here at Logistics Support Area Anaconda use instant messaging to keep in touch via the computer," she wrote in an e-mail. "We have telecommunications suites set up through out the base, some have VoIP phones and all have e-mail capability."

On an emotional level, the Internet has become a revealing medium for soldiers to offer their experiences in battle. Soldiers send home personal accounts of life in Iraq as well as digital photos that can be shared through public e-mail systems.

As a contemporary form of communication, e-mail has become a record of soldiers' experiences, much as mailed letters were windows into life on the front line in previous wars. Earlier this week, Yahoo confirmed that it had refused the request of a father to reclaim his deceased son's e-mail account because of its privacy policy. John Ellsworth, whose son Justin was killed in Fallujah by a roadside bomb, requested the account as a way to remember his son.

In other times of trouble, such as Tuesday's attack in Mosul that killed 22 people and injured 69 others during lunch in a military mess hall, concerned families relied on e-mail and instant messaging to make sure their loved ones were not harmed.

"They had been through a lot, but everybody was fine, and I was just so thankful at that point," Jeannette Raburn of Haleyville, Ala., whose husband is serving in Mosul, told a local NBC affiliate. "You can think a thousand things, but that light shining on Yahoo Messenger was the best thing ever to me."