Smiles Over Miles, USO help military families stay in touch with service members

14 Nov 2011 | Cpl. Miranda Blackburn

Sometimes, a letter or an e-mail just isn't enough when it comes to having a loved one deployed. Luckily, families of deployed service members have another option.

Hunter is in kindergarten and just learned and just learned to read his first book.

As he read each word aloud, he looked up and waved at the the video camera in front of him.

Although his father, a Marine deployed to Afghanistan, may not be able to be with his son physically during this milestone, Smiles Over Miles has provided a way for him to feel as if he was sitting right beside Hunter while he read his first book.

Smiles Over Miles is a free program started by the USO of North Carolina that brings families of active-duty service members of all brancehes to its centers to record and mail messages for their loved ones deployed overseas.

"We offer this service every first Thursday of the month to families of deployed service members," said Jennifer O'Driscoll, center coordinator for the USO of N.C. Jacksonville Center. "They can come in from 5 to 8 p.m. to record a DVD and enjoy some free pizza when they're finished."

Erin Turnbell, Hunter's mother, said this was the second time he has had to deal with his father being deployed.

"Before (his dad) left, Hunter couldn't read at all or even recognize the different letters of the alphabet," Turnbell said. "Now, only a few months later, he can read and even though his dad is away, he can still be a part of that."

Recorded in the Beirut Room, Hunter read his book and showed his dad his activity book from school.

"I wanted to show himi by cool skateboard that I got, but I forgot," Hunter said. "It's ok though, I will show him next time."

He ended his video by telling his father that he misses and loves him and reminded him to come home safe.

"It's so important that his dad can see him grow up and progress in his childhood," Turnbell said. "Not only that, but when he's missing him, he can watch this DVD over and over again."

While families can come directly to the USO to filmtheir DVDs, Smiles Over Miles also offers and easy to use, private video messaging platform.

With this platform, friends and family can send an unlimited amount of 10-minute videos to their deployed service member's e-mail with their Smiles Over Miles account.

The program is user-friendly and easily accessible with an Internet connection and webcam.

Smiles Over Miles members simply login with their unique account number from any computer, creat and send videos at any time.

Users can also send voicemails, text and large attachment files. Service members can receive, watch and listen on any computer and even download the information to a disk, as well as send messages back home.

Families who wish to record a DVD for their loved one can go to the USO of N.C. Jacksonvilee Center from 5 to 8 p.m., the first Thursday of each month. They will be required to show a military identification card.

For more information, call 455-3411.