War on Terrorism

Monday, January 05, 2009

General in Iraq Leads Troops in Online Chats

By Army Spc. Tiffany Evans
Special to American Forces Press Service

Jan. 5, 2009 - Jokes about the antiquated bureaucracy of the military get a chuckle out of servicemembers and civilians alike. But those who think the military is unwilling to leave its tin cans and string behind were proved wrong yesterday when Multinational Division Center soldiers here crossed into the 21st century and entered the online chat world. Army Maj. Gen. Michael Oates, commander of Multinational Division Center, and more than two dozen soldiers throughout the MND-C area and the United States met online in a division chat room.

Soldiers asked a variety of questions. They wanted to know about the "stop-loss" program that allows the Army to keep soldiers in certain specialties past the expiration of their enlistment, and they also asked about housing, promotions, awards, football, a possible move of the division headquarters to southern Iraq, housing allowances and cost-of-living adjustments back at their home station.

The online chat session is an important development in social media, officials said, helping to develop relationships and foster open communication between soldiers and leaders. In the last decade, businesses, universities and organizations great and small have increasingly used social media technology to reach their constituents.

The first instances of chatting took place in the 1960s, before the Internet was developed, through a program that allowed computer users to chat in real time with two other users. Internet Chat Relay was created in 1988 by Jarkko Oikarinen, who worked for the University of Oulu in Finland.

Soldiers use chat programs to stay connected with loved ones at home while deployed, and even see each other through a Web camera, helping to boost morale during long deployments.

Since 2007, Oates said, he has been looking for a way to use social media networking to interact with soldiers of all ranks. A Web site was constructed to achieve this goal and help start a virtual town hall.

The site, TaskForceMountain.com, has been active for six months, and unlike most social media sites that spike early and die off, the site's following has been consistent. The most popular feature on the site is the Mountain Sound Off Blog, in which Oates posts his thoughts or questions and asks the audience for their comments.

"To our knowledge, this is the only division where the commanding general manages an active blog and has done an online chat with soldiers," said Army Maj. Daniel Elliott, deputy public affairs officer for Multinational Division Center. "During the chat, he took notes of all that was asked, and plans on passing on the information to his staff."

Soldiers who participated had the option to log on anonymously or use their real names, with more than two dozen coming and going through the hour-long session.

"Comments were held in a queue until the general finished a subject. The big topic was the possible move of the division to southern Iraq," Elliott said. "He took the time to answer each question carefully and connect with his troops. Not all commanders take the time to really connect with their troops like he does."

(Army Spc. Tiffany Evans serves in the Multinational Division Center public affairs office.)

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