KUWAIT -- For Marines at an air base here serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom, keeping in touch with loved ones and friends became a little easier, April 13.
After waiting for nearly two months, an expeditionary phone center was opened at Camp Sledd with 24 dedicated phone lines for Marines, Sailors, Soldiers and Airmen to call anywhere in the world 24 hours a day using a calling card.
"We had a meeting two-and-half months ago, and it was decided the Marines would need a place to call home," said Master Gunnery Sgt. Zolio Suarez, Marine Wing Headquarters Squadron 3 communications chief, 51, Manhattan, N.Y. native. "I was given a budget of 'no' dollars. So what I did was some good old Marine Corps scrounging. The only thing we paid for was carpeting. When the Marines sit down to make a call, it will go through. That's our guarantee."
According to Staff Sgt. Mark Medina, MWHS-3 communication maintenance specialist, obstacles tried to block development of the phone center, but the Marines never gave up the fight, even when parts were held in customs or when heightened security conditions threatened construction progress. As parts and lumber arrived, Marines, Sailors and Airmen began building the expeditionary hub, all in an effort to improve everyone's morale.
"The Sea Bees did some construction and we even had some Air Force who came and laid the carpeting," Medina said. "They volunteered because they knew this would benefit them also. It was a team effort between the Navy and the Marine Corps. We definitely alleviated the problems with the (long) lines."
Before the opening of Camp Sledd's phone center, Marines would walk a quarter mile to the Air Force side of the base to use their phone center. Lines for calling-card phones would often reach the three-hour mark for waiting times, and lines for Defense Switch Network phones were almost as long. Still, the need to call home and let family know they were all right kept service members standing in line.
To test Camp Sledd's phone lines, Suarez and Medina performed a test with 24 Marines. They all picked up the receivers and dialed at the same time. The moment of truth had arrived.
"Everyone got out and no one received a busy signal," Medina proudly said. "It was absolutely great."
In less than two weeks another expeditionary phone center will be operational at another base in the area. Medina said these are just the beginning.
"This is the prototype for phone centers during deployments for the Marine Corps," he said. "(Marine Corps Systems Command) will base all their phone centers in the future on this one. This is something the Marines really need. This place never closes."
For one Marine Aircraft Group 11 Marine, the new expeditionary phone center was just the right thing at just the right time.
"As the war on Iraq comes to a close, the opportunity to speak with our loved ones, which many of us have not had since this effort began weeks ago, is a welcomed boost to our morale," said Sgt. Justin M. Taricani, MAG-11 Marine Air Ground Task Force planner, 22, New Britain, Conn. "Hearing my wife's voice again will let me know that we are heading down the home stretch and give me a new source of motivation that will allow me to complete this deployment. Calling home is one of the only ways I can keep in contact with my family back home. The additional phone lines in tent city, will not only be a morale boost for those troops out here, but also those loved ones back home. Knowing for the first time in weeks that your spouse or child is alive and well is a great lift of spirits."
A more updated caller logging system is in use at the phone center. Until a line develops for the 24 phones, users can talk as long as they like. When a 25th caller arrives, their names are written on a roster, and all calls are limited to 20 minutes. Lines are eliminated because a duty Marine inside the phone center will announce who's next to Marines waiting outside.
"It's kind of like waiting at a nice restaurant," Medina said.
Outside Marines can hang out and relax, letting go of some of the pressures of life in a combat environment.
"It's so nice to have something as great as this place so close to tent city," said Taricani. "Instead of walking all the way to the Air Force side, I can just come over here and use the phone."
In a tent next door to the phone center, a do-it-yourself- barbershop has been set up so Marines with clippers can give haircuts to their fellow Leathernecks.
"This helps a huge problem here of where people can cut hair," Medina said. "Instead of doing it in their workspace or behind tents or in comfort trailers, they can come here and do it in a place that was designed for them in mind."
Plans are already set in motion for cleaning supplies and antiseptic to be available for those with barber skills.
"It just makes my heart glad to see Marines communicate with their loved ones in a comfortable air-conditioned environment," said Suarez. "Sometimes when you go to these faraway places you have to do whatever it takes to help your fellow Marines."