Virtual pomp and circumstance

Using real-time video, deployed soldiers attend their children's graduation

Above, Army personnel set up the video/Internet connections at a German high school where a graduation took place.

Frank O'Gara of DoD DS-Europe

Clad in tasseled caps and purple gowns, 50 seniors at Wurzburg High School in Germany stopped and posed briefly at the podium after receiving their diplomas. But instead of gazing at a teary-eyed audience, these students smiled into a donated video camera that relayed the event roughly 2,100 miles to their parents in Iraq.

Wurzburg is one of 14 high schools in the Department of Defense Dependent Schools in Europe that, during the first week of June, took part in the Army's most recent family support initiative.

High school principals, area commanders, the Army in Europe and private contractors worked together to ensure that even if they were deployed in a remote desert location for Operation Iraqi Freedom, soldiers and civilian defense employees could watch their sons and daughters graduate.

"If they could be here, they would be here, but they can't because they are doing higher things that they really can't control," said Dwayne Scales, a senior, in a graduation speech captured on video. His father was deployed in Iraq at the time of his graduation from Bavaria's Manheim High School.

Because of the deployments of the 1st Infantry and 1st Armored Divisions, which have a heavy presence in Germany, more than 200 seniors at Defense Department schools in the Bavaria District graduated this year while a parent was abroad.

In the weeks leading up to the ceremonies, the schools in Europe tried to help those students have a normal graduation despite "everything else being turned upside down," said Frank O'Gara, public affairs officer for the school system.

To pull off the broadcast of graduation ceremonies, each school and area commander collected and coordinated hardware from corporate donors, such as Akamai Technologies Inc. of Cambridge, Mass., Tachyon Network Inc. of Vienna, Va., and VBrick Systems Inc. of Wallingford, Conn.

VBrick's MPEG-4 encoders compressed the live graduation footage, which was then delivered to Iraq over Akamai's globally distributed platform of more than 14,000 servers. Tachyon donated "Quick Deploy" Internet Protocol transport units, which provided Internet access.

The Tachyon units are based on open standards, can plug into any computer configuration and work with any standard Ethernet cord, said David Dague, Tachyon's vice president of marketing.

Tachyon also donated the bandwidth time and installation costs needed to ensure the IP transport units transmitted real-time streaming video to the satellite gateway.

The gateway was connected to Iraqi locations via a high-speed wireless network. Army divisions in Iraq had about 150 Tachyon units bought earlier in the war for morale, welfare and recreational purposes, Dague said.

The units in Iraq were hooked up so soldiers could gather around any computer with a phone line and watch the graduation as it was taking place.

"Everything went beautifully," O'Gara said. "I think we had one small problem with connectivity due to weather, but that was fixed. Another place in Iraq lost its signal for a very short time due to a power outage, but when the power came back, they got the signal right back up."

At some locations, a video teleconference system was set up after the Webcast to let families talk with the graduates, he said.

For example, the 1st Armored Division converted Freedom Rest, a rest and relaxation facility in Baghdad, into a central teleconferencing location where soldiers could watch and respond to their graduating children.

The 1st Infantry Division did not have this luxury because 28 separate viewing sites were required. Although parents were provided with equipment to watch the Webcast, most were not able to access a two-way video link.

Before the ceremonies, principals at the schools contacted every soldier by e-mail or through their rear detachment commander and invited the soldiers to send personal messages to their children, O'Gara said. At the ceremonies, the principals read the messages with the students as they received their diplomas.

"That was very moving and very emotional," said O'Gara, who attended three of the 14 graduations.

The communication went both ways at Wurzburg, where one senior had both parents on assignment in Iraq. Instead of having a guest speaker at that school, each graduate with a deployed parent went to the podium and made a speech.

"As a graduate, I hope you are proud of me," one student said, "because you make me proud to be your son every day."

Another student cried as she delivered her message to the video camera. "I hope to catch you on the flip side. I love you, Daddy," she said.

Shortly after the ceremonies, soldiers began e-mailing Army officials to express thanks. "I'm sure it was a morale booster for soldiers on the other end," O'Gara said.

Tachyon is no stranger to letters of gratitude from Iraq. Even before the graduations, its satellite system was used for a variety of morale-boosting projects.

In one location, the Army has used Tachyon's wireless broadband network to set up an Internet café, which is so popular that soldiers must sign up to use it in 20-minute increments. Although the Army did not initially use Tachyon for tactical functions, Dague said it is beginning to use the satellite network for remote training and command and control work.

Currently, 75 percent of Tachyon's business is from the private sector, though their work in the public sector is expanding. They have eight contracts with the Defense Department, including the Army, Navy Criminal Investigative Service and the Air Force, Dague said. Tachyon also has one contract with the Coast Guard.

The company declined to disclose the value of these contracts.

Tachyon has about 70 employees spread between its Vienna headquarters and its offices in San Diego and Amsterdam.

Dague said he expects growth in Tachyon's DHS work, mainly through two functions the company provides: wireless disaster recovery and quick emergency response.

"We can provide wireless backup in case of a flood or a terrorist attack," Dague said. "In case of a plane crash or some other event, our transportable units can be taken out and set up within 10 minutes."

Tachyon hopes the success of the graduation Webcast will bolster its relationship with the Defense Department.

"This is really one of the first forays into working with the DOD proper, as opposed to working with the Air Force or the other divisions of the military, all of which are already using our services," Dague said.

Staff Writer Allison Berliner can be reached at [email protected]

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