First Coffee for September 30, 2005

David Sims : First Coffee
David Sims
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First Coffee for September 30, 2005

By David Sims

The news as of the first coffee this morning, and the music is the last decent album U2 ever made, 1991’s Achtung Baby:

You know, the more First CoffeeSM thinks about it, the more he wonders why, in the “multi-billion dollar scheme of things,” America’s troops in Iraq and Afghanistan don’t get some free calls home?

Yesterday, doing an article on military bloggers First CoffeeSM’s mild-mannered reporter alter ego ran across a good blog from an American soldier serving in Iraq, Baltimore’s very own Chris Whong, who wrote about calling home from Iraq that “when you pick up the phone, you get some kind of tone, which if you listen long enough sounds like ‘haha, you soldiers, we’re getting rich off you because every time you initiate a call on your phone card, it costs you 10 or 20 extra units’ or something to that effect…

“Maybe I am just silly,” Whong continues, “but it seems like it wouldn’t cost that much money in the grand, multi-billion dollar scheme of things to provide free phone service to troops serving overseas.” As Whong says, $10 an hour to talk on the phone “kind of sucks, especially when the service cuts out whenever it feels like it.”

Would it work, giving free calls to soldiers? Of course it would. Instead of 40 soldiers using up calling cards at once on 40 different phones, give ‘em all Uncle Sam’s number and PIN and set the timer for half an hour – as someone who calls home from overseas himself and who was, ah, friends with a lady living in a different country for years, First CoffeeSM knows even those who miss each other most ardently kind of run out of meaningful things to say after, oh, half and hour (unless the entire twenty-odd Rizzucci or O’Malleyghan or Jones clan is clustered around, grabbing for the phone saying “Me next! Me next!”) and search around for things like “Yeah, pretty hot here. So, getting any good deals on lawn fertilizer?” to keep conversations going.

Set whatever rules you want, have a sign-up sheet, monitors, trap doors that open at a set time, however you want to police call length. Distribute cards each week good for one or two hours calling anywhere in the world, and not only create an instant non-cash currency on the base – in those old World War II movies soldiers used cigarettes as currency, now they could use calling time for Texas Hold-‘em stakes.

Let’s consider possible reasons why they don’t get free calls now:

International carriers would lose money. No they wouldn’t, the Army would pay them. “Oh, think how expensive that would be…” Please. They’ve already killed the stupid $9 billion Crusader artillery system which nobody in the military actually wanted and scuttled the $30 billion Commanche attack helicopter program, you’re saying they can’t find a million here and there to pump back into the American economy?

Buy two fewer useless V-22 Osprey helicopters and save $160 million right there, as well as save servicemen’s lives from future crashes. Buy one fewer F-22 and save $257 million. Knock General Dynamics down to $850 instead of $1,000 on the toilet seats and you can pay for every American soldier serving in Iraq and Afghanistan to talk to their hearts’ content at the most usurious rates international carriers can dream up.

Remember that stupid Bridge To Nowhere in Alaska some hog-snouted congressman slopped out of the pork trough, costing $223 million to connect Ketchikan, Alaska (population 8,900) to Gravina Island, population 50, so residents don’t have to suffer through a ten-minute ferry ride? Wonder how many phone calls that’d pay for?

Besides, if you get a really, really bright procurement officer, some guy sharp as a tack, he might think to say to bidding carriers “We’d like to give all that business to one of you guys. Put your best rate in writing now.” Maybe not all the carriers around the table would charge rack rate, y’know? Throw in a couple VoIPers to really stir things up, maybe they’d give the Pentagon, like, um, what’s that called when you buy a lot of something and get a cheaper rate per unit… oh yeah, a “bulk discount.”

Plus First CoffeeSM’s heard of this great new thing called VoIP, where it really doesn’t cost all that much…

Everyone would want to be on the phone all the time. Sure they would, but that’s why in the army you have these things called “discipline” and “rules” and “KP duty.” Do they still put soldiers on KP, peeling potatoes for breaking rules, like making unauthorized phone calls, or has First CoffeeSM been watching too many old World War II movies? Whatever, certainly there’s a modern-day equivalent, swabbing out the latrines, reading Maureen Dowd columns or however they punish the truly henious rule-breaking.

Friends, we’re talking about soldiers serving in the army in a war zone, it’s not like guys are hanging around all day looking for something to do, oh, phone calls are free? Great, think I’ll spend the next four hours on the phone, hey you guys go on patrol without me.

Those are all the only two semi-rational reasons First CoffeeSM can think of for not letting soldiers make free calls home from Iraq and Afghanistan, of course this being the military no doubt there are many “reasons” which First CoffeeSM can’t even conceive of, but which make perfect sense to whoever’s in charge of making sure soldiers aren’t getting free phone calls home.

Now why would it make sense? The list here begins and ends with the only real consideration that needs to be, uh, considered:

Boosts morale. Believe me, this would be a major, major morale booster for our servicemen and women in Iraq and Afghanistan. At the relatively little it would cost, for an organization with a $400 billion dollar-plus budget – not even including the Iraq and Afghanistan operations – Whong’s “grand, multi-billion dollar scheme of things” – it’d be a heck of a deal.

Let’s review a bit of classic Customer Relationship Management for a minute, this (ostensibly) being a CRM blog. What’s the #1 priority for the army as far as their relationships with their soldiers – employees – goes? Loyalty. The army needs loyal soldiers the way companies need loyal employees. Companies who know what they’re doing go to great lengths to secure employee loyalty, without which they know they’ll never get any customer loyalty.

Think of all the perks and freebies companies give valued employees to curry loyalty. Why can’t an hour or two of free calls home be included in the soldier’s perks? God knows they’re not exactly rolling in perks over there, and this is the one they really want, it’s relatively inexpensive to provide, and what a morale boost, knowing that the country values the job they’re doing over there so much they let them call home for free so they can hear from those they love best how much their sacrifices are valued.

The soldiers want it – an Air Force Chaplain Assistant with the pen name “Airmen in Iraq,” wrote in a Sept. 10 posting on the blog about what Americans can send service members in Iraq, “I was talking to some of the chaplains about care packages. We have tooth brushes, toothpaste, shampoo, razors and all of that stuff. At this moment the only thing we can think of would (be) calling cards. I don’t think we can have too many calling cards!”

Can you come up with a more cost-effective way to boost the morale of those doing in the most dangerous jobs America asks its citizens to do? If so send an e-mail, First CoffeeSM’d love to hear it.

Look, bottom line here, folks, it’s just the right thing to do. Isn’t it the least we can do for them – a couple free phone calls a week? Doesn’t “the least” pretty well cover it?

Imagine the P.R. coup a carrier would get – “We provided free calls to the brave men and women defending freedom in Iraq and Afghanistan,” never mind that they were paid by the Pentagon to the last penny.

Things like that stay with a soldier. The hundreds of thousands of Americans who served overseas in World War II came home hooked on Coca-Cola and Lucky Strikes, not in small measure because those companies made sure soldiers had them. That’s a pretty strong emotional attachment when you’re that far away from home, you remember what and who made you feel a little more at home.

So anyway, write your Congressional representative, senator, favorite four-star general, whoever, and ask “Why can’t we give our soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan free calls home a couple times a week?” If any of them have anything intelligent to say please do let First CoffeeSM know.

And while you’re at it, ask “Why can’t First CoffeeSM get free French Roast beans?”

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1 Comment

I was curious as to just who the heck you were, so I followed your link and found what I think is my first plug for my blog (at least by someone I am not related to). On the subject of phones... incidentally, just like the chaplain you mentioned, I have asked for nothing BUT phone cards to be sent to me. They have all I really need in the PX, save things you can only buy in Baltimore... t-shirt from the local bar, etc.

Thanks for the plug, and for giving a crap about us at a time when it feels like a lot of people don't. I am sitting in an internet cafe in Iraq, and there are new "SPAWAR" phones here. These are basically VOIP terminals, but to my knowledge you still have to buy minutes like a phone card. I heard they are cheaper, but they definitely aren't free, and they are usually packed.

Another option is DSN phones. DSN is the military's private phone network, and I am told you can connect for free from here to a local military base back home, and have them route your call to a local phone number. (I would have to call Fort Meade, Maryland via DSN and then tell them to put me through to my folks. I have never successfully done it that way, but I have tried a few times. These are all satellite based, just like the internet access, so they tend to be down a lot.

Thanks for the plug.

-1LT Chris Whong

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