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Volunteers help send greetings to soldiers overseas

POSTED: June 23, 2008 5:00 a.m.
For The Times/

Terry Jones of Flowery Branch, a member of the Military Radio Affiliate System staff, has been involved with the program since the Vietnam War. He's among the 2,700 members worldwide who help send messages to soldiers overseas.

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"Worst-case scenario, if you send a MARSgram to a guy on a ballistic-missile submarine that only surfaces every three months, he probably won’t get it for a few months," Chuck Leming said.

Leming, the Georgia MARS training officer, was not talking about the candy bar nor the red planet. Leming was referring to a way of messaging soldiers overseas, the MARSgram.

MARS, or Military Affiliate Radio System, is a volunteer organization sponsored by the Defense Department. The main purpose of the group is to provide emergency communication between local, state and federal governments.

Leming said the volunteers are usually, like him, amateur radio operators with other jobs, though overseas operators are more likely servicemen.

The MARS program, which started during the Korean War, has even made its way into pop culture. Leming cited an episode of the popular 1970s TV show "M*A*S*H" in which one of the main characters, Capt. Hawkeye Pierce, used the system to attempt to inform his father that he was in fact not dead.

"I’m connected to MARS," Pierce said while on the phone.

The program has continued as a medium for messages, but because of technological advances in communication such as e-mail, MARS is no longer the primary link of communication between families and servicemen.

MARSgrams are like "old-fashioned telegrams," Leming said.

Once a MARSgram is sent via phone call or a Web site, the MARS operator on the other end of the line closest to where the recipient is stationed prints the message out and delivers it.

There are about 30 MARS operators stationed in Georgia and about 2,700 operators worldwide. Terry Jones of Flowery Branch, a member of the Chief Army MARS staff, has been involved with the program since the Vietnam War.

"The MARS program is a morale booster for the servicemen, especially for those deployed overseas," Jones said. He recalled one Gainesville father who thanked Jones "every time I saw him" for relaying MARSgrams between the man and his son, who was stationed in Iraq during the Gulf War in the 1990s.

MARSgrams can be delivered to a soldier anywhere in the world. Depending on the location of the soldier, the maximum delivery time is about a week.

"We could get a MARSgram to a guy on an aircraft carrier somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic," Leming said.

MARSgrams don’t have to be sent to a specific solder; the American Red Cross distributes MARSgrams to injured soldiers in hospitals from Germany to Iraq.

The MARS program hopes for a larger response of morale-boosting MARSgrams messages this Father’s Day.

Servicemen who have received MARSgrams treasure them like "a letter from home," Leming said. "They said they would go back and reread it, and they could relive it. And it lasts a lot longer than a telephone call."



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