Amid all the cutting-edge technology on display at the Association of the U.S. Army’s annual meeting in Washington, D.C., military officials on Tuesday offered a reminder that many soldiers and their families still lack reliable internet access and other tech basics.
“Many active-duty [soldiers] and including those in our Guard and Reserve component live in areas of the country where bandwidth is still quite expensive,” said Capt. Kimberly Elenberg, director of joint force fitness for the undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness. “So while we have amazing tools to leverage technology to connect with our families, we also still have to remember it is not universally accessible or affordable, and we have to be open to multiple means of staying connected.”
Elenberg’s comments came during a conference media session with Army health and medical readiness officials. The group said leaders are still processing lessons learned and adjustments made from the last 19 months of pandemic operations, including remote work and online medical appointments.
“COVID has changed the way a lot of us have done our jobs and offered our services,” said Dr. Theresa Jackson Santo, division chief for public health assessment at the Army Public Health Center.
Officials hope to integrate those changes into future personnel services, including educational opportunities and increased medical access. But much of that will depend on each family’s access to broadband internet.
The issue is under review by the Defense Department’s Building Healthy Military Communities initiative, which launched last year. Officials are looking at living conditions on and off base in seven states — Florida, Indiana, Maryland, Minnesota, Mississippi, New Mexico and Oklahoma — to identify challenges and potential improvements.
Earlier this year, officials from the Federal Communications Commission announced discounts on monthly internet access bills and computer upgrades through the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program, which could benefit thousands of troops and families.
But that program depends on internet availability in the areas around military bases, which can be spotty in rural regions.
Meanwhile, Army officials continue to look at unique stressors for military members and families stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic, in the hopes of easing those issues. While issues like permanent change of station moves and training cancellations were unique to the military community, other issues — school cancellations and family medical care access, for example — were problems throughout the country.
Officials said they hope to compile a thorough list of coronavirus reactions and improvements from service members in the coming months.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.