JANUARY 12, 2015, U.S. 5th FLEET AREA OF RESPONSIBILITY (NNS) – A crescent moon rises to its rightful place, overlooking the velvet night sky. Down below, a child slowly rests their head onto a pillow as he falls into sleep’s warm embrace. He is lulled by the sound of his father’s familiar voice.
The soft thud of the book closing signals that story time is over and the father looks up from the book smiling, wishing his child a good night. The image of the father’s face freezes like a moment forever captured in time before the screen fades to black. The child falls into a deep, comforting sleep dreaming of being reunited with the man on the television once again.
The program that allows this father and child to interact is called United Through Reading (UTR). UTR allows Sailors and Marines aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Makin Island (LHD 8) to stay connected with their families while on deployment by sending home video messages of themselves reading to their children.
“The United Through Reading program is meant to connect parents with their children and family members while on deployment,” said Religious Programs Specialist 3rd Class Kimberly A. White, a UTR coordinator aboard USS Makin Island. “It’s a morale booster, not only for the Sailors and Marines, but also for their families back home.”
White said she has received plenty of positive feedback in regards to UTR from both Sailors and Marines.
“It helps me because it gives me 30 to 40 minutes in which I can just focus on my kids,” said Chief Aviation Ordnanceman Mattie Hackney. “[Being on deployment], there are always a thousand things going on, but being inside the chapel and reading a book and talking to my kids for 30 minutes makes my month. I think everyone aboard the ship needs time like that.”
Hackney said she has a nine-year-old son at home who thinks being a Chief is the best job in the Navy. When her son sees her in uniform on video, he gets very excited.
“I couldn’t wait for them to get the book and the disc,” said Hackney. “My son’s birthday is coming up so my husband is holding onto both of them so they can see me on his birthday.”
Hackney explained that when she finishes her recording, she buys a copy of the book online and sends it home. Her husband then waits for both the book and the video so her children can read along with her.
Although there are many programs and tools available to Sailors and Marines on deployment, such as Sailor phones and email access, Hackney confessed there’s nothing like getting something in the mail that allows your family to see you talking to them and reading to them.
“I know one of my Sailors participates in UTR and her husband uses it as a nighttime story,” said Hackney. “If you have a young child at home, it helps them to remember mommy or daddy’s voice. It really gives you a good feeling.”
Sailors and Marines may not see the results or impact back home, but according to Sgt. Derek W. Goodwin, assigned to the embarked 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit, when he gets a response from his wife about the connection he has made with his children, it lifts his spirit.
“When they get the videos, they laugh a lot,” said Goodwin. “Instead of realizing that daddy’s gone, I want them to know that I’m going to be back soon. I just want them to be happy.”
Goodwin said his children think it’s an interactive video and try to talk to him when his wife shows it to them.
“I’ll read to my son for about 15 minutes and try to make it interesting and do crazy things like fall off my chair halfway through and make him laugh,” said Goodwin. “Then I’ll read to my daughter and try to interact with her. Once, I read a book with three color princesses and I asked her which one she liked the most. Then I said you probably like the blue princess. I received an email from my wife two weeks later saying it was actually the yellow princess.”
The UTR program has proven that it is much more than simply reading a children’s book to family members back home. Service members on deployment often deal with missing important events such as birthdays and anniversaries, but thanks to the coordinators aboard the Makin Island, they can often bridge the gap and send their family a message to compensate for the time apart.
“I was able to say happy birthday to my son and happy anniversary to my wife through the program,” said Goodwin. “Your kid isn’t going to remember his fifth birthday party, but he’s going to remember if you were there or not, so having you there in any kind of way makes a huge difference.”
Goodwin is one of many service members who value the interactive quality with their loved ones at home. When the new Executive Officer, Capt. Mark Melson checked aboard, participating in UTR was one of the first things he did.
“I know that if your family is happy, it’s much easier to concentrate on the mission while deployed,” said Melson. “United Through Reading is great way for Sailors and Marines to bring families even closer together from so far away.”
The Makin Island Amphibious Ready Group (ARG) and the embarked 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) are deployed in support of maritime security operations and theater security cooperation efforts in the U.S. 5th Fleet area of responsibility.