Soldiers Use New Technology to Connect With Folks Back Home

For many Americans, Iraq -- its landscape, its culture, its people -- still remains a mystery. But not for long. Now, thanks to the U.S. Army's 1st Cavalry Division and Apple's iTunes, people across the United States and around the world can learn about life in Iraq straight from the horse's mouth.

Since their deployment in 2006, a few Baghdad-based soldiers have reported the most current events and operational updates in the Iraqi capital in a daily radio broadcast, appropriately titled "Cav Roundup."

Led by Sgt. Scott Pittillo, a noncommissioned officer and co-producer of the show, the "Cav Roundup" serves as a window into the daily lives of soldiers in Iraq, showcasing both their successes and their failures.

"The Cav has a great history," said Sgt. First Class Rick Lewis in an interview with ABC News. "There's a lot of folks who follow the Cav wherever the Cav goes. They want to know what is going on, what they are doing, how they are doing."

But the Army hopes that "Cav Roundup," in association with iTunes, will go beyond their traditional audience and broaden the scope of the Army's message to the American public.

Staying in Touch

"Cav Roundup" is "important to soldiers and their families because we are entering and developing a new and innovative way to explain their mission to the American public as well as our global audiences," said Lt. Col. John Robinson, director of the Media Services Division, in a press release last week.

Originally conceived as a window between the Cav soldiers in Iraq and their families and supporters back in Fort Hood, Texas, "Cav Roundup" was picked up by radio stations across the state and has garnered more attention than anyone ever imagined. "The whole idea was to try and do [the Cav Roundup] every day. To try and get it out to our folks in central Texas, so they have an idea of what we were doing," said Lewis.

The idea for the "Cav Roundup" came to the soldiers before they were deployed from Fort Hood last year. Initially, the show was set up as a typical five-minute radio news brief with tease music, several different reports, and promos for future stories. But, said Lewis, "we found that to be a monster we couldn't constantly feed. So, we switched to the idea of a three-minute program, and it's a much tighter production."

Although these budding radio-journalists/soldiers have learned a lot on the job, "Cav Roundup" has one big problem: It's not terribly interesting. Though the idea of producing a radio program from a war zone is fascinating, and "Cav Roundup" is unique in its portrayal of daily life in Iraq through the eyes of soldiers, the broadcast suffers from one-dimensional stories and the reportorial inexperience of its reporters.

Typically, the three-minute broadcast airs between one to three pieces, which range in subject matter from the troop's daily operations to their interactions and observations of life in Baghdad while on patrol.

In its most recent broadcast, on Feb. 21, specialist Charlie Maib looked at a new Joint Security Station in the Soulac district of Baghdad. In his one-sided, glowing report of the JSS, Maib described the Soulac district as a "fault line of insurgent activity" but insisted that the station has "led to several fruitful tips" and ensured Iraqis in the neighborhood that "there is an active law presence and that [the soldiers] will do whatever it takes to help."

A New Kind of Embedded Reporter

Not surprisingly, Maib is not the only one praising the U.S. troop presence in Iraq. Roach concedes that the broadcast's producers, as well as Army officials, see the "Cav Roundup" as a medium for changing the American public's opinion of the war.

"We've a lot of great soldiers here who do a wonderful job every day. We have a lot more access than some of the civilian media does, so when we go out and cover a story we can, a lot of the time, get how soldiers are really feeling," said co-producer Roach. "Those are the stories we are trying to tell. We are operationally based, but we always try and tell the story from a soldier's perspective."

"I think that any time we can get anybody to take our product and run with it, that's another outlet for us, and it gives us the opportunity to reach more people. I think it's going to be an effective tool for us," said Roach." "I'm trying to reach anybody who is going to listen."

Aside from the "Cav Roundup" podcast, the First Cavalry Division has a whole host of online material available to the public, including a daily print report, "Daily Charge," a weekly newspaper, "Crossed Sabers," and a video broadcast, "Cav Country." The Cav's resources offer civilian viewers an unprecedented level of access to the soldiers' daily lives.

Despite its shortcomings, the "Cav Roundup" has a certain appeal.

The sound of helicopters taking off in the background and the emotion in the reporters' voices set the tone for the broadcast as well as any journalist could ever describe it in words. In the end, the strength of the "Cav Roundup" broadcast lies lies not in its reporting but in the unpolished, personal touches that bring a faraway land one step closer to home.