Service members link up with family through UI program

Service members link up with family through UI program

CHAMPAIGN – When Marine Reserve Maj. Andrew Rice isn't flying helicopters, he's studying computers.

So chatting with his family from Iraq via videoconferencing comes naturally to him. They talk about plans to return home, his niece Sylvia's quilt drawing and niece Maren's favorite letters of the alphabet.

Rice, 36, who recently completed his master's degree in Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois, has been in Iraq since just after Labor Day. He comes back to the U.S. in April, and will complete his current reserves obligation in September.

On Tuesday, Rice was at Al-Asad Air Base, and his family was in a conference room at the UI Extension headquarters on Country Fair Drive.

They were among several families taking advantage of the UI's See Your Soldier program; the program is free to families of military personnel serving in Al-Asad and Camp Taji.

The distance quickly closed when his niece Maren, 2, started reciting her ABCs, starting from "H" because the later letters are her favorites. The major broke into a huge smile.

It was the first time his parents, Mike and Carol Rice of Mattoon, had seen the Champaign man since his deployment. The same for his brother Ben; Ben's wife, Susan; and their children, Whitton, Maren and Sylvia.

Andrew Rice flies Cobra helicopters. His group is called the Red Dogs, out of Atlanta.

The major wanted to fly planes but was assigned to helicopters, his father said, and became proud of the job. If you can ride a bike, he told Dad, you can fly a plane; to fly a helicopter, you need to be able to ride a unicycle.

Since he joined the Marines in 1994, Andrew Rice has also served as aide to the military attache in Jakarta, where he was the liaison with the Indonesia military in the recovery after the devastating tsunami of 2004.

Before that, he was a Mattoon High baseball player who got a double off future pro pitcher Matt Herges, and a math student at Eastern Illinois University. He's single.

When the major was an infant, his father was in the Army in Vietnam, in a decidedly lower-tech era. Mike and Carol connected via something called "mail," which consisted of "letters" hand-inscribed on paper.

Back then, there were no phone calls from Vietnam, let alone videoconferencing.

The Rices felt pretty "with it" because each had a new cassette tape recorder, a technology that had only recently replaced the reel-to-reel for home use.

As Mike Rice recalls, they sent a tape to each other every week.

"No, it wasn't that often," said Carol.

But she added they exchanged 305 letters.

Mike Rice said the family has always had a positive image of technology and mathematics.

Andrew Rice, a member of Windsor Road Christian Church, did his master's project on getting computers to kids in an East St. Louis church.

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