Book recordings help military connect with families

NORFOLK, Va. (AP) - For children of deployed military personnel, missing out on story time with their mom or dad is often one of the costs of service.

Families can chat over the phone and via video in far flung corners of the world, but those opportunities can be few and aren't always convenient.

Operation Record a Story allows children to hear a parent read a bedtime story even if they are separated by thousands of miles.

The San Diego-based United Through Reading program helps service members record stories for their children before they deploy, and sometimes while they're at sea or in a hostile land. The books, along with a DVDs of the parents reading the story, are shipped to kids for the holidays. In some instances, the parent's voice is embedded into the book so their voice is heard as the pages turn.

For military families like Kelitha Harris' of Puyallup, Wash., the book recordings are becoming a new family tradition.

Her husband, Petty Officer 2nd Class Lonnie Harris Jr., is a fire controlman stationed aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln in Everett, Wash., and was deployed last Christmas, but decided to send a book as a surprise for his three children.

"He told me what he was doing, but we decided to keep the book a secret from the kids. So they were just beyond excited when they actually got the book and sat down to open it up to hear his voice," she said.

She said the book is battered from all of the use it has gotten in the past year. Her husband deployed earlier this month and won't be home for the holidays again this year. She said she won't see him again until their family moves to Virginia as the Abraham Lincoln changes home ports.

She knows from experience that she may only get to speak with him on the phone once a month, at best. So he recorded another book while his ship was in San Diego. She said the book will go a long way toward providing a connection for her children and their dad as weeks between phone calls go by.

"To hear his voice around bedtime for the kids is such an important part of parenting in general," she said. "For them to be able to hear him before they go to bed, it puts a smile on my face. It's always nice to hear his voice."

Sally Ann Zoll, CEO of the nonprofit group United Through Reading, said her organization helped more than 300,000 service members around the world record stories in the past year and those numbers continue to grow, even with technological advances. Funding for the program comes through donations.

United Through Reading recently held recording sessions on board the USS Carl Vinson and USS Abraham Lincoln, as well as for soldiers at Fort Jackson, near Columbia, S.C.

Zoll said chatting by video over the Internet is not necessarily on a child's schedule.

"Skype is on mommy or daddy's schedule, when they can get to it," she said. "When you're two years old to three or even six, you're sort of not into that and you're not getting it. ... We call what we do mommy and daddy on demand."

Cara Kisby, whose husband Maj. Doug Kisby is in the Air Force and stationed at Marine Corps Base Quantico, was deployed shortly after Thanksgiving last year with little notice. Hearing her husband's voice reading "Twas the Night Before Christmas" helped get her and her five children through the holidays.

"He had a week to prepare to leave, so the holidays for me just seemed to be kind of a big burden. I really wasn't excited," she said. "When the book came, it just seemed to brighten up my spirits. It was just nice to hear him throughout the house."

Kisby said her youngest daughter, Brooklynn, who is 4, was particularly attached to the book and carried it around at home or in the car.

"I think it's a wonderful idea for anybody separated from anyone, even grandparents," she said. "Anybody that wants to have a connection with somebody that they love, it's just a wonderful addition to anybody's collection."