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Navy Dad Connects With Kids Courtesy of USO Partner United Through Reading

Monday, April 01, 2013

By Eric Brandner 

“I’m a giraffe and I bend my neck. Can you do it?”

It’s not what you expect to hear from a public affairs officer. But this isn’t a normal briefing.

Despite communication advancements, deployed troops still face the challenge of staying connected with family back home. Even officers who communicate for a living – like Navy Lt. j. g. Matthew Stroup – can struggle to find a personal touch from afar that his two young boys will understand.

The USO and United Through Reading® are working together to change that.

“It’s tough for little people to stay engaged for too long [on the phone],” Stroup wrote in a recent email from Afghanistan. “That’s another nice thing about [United Through Reading] though: you can put in the DVD and it grabs their attention for a longer period of time.”

United Through Reading’s Military Program – available to troops around the world via the USO or directly through United Through Reading – provides deployed troops the opportunity to make a DVD of themselves reading an age-appropriate book to their kids back home. When they’re done, United Through Reading sends the DVD (and often a copy of the book) to the family.

United Through Reading is among the valuable program partners the USO will profile during April, which is the Month of the Military Child.

“I enjoy knowing that my kids will be able to connect with me whenever they like through reading while I’m away by asking to have a DVD turned on at home or in the car,” Stroup wrote.

‘His Face Would Just Light Up’ 

“I am a seal and I clap my hands. Can you do it?”

Yes, a giggling Brayden Stroup can.

The boy – now of 3½ years old – can be seen in this 2012 video acting like any other young kid watching a DVD. The only difference is that it’s his dad giving the instructions.

Back in Ivor, Va., Jenny Lynne Stroup screens the videos Matthew has sent back from the field – more than 30 since his first deployment on the USS George H. W. Bush in 2011 – to find the most interactive recordings.

“If it’s not an action book, we’re probably not going to sit through the whole DVD,” she said while laughing. “Twenty minutes for a 3-year-old is a really long time.”

Jenny Lynne, a teacher-turned-stay-at-home-mom, says the videos have become an integral way of keeping the family connected.

“At first [Brayden] was a little confused that Daddy was in the TV,” she said. “But the more we watched them, the more animated Brayden became.

“At 18 months old [in 2011], I didn’t really know that he would notice that Matthew wasn’t there. … But when [Matthew] would come on TV, his face would just light up. It was really neat to see, because [Brayden] didn’t really act like anything ever bothered him.”

She said their youngest son, Luke – who turns 2 in June – is equally expressive.

“He’ll just stand right in front of the TV and just talk to [Matthew], which is kind of funny,” Jenny Lynne said.

Matthew not only makes United Through Reading videos as often as he can – including one at the USO Camp Atterbury during the lead-up to his current deployment – but he also assists in United Through Reading taping events downrange when the opportunity arises.

He’s looking forward to reading to his boys in person when his deployment ends this summer. Until then, he’ll stay connected via his animated videos, and the images and cellphone recordings Jenny Lynne takes of their son’s reacting to his on-screen expressions.

“It was awesome to see [Brayden] doing the same motions that I was while I was reading the book – he was really engaged,” Matthew wrote. “Getting that video in the mail was a big boost for my morale and it let me know that the time I spent recording the books was well spent.”

* * *

Photo caption: Navy Lt. j.g. Matthew Stroup records himself reading a book to his children during a United Through Reading event on Jan. 18 in Afghanistan. (Photo courtesy of Matthew Stroup) 

United Through Reading works with military commands deployed around the globe to record troops reading and send DVDs back to their families. Visit the organization's How to Participate page for more details. 

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