Army Reserve Maj. Kevin Wood’s military commitments often take him away from home, but not always for deployment. Rather, he flies aircraft for his fixed-wing battalion with members located in four non-bordering states. This means he is regularly missing his sons’ bedtime routine, the time when he reads books aloud to them before saying goodnight.
Disruptions to daily routines are difficult for military families but thanks to a military service organization, service members have a reliable, personable, and free method to connect with their children and extended family across the miles with a recorded story that can be watched at any time.
United Through Reading (UTR) is a nonprofit organization bridging the gap between military men and women and their loved ones through videos of the member reading specifically-chosen books for children back home. Soldiers, sailors, Marines, airmen, and Coast Guard members — either active duty, reserves, or National Guard — can select the books and record the video(s) at hundreds of recording sites around the world which they send home so their child(ren) can watch while reading along.
Daddy on demand
While families can sometimes use video chat during these times apart, schedules, time zones and spotty service mean those conversations aren’t always quality time for the family members.
“Using the program is nice when he’s gone for drill weekend, training, or classes because he is the one who reads them bedtime stories before bed,” Tonya Wood, wife of Maj. Wood, explained. “Even though he’s not able to read to them in person, we can watch the videos, and he is still able to be a part of their bedtime routine. It also helps anytime they are missing dad because he is available on-demand at any time with the recording.”
UTR was founded 30 years ago by a reading specialist who combined her professional knowledge about the power of reading from birth with her personal experience as a military spouse who faced a difficult deployment reintegration with her husband and young daughter.
The simple idea of a parent or special adult reading a bedtime story during deployment to a child took hold. Since 1989, UTR has served over 2.4 million military family members. In 2019 alone, service members used UTR to read 12,189 books to families around the world serving 48,756 military family members facing any separation due to military assignment.
How does it work?
Some recording sites are permanently embedded within military units, while others are in partnership with libraries or other community organizations. Still, others are conducted through UTR’s “Mobile Story Station” or at pop-up events, including Yellow Ribbon events around the country. UTR’s latest feature is an eponymous app (available for free on Android and iOS) that allows anyone with Wi-Fi access to create their own “story station.”
The recording procedure is straightforward: the military member chooses a complimentary book based on their child(ren)’s reading level and interests, then goes to a private location — either provided or one of their own choosing if using the app — introduces the book and reads it aloud. Often the service member will include personalized comments, jokes, vocal inflections, body language and sign-offs for their kid(s).
“It’s an excellent tool for service members and their family members to use,” Jeffrey Bock, a Yellow Ribbon Support Specialist at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in New Jersey, said. “It’s a great break-up from the daily grind (or routine) and a way to remain connected with loved ones back home.”
Bock, who began working with UTR roughly two years ago, organizes the Department of Defense program by planning events packed with resources that assist National Guard and Reserve members and their families before, during and after deployments.
“[UTR] is reminding a loved one that reading is important,” he said. “Maybe the kid has had a stressful day, but hearing that voice of their parent and being able to have that connection while apart is an outstanding resource.”
UTR has played a vital role for millions of military families, including the Wood family.
Tonya volunteered for UTR in Alaska before being hired as their Yellow Ribbon Program coordinator. Throughout the year, she works closely with Yellow Ribbon personnel to ensure UTR staff and volunteers are able to attend the DoD-sponsored Yellow Ribbon Reintegration program events for families of the Guard and reserves around the country.
“As a reserve [and Guard] family, you’re not necessarily living where you’re going to do your drill weekend,” she said.
Those unique circumstances often translate into many nights, weeks and months away from family, and usually without the local support of an active-duty military base.
Thankfully, the Woods and other military families have UTR’s app and recording locations to assist with maintaining the connection during any time apart.
Occasionally, UTR draws a celebrity “sighting.” Recently, Washington Nationals pitcher Sean Doolittle and his wife, Eireann Dolan, attended a Yellow Ribbon event with UTR for the 88th Readiness Division in Illinois, meeting with service members as they prepared for deployment.
“I grew up in a military family and my wife comes from a military family as well. We’re excited to share one of our favorite hobbies – reading – with all of you,” Doolittle shared. “This is a really cool way for families to stay connected and (service members) can continue to take an active role in their families.”
For Tonya, UTR not only helps her sons stay connected with their dad during his frequent trips for his job but also as a tool for her on those long days of solo-parenting. On one of those particularly long days, she pulled up their UTR video library at bedtime and hit play on “The Berenstain Bears Don’t Pollute, Anymore” by Stan and Jan Berenstain.
“They were excited for dad to be reading to them, and I dozed off for 10 minutes. When the video ended, they happily got in bed. It really felt like he was home.”