COLUMBIA -- It's the small stuff that can keep a South Carolina National Guard soldier in Afghanistan from connecting with loved ones.
Just ask Mike Kinsella, owner of Word Systems.
"Dust and small bugs," Kinsella answered when asked what causes soldiers' laptop computers to crash.
The tiny critters, in ample supply in Afghanistan, manage to creep into the laptop innards, clogging circuit boards. Also, Afghan dust can be as powdery as flour, covering keyboards with a fine film.
When the soldiers' repair efforts fail, they pack up the laptops and mail them to Kinsella's Columbia-based company.
The staff of Word Systems, a commercial computer maintenance firm, fixes the laptops and mails them back to the troops free of charge.
'Lifelines for the soldiers'
The soldiers then can plug their laptops into the Internet to send e-mails, make phone calls and even transmit live video images back home.
"It's a real big help," Staff Sgt. William Simpson of Columbia said in a telephone interview from Camp Lindsey, near Kandahar Airfield. "The laptops are lifelines for the soldiers."
In appreciation, Simpson and other soldiers of Company B, 1st Battalion 118th Infantry Regiment, recently sent Kinsella a U.S. flag that flew over Kandahar Airfield.
Headquartered at Fountain Inn, Simpson's unit is part of the Guard's 218th Brigade Combat Team, now serving in Afghanistan. The brigade's 1,600 troops are due home in May. They'll join about 170 Guard members who returned last month.
The troops' connection at Word Systems is Simpson's wife, Darlene, who works at the company's headquarters at 5946 Shakespeare Road.
"Any time a laptop goes down or crashes, the soldiers just send `em over," Darlene Simpson said.
Sometimes, the problems are simple too much dust or too many bugs.
Other times, repairs require new parts.
Kinsella said some of the troops' machines still are under warranty. Instead of mailing the laptop to the manufacturer, his company got the maker to ship the parts to Columbia and his technicians replaced the parts. That way the troops get their machines back sooner.
It usually takes a week to 10 days for a computer to arrive from Afghanistan. The machines are fixed within a week and mailed back, Darlene Simpson said. Word Systems pays for the shipping, which runs $12 to $18 per machine.
So far, Word Systems has fixed six machines, Darlene Simpson said.
Knowing what they go through
Kinsella knows how important it is for a soldier to stay in touch. An Army veteran, Kinsella served in Germany in the early 1960s long before the Internet and laptops.
"It's a wonderful thing that the guys can use their computers to be able to talk and write to their families," Kinsella said.
Col. Pete Brooks, the Guard's spokesman, praised Kinsella's contribution.
"Some people, who have unique job skills, are willing to donate their time and effort to help the soldiers," Brooks said.