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To help out troops, send cash not packages

USO and aid groups agree parcels are much more trouble than money

Monday, March 31, 2003

By Karen MacPherson, Post-Gazette National Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Chocolate is out. So is shaving cream in an aerosol can. And forget about pork. So what do U.S. troops fighting in Iraq War really need?

Flea collars.

Groups who organize military care packages say U.S. troops put the flea collars around their ankles to keep the sand fleas -- ubiquitous in the desert -- from biting. Other helpful items for troops on desert duty include wrap-around sunglasses, lip balm and sunscreen. Playing cards are in great demand, too; cards are easily lost to the desert winds, so troops welcome replacement packs.

On the other hand, sending chocolate to the desert is a bad idea; it melts. Some aerosol cans can explode in high heat. And pork is prohibited in Muslim cultures.

But here's the most important thing: Sending care packages to U.S. troops overseas is not like it used to be. If you don't know anyone serving in the military, but just want to go the time-honored route of mailing a package to "any service member," you're out of luck.

To protect against terrorist attack, the Pentagon ended the "to any service member" program nearly two years ago. Instead, military officials encourage Americans who don't have specific names of military personnel to channel their generosity by sponsoring care packages sent by approved groups, such as the United Service Organizations (USO).

Money donations also are preferred by humanitarian relief organizations working to provide food and other aid to the Iraqi people. While Americans may be moved to send canned goods, blankets and other items for suffering Iraqis, officials for InterAction, an alliance of 165 U.S.-based humanitarian organizations, say bluntly: "Cash is best."

"Cash allows disaster relief professionals to procure exactly what is needed in a disaster situation," InterAction officials say on the organization's Web site. "Cash donations do not require transportation costs, ... [they] support the economy of the disaster-stricken region... [and] prevent culturally, dietary and environmentally inappropriate giving."

To make it easy for people to donate to Iraqi relief efforts, InterAction lists dozens of different humanitarian aid organizations on its Web site, giving Internet links to the groups as well as detailing the type of work they do.

"That way, people can choose the organization they want to donate to," said Sid Balman Jr., a spokesman for InterAction.

Some aid groups, like Oxfam America, are using the Internet to do fundraising. Oxfam raised more than $641,000 in six days from 8,400 donors through an Internet appeal issued by an anti-war group, MoveOn.org.

While urging people to donate money, some humanitarian relief groups do offer other avenues for giving. The American Friends Service Committee, for example, has asked people to create "hygiene kits" for Iraqis. A list of what is needed for the kits and how to assemble them is posted on the AFSC's Web site, www.afsc.org/iraq/kits.shtm.

Both humanitarian aid groups and military support organizations say that it's clear that Americans -- whatever their politics -- want to do something to help in the Iraq War.

"Our phones have been ringing off the hook," said Beth Bradner, a spokeswoman for USO's "Operation USO Care Package" program (www.usocares.org). It costs $25 to sponsor a USO care package, which contains such necessities as shampoo and toothpaste, as well as disposable cameras, stationery, snack items and -- yes -- playing cards. A greeting from the person sponsoring the package also is included.

The USO care packages are given to troops as they are sent overseas, helping to boost their morale at deployment, Bradner said. It also saves transportation costs and doesn't clog up the mail.

Both Pentagon and U.S. Postal Service officials have asked people who have family and friends serving in the Iraq war to limit their mail because the system has gotten overloaded in recent weeks. Many of the letters and packages can't be delivered right away anyway because mail is delivered via the military's supply system, said Tesia Williams, a public affairs specialist for the Army Personnel Command.

"The mail is competing with supplies and food, and you know what's going to get delivered first," Williams said.

Americans also can sponsor phone cards for U.S. service members at the Operation Uplink Web site (www.operationuplink.org), send emails via Operation Dear Abby at http://anyservicemember. navy.mil, and send a virtual thank you card to troop members at the Department of Defense's Defend America Web site: www.defend america.mil.

Defense officials also suggest that Americans volunteer to help groups working with military families who have a loved one serving overseas. More information about this effort can be found on the Web site of the USA Freedom Corps, the government's volunteer coordination agency. The Web address is: www.usafreedomcorps.gov.

Karen MacPherson can be reached at kmacpherson@nationalpress.com or 1-202-662-7075.

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