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US Troops Abroad Get a Holiday Touch of Home

Tens of thousands of U.S. troops will remain far from home during the Christmas, Hanukkah, and Kwanzaa holidays to come. But 35 U.S. corporations and more than 200 grassroots organizations are reaching out to make the soldiers' lonely holidays brighter.

Two years ago, as many Americans began to sour on the nation's military involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Defense Department received more and more queries from troops in the field, asking, "Do the American people still support us?" Officials could point to ribbons on trees and automobiles and lots of American flags in windows and lawns. But there were few avenues for individuals to give concrete comfort to the troops.

That all changed with the creation of a program called "America Supports You." Allison Barber, a deputy assistant secretary of Defense, says the program has brought troops numerous tastes of home, from handwritten letters of appreciation to international telephone calling cards to donated frequent flier miles.

"We have a group called 'Homes for Our Troops,'" says Ms. Barber. "They buy homes and refurbish them for wounded troops, make the doorways wider for wheelchairs, put in ramps, free to the troops."

Allison Barber says that they have a woman they call "the cookie lady." She and her volunteers ship cookies. Another group is "Sew Much Comfort": S-E-W Much Comfort. They take brand-new T-shirts and shorts and running pants, take out the seams, and put in Velcro [easily removable fastener tapes], so that wounded troops can dress themselves.

One activity that's hitting its peak as the year-end holidays approach is an effort called "Cards for Troops." It began with one person: Jennifer Parsley, a veterinary technician in the little town of Porter, Texas. "I wanted the servicemen and women to realize that the average, everyday person realized what [the troops] were doing, and the sacrifices they were making, and the sacrifices that their families were making by their being over there." So, Jennifer Parsley says she would get thank-you cards, cards that were blank on the inside. And then she would hand-write notes.

She wrote 1,070 of them.

Many of the cards inspired return notes of thanks. One Marine sergeant, serving in Iraq, struck up a pen-pal relationship. He and Ms. Parsley eventually met and are now engaged to be married.

Jennifer Parsley's cards, plus nonperishable food, toiletries, electronics equipment, and telephone calling cards are placed in "care packages" sent by a volunteer group called "Operation Gratitude." It, too, started in the heart and home of a single person: Carolyn Blashek, a mother of two in the Los Angeles suburb of Van Nuys, California.

When her children left home to attend college, she says "I took care of the empty nest by adopting about 180,000 young men and women." In the first six months alone, she put together more than 650 packages in her home. Ms. Blashek says the idea came to her shortly after the terrorist attacks of September 2001. "I actually tried to join the military, but I was too old. So I wanted to then show my support for the military in some way," she says.

At first, Carolyn Blashek volunteered at the USO at Los Angeles International Airport. One day at that privately-run facility, which provides support services for traveling military personnel, an extremely agitated soldier approached her, asking if there were a chaplain on duty.

"I said, 'No.' And he said, 'My plane's leaving in half an hour. Please, could I just talk to you?' So we sat down, and he explained to me that he'd been in the service for twenty years. He was going back into a war zone. He had just buried his mother. His wife had left him, and his only child had died as an infant. And he said, 'I've got no one in my life. For the first time in my career, I don't think I'll make it back from this war. But it doesn't matter, because no one will even care.' And that was the moment that changed my life. I just decided I needed to make sure that every service man and woman who deploys overseas knows that people at home care about them."

That was three years ago. Since then, Carolyn Blashek and a growing number of her friends have gathered food, remembrances of home, and words of appreciation for U.S. troops.

This holiday season, Operation Gratitude will ship more than 50,000 packages, each addressed to an individual military woman or man. In addition to cheery seasonal greeting cards with handwritten messages of support, Carolyn Blashek's packages will include blank cards, provided by Jennifer Parsley in Texas, so that U.S. servicemen and women can send their own holiday greetings home.