DENVER—The word went out from American Red Cross headquarters to 900 chapters across the country last week: Stop taking donations of anything but money for U.S. troops fighting in the Persian Gulf.
"Enough already" is a hard message to convey when so many people want to give some tangible sign of support--be it as humble as toothpaste or hand lotion--to troops deployed in the desert.
Military supply lines in the Persian Gulf can't accommodate the volume of material from well-wishers, officials said.
"It's putting a tremendous strain on the ability of the military postal system to deliver mail from soldiers' loved ones," said Mark Saunders, a U.S. Postal Service spokesman.
There is no way to sort mail from family and friends and give it higher priority, he said.
"People think one little package won't hurt," said Carrie Lee of Georgia, who runs Sgt. Mom's, a Web site for military families. "But they don't realize thousands of other people are all thinking the same thing, and it's really bogging the mail system down."
The Red Cross initiated its moratorium after being overwhelmed by donations of everything from sunscreen to lip gloss to CDs.
"We have enough stuff to maintain uninterrupted distribution to service members for at least the next four months," said Stacey Grissom, a Red Cross spokeswoman.
Mail system already taxed
Anxiety over possible terrorist attacks adds to an already burdened mail system.
After Sept. 11, 2001, and the subsequent anthrax scares, the military stopped taking letters or packages addressed to "any service member," a common practice in times of war. Now, only carefully screened items sent to specific service members are accepted.
In the U.S., every granola bar or box of tissues sent to troops has to be sealed in original packaging and checked for tampering. Overseas, Grissom said, "there's nowhere to store this stuff. And you have to have people to open all these boxes and distribute the items."
Military personnel in the desert already have enough to handle, she said.
Declining generous offers isn't easy and sometimes can be awkward.
In Maine, Red Cross officials had to turn down a company that wanted to donate a truckload of cookies that would have been too expensive to ship to the region. In Summerville, S.C., 250 care packages donated by local schoolchildren came close to being rejected by Charleston Air Force Base because they weren't addressed to specific service members.
In Colorado, several church groups and Scout troops recently organized donation drives for local National Guard members, only to find out that "we can't send these things overseas for them," said Capt. Holly Peterson, spokeswoman for the Colorado National Guard.
"Sometimes people do get frustrated," she said.
Instead of giving material goods, Peterson suggested, people can write checks to military relief societies, e-mail the troops, or donate time or services, such as baby-sitting or tutoring, to military families.