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.
But military and relief organizations, inundated with donations from individuals, church groups, schools and community organizations in the past few weeks, are asking people to refrain from sending care packages to the troops, unless they're friends or family members.
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.
Still, there are those who won't give up on trying to make the lives of troops a little easier.
Count among them Mary and Ronald Harper of Belleview, Fla., who have four children and a son-in-law stationed in the Middle East, and their friend Debbee Smith, whose son recently left the Navy.
They started Operation ShoeBox in February, when troops serving with Harper family members asked for care packages with moist hand wipes, writing paper, pens, batteries, stamps, lip balm and other hard-to-find items.
"I asked my son what we should put in there, and he said, `Mom, just the fact that people care means everything,'" Smith said.
The effort caught the attention of local newspapers, then national television, and donations started arriving from across the U.S.
"It's absolutely unbelievable how much people want to give," Smith said from her real estate agency, where more than 50 shoe boxes had accumulated since Monday.
The group rented three storage rooms in a warehouse and has organized teams of volunteers--neighbors, children and friends--to sort materials, check packaging, pack boxes, include a personal note, and address and seal the container.
On March 30, a Boy Scout troop helped prepare 178 boxes that were mailed Monday at a cost of $1,700. Operation ShoeBox gets the names of service members from contacts in the military and asks the troops to distribute any items they can't use to fellow service members.
In Bloomington, Ill., state Rep. Dan Brady started Operation Support Our Troops with a local Red Cross chapter several weeks ago, before the war began, to send personal supplies to the troops in the gulf region.
Within days of boxes decorated with flags being placed at local grocery stores and banks, donations began pouring in.
"It's incredibly heartwarming," said Brady.
After the Defense Department advised groups a week ago not to send multiple packages to individuals in an effort to bypass restrictions on mass mailings to troops, Operation Support Our Troops began sending boxes directly to Red Cross operations in the Middle East.
Each includes letters and drawings that schoolchildren have made for service members.
For some people, such as Anne Anderson, an interior designer in San Diego, the focus on helping is a welcome relief from the sluggish economy and uncertainties of war. She and her husband started Operation We Care in California two months ago, originally to send aid to 228 military medical personnel deployed in the gulf region from nearby Camp Pendleton.
Now the group has expanded to sending donations overseas to members of all branches of the armed forces in association with Operation Interdependence, an aid group run by a retired Marine since 1999. Operation We Care solicits donations from the San Diego area; Operation Interdependence arranges distribution overseas, sending no more than one box a month to each platoon.
"If we're overwhelming the mail system with big loads of packages, everything is going to be delayed," Anderson said. "It's really important to do this responsibly."