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Holiday military mail suspended

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Americans who want to show support for the troops overseas should consider doing a good deed in a soldier's name or volunteering in their community to replace someone who was called up, the Pentagon said Wednesday.

With the anthrax scare and the possibility of more terrorist attacks, Pentagon officials already had announced the suspension of two long-standing morale-boosting programs for troops _ the Operation Dear Abby holiday greetings program and the ``AnyServicemember'' letter-writing campaign.

``It's unfortunate but ... these days we have new concerns,'' Lt. Col. Jim Cassella, a Pentagon spokesman, said Wednesday.

Instead, people might visit a VA hospital or nursing home, or volunteer in the local community to help make up for service members who normally volunteer but are now deployed or otherwise too busy with their duties, the Pentagon suggested in a statement.

In many communities, service members help feed the homeless or coach children's sports teams, the Pentagon said, encouraging others to replace service members called away.

Since the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, thousands have telephoned military offices _ from individuals to Cub Scout den mothers to classroom teachers _ wanting to write letters, send Halloween candy and so on, officials said.

``A lot of people want to send baked goods,'' said Lt. Elissa Smith, a Navy spokeswoman. ``But you could have a bake sale instead, and donate the money to the relief societies.''

The Pentagon this month asked the distributor of the Dear Abby column, Kansas City-based Universal Press Syndicate, to halt Operation Dear Abby, which has encouraged readers of the newspaper column to send holiday greetings to the military for 17 years.

Jeanne Phillips, who co-writes the Dear Abby column with Abigail Van Buren, urged readers instead to help stock food banks, especially those aiding people who lost jobs after the Sept. 11 attacks.

And the ``Any Servicemember'' letter-writing campaign that started in the mid-1990s for troops in Bosnia and Kosovo has been suspended indefinitely, Cassella said.

In both programs, Americans without a specific soldier in mind could send postcards or letters to a central post office box and the letters were distributed randomly to troops.

More than 30,000 soldiers have been sent to the Gulf as part of the campaign in Afghanistan, and the Pentagon was expecting a high volume of mail, especially in the upcoming holidays.

``We just can't move that amount of mail, especially with the safety concerns and new procedures being added because of anthrax,'' Cassella said.

Letters addressed to a specific soldier, or letters from family or friends will still get through, the Pentagon stressed.

``If your bridge club or church group always writes'' to a specific soldier in the community, ``that still goes,'' Cassella said.

The individual services also are making plans that might include setting up web sites where people could send e-mail messages that then would be printed onto paper and posted on bulletin boards for troops to read.
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