WASHINGTON (AP) _ Holiday cards addressed to ``any wounded soldier'' at a military hospital won't have to be returned unopened this year.
The American Red Cross is collecting, reviewing and delivering holiday greeting cards to recovering soldiers at military hospitals who aren't specifically named on the envelope.
Since 2001, it's been the policy of military hospitals to return all pieces of mail that aren't addressed to a particular soldier due to security concerns from the terrorists attacks that year, said Lt. Col. Kevin Arata, spokesman for the Army Human Resources Command.
Since the Red Cross announced its program around Dec. 5, about 35,000 pieces of mail have been sent to the organization that will be distributed to 30 military hospitals across the country, as well as five Red Cross offices in combat zones overseas, including Iraq, Afghanistan and Kuwait, and a regional military medical center in Germany, said Joe Moffatt, executive director of service to armed forces at the American Red Cross.
This month's program, a partnership through the American Red Cross, Defense Department and a mail and technology service provider, allows soldiers the comfort of a stranger's words, said Army Sgt. Charles Eggleston, who's being treated at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington.
``You can get a letter from your brother, mother, sister any day,'' but a stranger's words offer broader support, said Eggleston, who was hit from a roadside bomb in Iraq. ``(The mail) is very important because it's uplifting to know that somebody else is out there thinking about you.''
The greeting cards, with adequate postage and a return address, should be sent to: We Support You During Your Recovery!, c/o American Red Cross, P.O. Box 419, Savage, MD 20763-0419.
No packages can be accepted. Red Cross officials are urging the public to have the holiday cards mailed and postmarked no later than Dec. 24.
The program stops after this holiday season, but Red Cross officials say they will evaluate the success of the program to see if it will be continued in coming years.
As the first step in the operation, the mail service provider Pitney Bowes Government Solutions regularly pick ups the mail and screens it for hazardous material. The company then hands it over to the Red Cross, whose volunteers have already sorted through the first batch of mail to ensure its contents are appropriate to send to hospitals. They'll do it again on Dec. 22 and Dec. 29.
After sorting, Pitney Bowes workers bundle and begin shipping the cards to hospitals. Red Cross volunteers and staff will then distribute the cards to the hospitals' wounded soldiers.
In all, the completely volunteer effort could be measured in costs of ``tens of thousands of dollars'' for Pitney Bowes, said company spokesman Matthew Broder.
The writers include some from universities, military units, girls and boys organizations, elementary schools and corporations, Red Cross officials said. Many cards from schools have notes inside and are made of construction paper with drawings and stickers of American flags. Some cards have menorahs designed on them, others have Christmas trees. But the words stand out the most.
``I'm writing to let you know that I'm thinking about you this holiday season, but also to thank you for serving our country,'' wrote one 8th grader from Wisconsin.
Eggleston, who returned from Iraq in December 2005, said the cards are especially important for troops who don't have family members around during the holidays.
``The only family they have is the general public, the American people,'' said Eggleston.