Anthrax spoils annual push for sending soldiers holiday mail, so `Dear Abby' and military turn to the Web

Friday, December 21st 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ With lingering worries over anthrax in the mail, ``Dear Abby'' and the military are turning to the Internet to make sure holiday letters get to U.S. troops.

After initiatives to send letters and packages to service personnel abroad were blocked by the Pentagon in late October, the columnist and the military adopted an assuredly anthrax-free approach _

The Web site, created in late November and run by the Navy, transmits messages from the home front ``to a ship at sea, a submarine beneath the sea and even a cave in Afghanistan,'' said Jeanne Phillips, the woman behind the pen name Abigail Van Buren. That's ``Dear Abby'' to readers of her daily column.

``It was a shock,'' she said, speaking of her reaction to news that the annual letter-writing campaign had been suspended. ``But the military has rescued this program, and I'm overwhelmed.''

In the 2 1/2 weeks since the Web site went live, it has been visited more than 8 million times and the campaign has collected more than 100,000 messages, said Navy spokesman Cmdr. Rudolph Brewington.

The original ``Dear Abby'' letter drive, started in 1967 for troops in Vietnam, has resulted in long-distance relationships ranging from pen pals to parents, gifts such as cookies, even Christmas trees. And, of course, tons and tons of mail, Phillips said.

The new system will be active all year rather than just from mid-November through mid-January, she said.

Pushing her column's 95 million readers to address a note to soldiers overseas began with Phillips' mother, Pauline, co-creator ``Dear Abby.''

Pauline invented the pen name and column in 1956 after the San Francisco Chronicle offered her a chance to put her pen where her mouth was. The offer came shortly after she called the newspaper to say she could write a better advice column than the one it was publishing.