NEW YORK – The anthrax attacks did more than kill five Americans and put a scare into everyone else — they also put an end to two popular letter-writing programs meant to keep the American public in touch with its servicemen.
But thanks to the Web, people can still send notes of appreciation to soldiers, sailors, Marines, and airmen defending the far-flung outposts of Pax Americana.
"We take the power of the Internet, we can send morale-boosting holiday messages worldwide," Navy spokesman Cmdr. Rudolph Brewington said from the Washington Naval Yard.
The tradition of sending supportive letters to anonymous overseas members of the military started in 1967, when syndicated advice columnist Abigail van Buren — "Dear Abby" — suggested the practice for the holidays. "Operation Dear Abby" became a yearly ritual.
"It was a big boost to morale that was deeply appreciated by servicemen," Pentagon spokesman Maj. James Cassella said.
In 1991, the military started up the year-round "Any Servicemember" program, where people could write to the men and women in uniform conducting the Persian Gulf War. It ended with the war, but was started up again in 1995 with American peacekeeping operations in Bosnia.
But after the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, anthrax-bearing envelopes were discovered in Florida, New York and Washington, D.C. The nation's civilian mail service was paralyzed — and its military counterpart was understandably wary of carrying anonymous letters to its military bases. On Oct. 16, "Operation Dear Abby" and the "Any Servicemember" program were suspended indefinitely.
The military postal service still carries letters and parcels to specific servicemen.
Facing a sudden outpouring of support for the military, the Defense Department suggested other ways Americans could show their solidarity with their servicemen, such as volunteering at veterans hospitals, helping out military families or helping replace the soldiers who could no longer offer their time coaching Little League games or working at homeless shelters.
But the idea of writing letters to soldiers abroad has always been treasured. So the holiday letter-writing programs moved over to the Navy-run Web site www.lifelines2000.org which helps out servicemen with the non-military aspects of their lives.
"We put our technological heads together and came up with this," Brewington said.
The Web-based program allows people to submit messages for anonymous servicemen, who can then log onto a Web site, read messages and even respond to them. Messages are listed by state because soldiers have a tendency to want to hear from people from their home states, Brewington said.
The service isn't based on e-mail, so there's no worries about computer viruses or clogging up the server, which is housed at the Washington Naval Yard.
And even though some might miss the feeling of unfolding a new letter, the new program has some advantages. For one, the messages can reach soldiers posted at remote locations, Cassella said.
The Web-based mail program started up without much fanfare Nov. 26, since which some 25,000 messages, all screened, have been posted where servicemen can read them, Brewington said. Of those, only one was deemed inappropriate, he said. The program could be continued again next year, depending on where the war on terror stands, he said.
And similar programs are popping up in other places too. Compaq Computers is allowing people to send personalized video messages to all serviceman in a format that will be uploaded to the military Web site. Starting this week, people can be recorded at locations in New York, Atlanta, Chicago, Colorado Springs, Colo., Boston, Dallas, Houston, Salt Lake City, San Diego, San Jose, Calif., and Washington, D.C. And Compaq's sending a bus on a tour of the Southwest, hitting cities including Las Vegas, San Antonio, Phoenix, Albuquerque, N.M., Flagstaff, Ariz., and Oklahoma City. A second phase of video messages will be ready in January.
"We just want a way for people to get their message across, especially in time for the holidays," Compaq spokeswoman Gretchen Wiener said.
The letters, videos and notes are all appreciated on the other end, Brewington said.
"I was a Vietnam vet," he said. "I understand what it's like to be away from family and friends during the holidays. The message here is that we're getting great support from our people."