NEW YORK – "You’ve got mail!" are three words most of us take for granted, but to troops thousands of miles from home, it can offer just the boost they need.
"Mail call was definitely the highlight of the week," said Brad Jones, a truck driver from Avon, Ind., who served in the Navy in Vietnam. "It meant a lot to get a letter from home."
Jones added that even reading about ordinary life made him and other soldiers feel closer to the folks stateside.
"Things that might seem trivial, like hearing that Mom was hanging up laundry and other silly stuff, meant so much," he said. "It made you feel like you were still at home."
As the number of military personnel deployed tops 270,000, soldiers are facing not only the hardships of combat, but also losing contact with family and friends as well as the comforts of daily life in the U.S.
Jones said even letters from strangers wanting to wish the soldiers well are extremely appreciated.
"There was a guy on my ship who received a letter from an 8-year-old girl who called him a hero," said Jones. "He had tears running down his face. Even an anonymous letter with the message, ‘hang in there,’ means a great deal."
Being so far from home and away from the familiar can lead troops to feel isolated.
"Anybody who’s overseas in an uncertain situation, you feel alienated, you keep yourself separate from the rest of the country and there’s very little opportunity for interaction. Loneliness sets in," explained Woody Powell, a Korean War veteran and the national administrator of the organization Veterans for Peace.
Powell recalled how elated he felt hearing his name read during mail call. "It was acknowledgment that someone on the other side of the ocean was thinking of me," he said. "We’re dealing with human beings on all sides of war and we have needs to be attended."
Army Major Ken McDorman, an Industry Training Fellow at Fox News Channel in New York, served in the first Gulf War and remembers how hard it was to keep in touch. "We were there two months before we could make phone calls," he said.
The Internet was not yet available during the last Gulf War, McDorman noted, so correspondence was initially limited to letter-writing and telephone calls.
While electronic communication has made it easier to keep in touch with the troops, sending letters and care packages overseas is not as easy as it once was.
With new security concerns, letters or packages addressed to "Any Soldier," will no longer be accepted, according to the Department of Defense. Some have tried to avoid this ban by sending large numbers of packages to an individual service member’s address, but officials caution that this causes mail congestion and delays.
But there are modern ways to support troops serving overseas.
Through the Defense Department's 'Defend America' Web site, virtual thank-you cards can be sent to service members.
Greetings can also be sent through Operation Dear Abby. Created in 1967 after Sgt. Billy Thompson wrote Abigail Van Buren asking for "letters from home" at Christmas, the program has continued sending messages of support to hundreds of thousands of troops.
In addition, Veterans of Foreign Wars has organized Operation Uplink, in which calling cards are donated to help service members keep in touch with their families.
United Service Organizations are coordinating Operation USO Care Package and are asking for individual and corporate support to sponsor care packages which include items from service members’ wish lists such as travel-size toiletries, sunglasses, snacks, stationery, journals, disposable cameras, playing cards, board games, CDs and DVDs.
And for those who prefer traditional letters, but don’t have a serviceman’s specific address, soldiers can be adopted through Hugs to Kuwait, a program started by Army wife Pamela Bates as a way of coping when her husband left for Kuwait.
The service pairs civilians at home with soldiers overseas. According to Bates, the response has been overwhelming tallying over 17,000 requests in one weekend alone. Bates also gets many letters of appreciation from soldiers who have been "adopted."
"I have gotten quite a few letters that just say, thank you for what are you doing," said Bates of the letters from soldiers.