STRATFORD, N.J. – In an age of multimillion-dollar high-tech weapons systems, sometimes it's the simplest ideas that can save lives. Which is why a New Jersey mother is organizing a drive to send cans of Silly String to Iraq.
American troops use the stuff to detect trip wires around bombs, as Marcelle Shriver learned from her son, a soldier in Iraq.
Before entering a building, troops squirt the plastic goo, which can shoot strands about 10 to 12 feet, across the room. If it falls to the ground, no trip wires. If it hangs in the air, they know they have a problem. The wires are otherwise nearly invisible.
Now, 1,000 cans of the neon-colored plastic goop are packed into Shriver's one-car garage in this town outside Philadelphia, ready to be shipped to the Middle East thanks to two churches and a pilot who heard about the drive.
"If I turn on the TV and see a soldier with a can of this on his vest, that would make this all worth it," said Shriver, 57, an office manager.
The maker of the Silly String brand, Just for Kicks Inc. of Watertown, N.Y., has contacted the Shrivers about donating some. Other manufacturers make the stuff, too, and call their products "party string" or "crazy string."
"Everyone in the entire corporation is very pleased that we can be involved in something like this," said Rob Oram, Just for Kicks product marketing manager. He called the troops' use of Silly String innovative.
The military is reluctant to talk about the use of Silly String, saying that discussing specific tactics will tip off insurgents.
But Lt. Col. Christopher Garver, a U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad, said Army soldiers and Marines are not forbidden to come up with new ways to do their jobs, especially in Iraq's ever-evolving battlefield. And he said commanders are given money to buy nonstandard supplies as needed.
In other cases of battlefield improvisation in Iraq, U.S. soldiers have bolted scrap metal to Humvees in what has come to be known as "Hillybilly Armor." Medics use tampons to plug bullet holes in the wounded until they can be patched up.
Also, soldiers put condoms and rubber bands around their rifle muzzles to keep out sand. And troops have welded old bulletproof windshields to the tops of Humvees to give gunners extra protection. They have dubbed it "Pope's glass" — a reference to the barriers that protect the pontiff.
In an October call to his mother, Army Spc. Todd Shriver explained how his unit in the insurgent hotbed of Ramadi learned from Marines to use Silly String on patrol to detect boobytraps.
After sending some cans to her 28-year-old son, Shriver enlisted the help of two priests and posted notices in her church and its newsletter. From there, the effort took off, with money and Silly String flowing in. Parishioners have been dropping cans into donation baskets.
"There's so much that they can't do, and they're frustrated, but this is something they can do," said the Rev. Joseph Capella of St. Luke's Church in Stratford.
The Shrivers said they would not mind seeing the string as standard-issue equipment, but they don't blame the military for not supplying it.
"I don't think that they can think of everything," said Ronald Shriver, 59, a retired salesman. "They're taught to improvise, and this is something that they've thought of."
Marcelle Shriver said that since the string comes in an aerosol can, it is considered a hazardous material, meaning the Postal Service will not ship it by air. But a private pilot who heard about her campaign has agreed to fly the cans to Kuwait — most likely in January — where they will then be taken to Iraq.
Shriver said she will continue her campaign as long as her son is overseas and she has Silly String to send.
"I know that he's going come through this. I hope they all do," she said.