U.S. Troops Cope With Valentine's Day

One sergeant was willing to wait in line for the phone all day. Another fashioned a heart from a box of military rations.

For U.S. troops based in Afghanistan, Valentine's Day meant cards, packages and a few romantic minutes on the phone -- if they were lucky.

Three wooden pallets overflowing with cards and packages lay on the floor of the military post office Wednesday, and cards sent to the troops from elementary school children were taped to the windows where soldiers lined up to send their cards to loved ones.

"It started a few days ago. We just began to get this massive volume of letters and cards, both incoming and outgoing," said Sgt. 1st Class Michael Bennett, 38, of Princeville, N.C. "It's tough for the young troops. Some are recently married and others are away from their families for the first time, so you have to watch their morale a little to make sure they're OK."

Command Sgt. Maj. Anthony Slater tried to make the best of his absence from home by arranging to have 24 red roses delivered to his wife -- one for each year of their marriage. Tucked inside the bouquet were another five roses for his five granddaughters and three white roses, for each of his sons.

"I just love my family and I've been away so much that I wanted to touch everyone on Valentine's Day," said Slater, 43, of Fort Pierce, Fla. "My son said to me before I left, 'Lots of soldiers leave but don't ever come back' and it got a little emotional for me. I told him not to worry. I told him that I was coming home."

Another soldier, eager to show his ingenuity, fashioned a Valentine's heart from a box of the military food rations called MREs, or meals ready to eat, and mailed it to his girlfriend.

"It's kind of amazing what people will do to get their message across on a holiday," said Sgt. Cristofer Graham, 22, a supervisor at the base post office from Harrisburg, Pa. "Because it involves love and family -- some troops get pretty creative just to show how much their family means to them."

Unable to spend Valentine's Day with her boyfriend, an infantryman in the 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell, Ky., currently training in Louisiana, Spc. Leslie Quick said they exchanged cards and gifts before she deployed several weeks ago.

"It's tough when both of us are in the Army but on different exercises," said Quick of Stratford, N.J. "You would think that since we're both in the 101st we'd get to go together, but I guess that's not always possible."

Outside the main terminal building at Kandahar airport, soldiers waited in line for up to an hour to make free telephone calls to their loved ones on the day before Valentine's Day. The free phone calls are the military's way of keeping morale high. E-mails and letters are also free.

"The volume of calls going out has been very, very high," said Master Sgt. Arthur Collins, of Clarksville, Tenn. "It's been so high that they've started posting guards outside the tent to make sure that soldiers don't stay on the telephones for more than 15 minutes, like their supposed to."

Waiting in line to call his wife, who is five months pregnant, Marine Sgt. Peter Babilonia of New York City said: "I'm prepared to spend all day waiting in line to give her a call to wish her happy Valentine's Day, pretty much because I don't know when I'll be able to call again."

At the base store, the entire stock of Valentine's Day cards had sold out. Soldiers showed up on Wednesday, only to be turned away.

"If they haven't bought a card yet, it's useless," said Pfc. Fritzel Duhaylunsod, 25, of Honolulu. She sent two cards home on Monday for her young son and her parents.

"This has been a little tough because I'm a single mother and I had to leave my son with my mother and father for this deployment, and now I just want to get home as soon as I can."