To bolster troops: ribbons, rallies, and pink slippers

From her ground-floor apartment in suburban Orlando, Fla., Ellen Harpin commands a nationwide army of knitters. Their mission: Getting hats, slippers, and headbands to US troops.

Her project, which began in the wake of Sept. 11 when a sailor asked Ms. Harpin to knit her a pair of slippers, has snowballed into a daily deluge of requests and an Internet-connected corps, mostly women, clicking their needles to keep up. To date, Harpin has forwarded 38,548 items to the troops, costing some $30,000 in postage alone.

Her effort is one symbol of the nation's traditional rallying around its troops in wartime. Yet it's also about something more: Seven days into the war, some of the most vocal opinions are coming from those who disagree with it. Harpin's knitting project - and the myriad of other support-the-troops efforts that have sprung up in recent weeks - are a sign that growing numbers are working hard to counter that dissent, and to make sure troops don't feel abandoned or criticized amid all the debate.

"I don't want anybody treated like our Vietnam kids were," says Harpin, a mother of seven who tries to limit the amount of time she spends on the project to "84 hours a week."

Others are showing support through rallies, ribbons, or care packages.

From Sioux Falls, S.D., to Millington, Tenn., rallies to boost the troops are popping up fast, often in reaction to the many antiwar rallies across the country. In St. Paul, Minn., on Saturday, some 17,000 people attended a "Rally for America" outside the Capitol. Not far away, about 4,500 protesters took part in an antiwar march. The two groups never crossed paths.

Return of the yellow ribbon

Yellow ribbons are also making a comeback, as people across the country tack the traditional sign of troop support onto everything from fence posts to mail boxes to coat lapels.

And a myriad of websites, including www.anyservicemember.org, have sprung up to enable family, friends, and strangers to write messages of support to troops.

Other efforts focus on the families left behind. In Bellingham, Mass., for instance, the American Legion is passing out 8- by-14-inch Blue Star Banners for families of troops overseas to put in their windows - signaling, in part, a need for extra support while their family member is deployed.

Meanwhile, Ellen Harpin isn't the only one shipping care packages. In Florida, two homegrown "Operation Shoebox" groups - one in Tampa, one in Belleview - forward boxes full of everything from beef jerky to lip balm. In San Jose, Calif., Operation Yellow Ribbon is gearing up again after sending some 11.5 million tons of care packages to troops during the first Gulf War. In nearby Santa Clara, Calif., one mother has reportedly started "Operation Condiment" to help spice up the military's bland rations.

And it wouldn't be America if there weren't commercial options. One website offers a "Code Red" care package - complete with microwave popcorn, patriotic jelly beans, and ramen noodles - for $32.

All these efforts come as the debate over war continues, more pronounced than during the first Gulf War. In a recent CBS-New York Times poll, 93 percent of Republicans approved of President Bush's handling of Iraq, while just 50 percent of Democrats did. At an equivalent point in the first Gulf War, 94 percent of Republicans and 81 percent of Democrats backed the war.

But Harpin is as determined as ever to make the troops feel supported. Her operation is called The Ships Project (www.wtv-zone.com/kjsb/ bataan.html) because it started out sending knitted items to sailors. Now it sends them to all kinds of troops. And just since the war started, she's added 100 new volunteer coordinators, bringing her nationwide total to 780.

These field commanders scour their hometowns for individuals and groups willing to knit. All the items are then sent to Harpin in Goldenrod., Fla., usually with money to cover mailing costs included.

Sometimes the post office sends a special truck to Harpin's apartment. The 2,000 or so packages that arrive each week stack up in her living room so fast she has considered buying a new house for more space. She inspects them all, repackages them, and ships them overseas.

No marshmallows, and hold the ruffles

But sending care packages is complicated in the post-9/11 world. "During Desert Storm we'd send cookies addressed to 'Any Service Member' and know they'd get to somebody," says Harpin, a red-headed former investigative reporter. Now they'd be seen as a security risk "and probably blown up." The military has banned use of generic addresses.

There are also restrictions on what can be sent: No marshmallows, for instance, because they're made from pork products, which are taboo in some Muslim countries.

And sometimes her knitters miss the mark, like the time Harpin got a three-foot long pair of pink slippers with purple ruffles. (She now encourages knitters not to use pink or other "girlie" colors.) After she sent word that the 82nd Airborne wanted camouflaged hats, she got florescent-orange ones - used by hunters, but not soldiers. Still, she says, "these volunteers are amazing."

One of her more productive teams is a group of 20 or so women at the senior citizens center in Saugus, Mass. Sitting at a round table on a recent weekday, some of them talk about the project.

"It keeps us out of mischief," says Virginia Mogavero, a retired newspaper-ad saleswoman.

"It keeps me out of the refrigerator," adds Sylvia Mishel, a retired welder.

But there's clearly a more serious side. Janet Blanchard lived near London in World War II - and remembers the horrors of the Nazi blitzkrieg. "When I see these boys overseas," she says, working her needles with expert speed, "I just remember how terrible war is, how terrible it really is."

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