From cheese grits to flea collars, a movement to help US troops

After her cousin was deployed to Iraq, Nicole Bargallo wanted to support the war effort. Yet working full time at a New York law firm, she was at a loss for how and when to help. So when her firm, Greenberg Traurig, decided to send care packages to soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, she eagerly lent a hand.

"I collected money from people throughout the office," she recalls, standing amid boxes packed with energy bars, disposable cameras, children's drawings, and flea collars that soldiers wear on their ankles to ward off sand flies.

"The troops always need our support, no matter what the feelings about the war may be back at home," she says.

Ms. Bargallo is part of a national movement by companies and citizens supporting the war effort in any way they can - from prepaid calling cards given by junior high schoolers in Massachusetts to large corporate donations.

Even while the public's ambivalence about the war has steadily grown, the will to help troops has, if anything, steadily risen. Fearful that troops will suffer the same sense of isolation as those who served in Vietnam, and eager to separate the troops' plight from a bitter debate at home about the war, Americans are pitching in. And while victory gardens may be few and far between, while no one is rationing butter or gas, gestures of support are frequent and far-flung.

• In Wisconsin, Cub Scouts collected videotapes, computer games, batteries, and plenty of candy to send to the troops - and tried their best to imagine life in a tent with sand blowing outside.

• In Maryland, Andrews Air Force Base has received hundreds of boxes of donations - toiletries, food, and robes for wounded soldiers who return home with nothing but what they wear on the plane.

• And in Virginia, where Wal-Mart donated money, then hosted a fundraiser, employees shopped for everything from talcum powder to cheese grits.

Often, as with the Virginia effort, individual gestures are bolstered by corporate donations - as with the recent gift of more than $150,000 from Countrywide Financial Corporation to supply care packages.

"Several of us here have family or close friends who are serving in Iraq and we wanted to find a way to reach out to them," says Richard Rosenbaum, managing shareholder with Greenberg Traurig, who helped organize donations in New York and Miami. "What we are doing is not so much about the war itself, not so much about political debates. We are not supporting anything other than people who serve."

While it's hard to measure the support in any definitive way, experts say it's a different kind of gratitude this time around.

"This notion of supporting the troops is not a new one, but it is drastically different compared to the past," said Charles Moskos, a sociologist at Northwestern University. He cites the troops' improved ability to communicate with families and friends and the fact that people at home "aren't forsaking things to support the war, as they did during the first two world wars. Can you imagine what the public would do if we had to ration gasoline as part of the war effort? I call this brand of military support 'patriotism lite.' "

But those efforts, however "lite," have dramatically changed conditions for troops. William White, president of the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum in New York City, started the Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund, a charity that gives unrestricted grants to families that have suffered the loss of a loved one in Iraq. In the past six months, he says, the fund has raised $18 million. Avon and Anheuser-Busch donated $1 million each to the Fallen Heroes Fund, and the people of Kuwait sent a $3.5 million check.

Still, such moves aren't always purely altruistic: There's a public-relations element, too. "it greatly benefits [the company] to show support for all the armed forces," says David Segal, a military sociologist and adviser at the University of Maryland.

For individuals, though, the motives are often simpler. In the days following Sept. 11, Steve Albin started the nation's first pet-sitting nonprofit to "adopt" troops' pets during deployment. It's been endorsed by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld as the "sole military pets provider," and Mr. Albin says the South Carolina-based service has spread through all 50 states, Europe, and Asia. In the all-volunteer Military Pets Foster Project, he says, people "have found a niche and a low-key, comfortable way they can show their support."

Along with goods and services, discounts abound. Companies such as Six Flags Great Adventure and Disney World have offered reduced prices to military families. On the Fourth of July, for instance, Six Flags Over Georgia welcomed troops, along with up to four family members, for free - and threw in rocket and Humvee demonstrations and performances by the Marine Corps Band.

Yet Six Flags, like so many contributors, shies away from politics. "This is certainly more about giving back to the community members ... and not about making any type of political statement," says spokeswoman Debbie Nauser.

Mr. White, too, disavows political motives for his Fallen Heroes fund. "We want to explain ... about the sacrifices soldiers of the past and present made," he says.

The hope, for many, is that US troops - despite the nation's ambivalence about the war - will feel valued in a way that many didn't in conflicts like Vietnam.

Ever since those days, says Professor Segal, "Military personnel ... have the gnawing fear of being rejected by people back home. Anything done that boosts the idea of support greatly improves the morale of the military."

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