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Give Troops a Gift They Truly Need: Safe Return Home

By Courtland Milloy
Monday, December 6, 2004; Page B01

During a recent trip to a shopping mall, I saw dozens of trucks and cars adorned with magnetic U.S. flags and yellow ribbons that read "Support Our Troops." The symbols were fastened to some of the biggest gas guzzlers ever to roll off an assembly line, including a Hummer, which our troops are giving life and limb for us to operate.

God bless 'em. Freedom to shop till we drop, then drive off with carloads of junk, does come with costs. And for all that the troops do to make that possible, we thank them with a $1.50 purchase of a ribbon that cost less than a penny to make in Taiwan.

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Visit the Web sites of some private, nonprofit organizations that support the troops in Iraq, and you'll have to wonder whether we've deployed soldiers -- or orphans.

"You may want to donate some of the following items," reads a request from one adopt-a-soldier site. Items listed include head lamps ("like miners used"), hand sanitizers, bug repellent, boxer shorts, T-shirts, vitamins, protein-drink mixes, sunscreen, playing cards, gum . . . lots of gum.

The list of needs goes on and on.

Another group, at AdoptaPlatoon.org, was set up "by volunteer mothers to ensure that deployed United States Service members . . . are not forgotten by providing needed mail support and to promote patriotism in our schools and communities."

Sort of makes you wonder what kind of war we are fighting -- and for what -- if special efforts are needed just to keep us from forgetting it.

American Legion Auxiliary Unit 270 of McLean has a project called No Soldier Left in Need, a play on the Bush administration's education initiative, No Child Left Behind. Let's hope that the soldiers fare better than the children have so far.

"Every couple of days, a planeload of wounded or injured military personnel arrives at Walter Reed Army Medical Center with little, if any, personal possessions," the Web site declares.

The unit provides wounded soldiers with clothing and is requesting donations of winter sweat suits, hooded sweat shirts, flannel lounge pants, long-sleeve shirts, portable radios, CD players and weight-lifting gloves.

What would we do without the American Legion? Let the wounded soldiers go naked?

Operation AC is a nonprofit company out of Delaware that began sending donated air conditioners to the troops in Iraq but switched recently to heaters. "Rested Soldiers are more alert and able to perform their duty SAFELY!" the Web site states.

You'd think the generals would have known that.

There is Operation Hero Miles, which asks citizens to donate frequent-flier miles so U.S. troops can attend the funerals of family members and then fly back to risk death themselves. Through Help Our Troops Call Home, you can purchase telephone calling cards for service members abroad. "It is truly an effort by the Office of the Secretary of Defense to reach out and to make sure that we keep our troops connected to home," Army Maj. Gen. Kathryn Frost said in a news release.

Before applauding, however, the average citizen would do well to demand accountability from those who ordered up this war without end. Why, after so many billions in taxpayer dollars have been spent in Iraq alone, are taxpayers still being asked to donate so much more just to keep the troops properly fed, clothed, sheltered -- and even armored?

Relatives of soldiers in the Pennsylvania National Guard have had to purchase body armor for their loved ones to keep them from going into battle with flimsy Vietnam-era flak jackets. The wife of a soldier in the Minnesota National Guard reportedly spent $200 apiece on radios that turned out to be more reliable, if also less secure, than those issued by the Army.

As the mother of one soldier put it in an interview with one newspaper, "If we're one of the richest nations in the world, our soldiers shouldn't be sent out looking like the Beverly Hillbillies."

Against that backdrop -- which includes more than 1,200 U.S. troops killed and more than 8,400 in Iraq so far -- buying magnetic ribbons for car bumpers and sending candy canes to the troops for Christmas just won't cut it. By all means, keep donating those frequent-flier miles. But if we really want to support the troops, make their airline tickets one way and bring 'em all home -- alive.

E-mail: milloyc@washpost.com

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