The Defense Department has a stern message for those considering playing Santa Claus this holiday season to troops abroad: If you don't know them, don't send it.
The agency is reminding the public that it does not accept unsolicited packages -- even holiday gifts -- to troops stationed in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.
"It's a security issue," said Lt. Col. Ellen Krenke, a spokeswoman for the Defense Department. "[It's] also to keep the mail lines free or open to keep volume down so that family members can send packages to their loved ones in time for the holidays."
The Pentagon has not allowed such packages, which are often addressed to "any service member," since shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. But this is the time of the year when schools, churches and other groups nevertheless organize collection drives to send items from presents to potato chips to the troops -- and the Pentagon is expecting another flood of holiday mail. The agency handled 8 million pounds of mail last December, about twice its usual monthly haul.
It is urging well-wishers to focus instead on the soldiers' families here at home.
"Think locally," Krenke said. "We need to remember the families they've left behind in the States who also may have needs -- maybe help around the house or getting the car fixed or just getting through the holidays."
The public can still send packages to individual soldiers as long as they are addressed specifically. People can also continue to give to recognized charitable organizations, such as the Red Cross and the USO, that distribute packages to military installations.
Krenke also urged the public not to attempt to circumvent the agency's rules by distributing lists of soldiers' names and addresses on Web sites, for example. That too, she said, presents a security risk. "We don't want just anyone sending just anything to any service member," Krenke said. "We want our soldiers to know who they're getting mail from."