This year's "perfect" Christmas gift may be a simple nickel-plated copper bracelet whose $9.95 price tag buys a U.S. military man or woman a three-minute telephone message to the folks back home. Even Barbara Bush is wearing one and buying them for other family members.
Inscribed "Operation Desert Shield -- A Call to Freedom," the bracelets are similar to those worn in remembrance of POW/MIAs in Vietnam in 1970 and of Americans held hostage in Iran in 1980. They are being produced by Barbara and Fred Wyatt of Vienna, Va., who founded the nonprofit Voices for Freedom and also produced similar bracelets to remember the American hostages held in Iran a decade ago.
Sales of the Desert Shield bracelets soared dramatically after "CBS This Morning" showed Mrs. Bush wearing her bracelet two weeks ago in Saudi Arabia.
Since then, according to Barbara Wyatt, more than 5,000 have been ordered by callers, double the number sold until then since Barbara Wyatt and her husband, a retired Navy captain, started offering them in October as a show of support for U.S. military men and women sent to the Gulf.
Using proceeds from the bracelet sales, the Wyatts have set up a message center through a Vienna phonesystem provided by both AT&T and MCI. The way it works is that when military personnel can't complete their calls home, they may call the center to leave messages along with delivery instructions. Once delivery is made, the individuals called may leave a reply to be retrieved later by the military person.
According to Barbara Wyatt, both President Bush and Defense Secretary Richard Cheney have Desert Shield bracelets. Wyatt, who has two nephews in Saudi Arabia with another family member soon to go, says she gave Cheney his bracelet and that Bush's was a gift from Rep. Bob Dornan (R-Calif.). Dornan, a friend of the Wyatts, is credited with originating the Vietnam POW/MIA bracelets when he was a TV talk show host in Los Angeles.
Wyatt says she sent a bracelet to Barbara Bush by way of Dorothy Bush LeBlond in November. Wyatt had gotten to know the Bushes' only daughter when both worked on this year's Victory Awards ceremony of the National Rehabilitation Hospital, where LeBlond is employed.
Mrs. Bush, with a keen sense of timing, showed off the bracelet to reporters traveling with her and the president a few days before they flew to Saudi Arabia. She said then that in addition to the one Doro gave her, she also ordered two others (for her son Marvin and his wife, Margaret).
"I think it's a nice reminder. It snags on everything I wear. It cuts into my arm at night. It reminds me," she told reporters. "I think it's important."
Todd Wyatt, the Wyatts' son, said yesterday that of the $9.95 price tag, $2.77 is what the bracelet costs Voices for Freedom, about $3.70 pays for the message center, another 70 cents is for postage and packaging of the bracelets, and what's left over is paying off the $30,000 note his parents incurred to start the project.
"So far, about 5 to 8 percent of the checks we've received have bounced. Credit card companies tell us to expect a 30 percent rate. We're just trying to survive over the interim period," he said.
Bracelets may be ordered by calling 1-800-284-4USA or writing to Voices for Freedom, Box 77037, Washington, D.C. 20013. Names of individuals, military units or ships may be inscribed for an additional $1 each on orders of five or more bracelets.