Since the war in Iraq started, local residents have been asking what they can do to help U.S. soldiers. Here are some ways.Keep in mind that sending mail or packages to "any service member" is discouraged because it snarls the postal system.

Food

Consider grocery gift certificates. Under the "Gift of Groceries" program, buy a commissary gift certificate through www.commissaries.com. The certificates can be donated directly to military families or through charitable organizations, but only authorized shoppers can spend them at the nearly 280 commissaries serving the U.S. armed services worldwide.

Another program is "Gifts From theHomefront." See www.aafes.com. Troops can redeem these gift certificates at their local exchange. Anyone may purchase these with a credit card or check. Military authorities have advised that the checks can be sent only to a specific service member at his or her APO or U.S. mailing address.

Giant Food Inc., the region's largest grocer, is offering customers the opportunity to donate to the Metropolitan Washington United Service Organizations (USO). Customers can give to the USO through the purchase of $1, $3 and $5 vouchers at checkout registers.

Food Lion grocery customers can add cash donations to their bill at checkout. Food Lion will add 10 percent of its own and buy $50 gift cards for families of service people. The Red Cross will distribute the cards.

Phone Cards

Harris Teeter grocery stores are selling $1 and $20 U.S. flags, proceeds from which will be used to buy prepaid AT&T phone cards allowing U.S. soldiers, especially in remote areas, to call home. "Operation Phone Home" cards cost $20 but can be worth as much as $50 of calling time in some countries.

Another calling card donation program, run by the Veterans of Foreign Wars Foundations, is "Operation Uplink." See www.operationuplink.org.

Personal Greetings

Consider sending a greeting or thank-you by e-mail through "Operation Dear Abby" at http://anyservicemember.navy.mil or www.OperationDearAbby.net. You can sign a virtual thank-you card at the Defend America Web site, www.defendamerica.mil/nmam.html.

Personal messages to soldiers can be sent via Stars and Stripes. A daily section of the newspaper called "Messages of Support" gives family and friends of deployed service members a chance to pass their greetings free of charge. E-mail those to messages@estripes.com. Limit of 50 words or less, printed on a first-come, first-run basis. Stars and Stripes reserves the right to edit messages.

Also consider individual pen pals:

* www.operationsoldiersupport.org

* http://groups.msn.com/HugsToKuwaitAdoptASoldier

* www.adoptaplatoon.org

* www.operationmilitarypride.org.

Military Charities

Donations can also be made to one of the military relief societies:

* Army Emergency Relief at www.aerhq.org/

* Navy/Marine Relief Society at www.nmcrs.org/

* Air Force Aid Society at www.afas.org/

* Coast Guard Mutual Assistance at www.cgmahq.org/

Care Packages

Care packages will be sent with donations to "Operation USO Care Package." See www.usometrodc.org/care.html. The Washington area USO has raised more than $8 million for its care package initiative, sending more than 30,000 packages to Kuwait.

The Silver Diner restaurant in Reston is seeking donations of items and money for care packages. For more information, call Dean Smith at 703-742-0801 or e-mail him at reston@silverdiner.com.

Chayote Smokehouse and Catering Co. in Herndon, along with JK Movers, is accepting items and money for care packages. For more information, call 703-467-1515.

Cash, Supplies, Other

The American Red Cross Armed Forces Emergency Services is the Red Cross's largest program for troops. See www.redcross.org/services/afes/.

Local veterans hospitals always need volunteers. See www.va.gov/vetsday/. To donate to families whose loved ones are being treated at military and veterans hospitals, contact the Fisher House at www.fisherhouse.org.

Other resources can be found at www.usafreedomcorps.gov and www.defendamerica.mil (click on "Support Our Troops").

Pets

To adopt a pet of a deployed soldier, contact the Military Pets Foster Program, www.netpets.org.

-- Compiled by Diane Mattingly

If you know of a business or organization that wants help with donations to the troops, send information to fxextra@washpost.com along with a daytime telephone number.