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ARLINGTON, Va. — There appears to be such a thing as a free lunch for deployed troops and their families.

Now it’s a matter of feeding them, so to speak.

Some self-professed computer geeks have joined to give deployed troops access to invitations for Google’s free e-mail service, Gmail, which offers an unprecedented one gigabyte of storage that will let them share photographs and videos across the Internet.

Gmail is currently available to the public only through the much-coveted invitations, which let users test it out as Google experiments with the software. Demand for the invitations is so high that they are being auctioned on eBay, and Internet sites have popped up where people barter deeds — mostly good deeds — in exchange for an invitation.

Now, invitations for the free e-mail accounts are available for troops overseas, particularly those serving in combat zones, said Anne Mitchell, president and CEO of the California-based consulting firm Institute for Spam and Internet Public Policy.

To register, troops need to log on to www.Gmail4troops.com and select “request an invite.”

“We’ve heard from some of the troops who said one picture from their wife, and it wiped out their entire storage space, or a new photo would delete an older one. [Gmail] has a gig of storage, and troops can see clips of home movies, clips of their babies taking their first steps, of their children’s graduations,” Mitchell said.

While the accounts are available to all servicemembers, “we are giving priority to those in the Iraq and Afghanistan and we ask them to let us know if they are enlisted, warrant officer, or officer, what unit they’re in and where they are stationed,” she said.

“We ask if they are enlisted or not because, though have been overwhelmed with donations, if the time comes when we have more requests than donations, we want to start triaging so that the enlisted troops on the ground, those who really stretch the dollar and feel the pinch, so it gets in their hands first.”

Gmail is still in the beta phase and while Google plans to make it public, those plans are not immediate, a Google representative said. A criticism of the service is that its users will be targeted with advertisements based on profiles and e-mail usage and the accounts can become a repository of personal information, to include information about troop locations.

Gmail4troops.com started when Drew Olanoff, who works for an Internet consulting firm in Pennsylvania and is regular reader of actor Wil Wheaton’s blogsite, e-mailed the actor to trade a coveted invitation for Wheaton’s commitment to solicit others to donate invites for troops deployed to Afghanistan, Iraq and Kuwait.

Wheaton, best known for playing Ensign Wesley Crusher in the TV series “Star Trek: The Next Generation” from 1987 to 1990, agreed, and he was inundated with responses, Mitchell said. Two days later, the two started Gmail4Troops.com and brought in Mitchell to pair donated invitations with troops’ requests.

But the anticipated flood of requests didn’t come, she said.

“We have several thousand accounts donated, and while we’ve already given out several hundred, we have had difficulty getting the word out to troops,” Mitchell said.

Olanoff said he got the idea from a soldier serving in Afghanistan, who pleaded for an invitation after “thumping” a swap site where people promised to trade goods and services. He thought, heck, troops already were serving their good deeds, and he pitched in to help, he said.

EBay, the online auction site, started selling the in-demand invitations a few months ago, when prices peaked at roughly $60, an eBay representative said. As the number of Gmail account listings on eBay has increased over the past few months — it’s now in the 800s — the listing prices have dropped and now range from 99 cents to $20 for multiple invitations.


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