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The letters came back marked “Program Over” and Marsha Gray understood right away.

“I figured the anthrax was the reason,” she said in a telephone interview Tuesday.

Gray, 53, had been a habitual writer of letters to Any Service Member, a mail campaign that grew out off the Gulf War and really cranked up during peacekeeping operations in Bosnia and Herzegovina in the mid-1990s.

Since she started in 1999, she has written thousands of letters, often putting 15 to 20 letters in the mail each day.

They have found their way to troops in the Balkans and the Middle East, to sailors at sea and to other corners of the globe where servicemembers are stationed.

“I have friends all over the world,” Gray said.

But all of that ended in October 2001 when military postal officials ended the program after the discovery of anthrax in letters at various places in America. The military now says only mail addressed to specific recipients will be processed.

“I quit sending them because they were all coming back,” said Gray, who lives in Tupelo, Miss. “It’s a very, very big disappointment.”

Gray’s speech is slurred because of three strokes she has suffered since she began writing the letters. But that handicap did not deter her from brightening the lives of servicemembers far from home and family.

Her letters are chatty, almost as if meant for a close friend or family member. In them she mentions her family life, including the marriage of her adopted daughter. She tells her readers about her strokes and her recovery.

She includes magazine clippings of stories, jokes and puzzles. She said her husband, Gary, once complained to her that she cut stories from the newspaper before he had a chance to read it.

In return for her efforts, Gray said she has made many friends among those military members who write back. She receives telephone calls, letters and e-mails.

She’s been invited to weddings and consulted on career decisions by her correspondents, whom she refers to as “my guys.”

“Once I get them, they’re my family,” she said.

Once, when regular correspondence from a sailor at sea stopped, Gray wrote to the Department of the Navy, Vice President Al Gore and President Clinton, among others, asking what had happened.

The Navy finally contacted Gray and said the sailor had been transferred and would soon renew the correspondence.

Gray still writes letters and e-mails to those who have become her friends. But she misses making new friends and lightening the load of men and women she has never met.

She asked Stars and Stripes to publish her e-mail address along with an invitation to servicemembers to write to her. Contact her at: gg@futuresouth.com.

Private organizations have taken up the message-writing campaign by posting words of encouragement on the Internet. One such group is found at: www.anyservicemember.org.

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