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For servicemembers overseas, a call home during the holidays is heartwarming, but expensive. This year, it need not be such a pain in the pocketbook.

The Veterans of Foreign Wars, through its Operation Uplink, is providing 200,000 free prepaid calling cards to servicemembers based or deployed overseas.

Operation Uplink, launched in 1996, has distributed more than two million phone cards. The VFW program is made possible by donations from members and supporters, as well as corporations and organizations.

This year, Operation Uplink received a massive donation of 60-minute phone cards from Wal-Mart Good.Works. — the largest single gift to the program, according to the Operation Uplink Web site.

The U.S. Navy’s Morale, Welfare and Recreation department is spearheading the Navy-wide distribution of the cards, according to Brian Winters, head of MWR’s Special Projects and Programs Section.

“The cards will be mailed to the attention of the command master chief or senior enlisted advisor at each command to help ensure that no sailor will be overlooked,” Winters said in an e-mail response to Stars and Stripes questions.

“Our target is to put the cards in the hands of sailors during the holiday period,” he said.

The first package of cards was scheduled to reach the Navy’s Consolidated Mail Facility on Dec. 19. “Once there, the phone cards will reach commands worldwide as fast as the postal system permits,” Winters added.

In a separate initiative, Navy MWR, through a commercial sponsorship agreement with AT&T, is providing 15-minute prepaid “Homeland” calling cards to sailors in the continental United States. In addition, the Navy Exchange Service Command, in conjunction with AT&T, is providing $20 calling cards to servicemembers at sea on Navy ships equipped with AT&T Ocean Service phones.

Winters said the free cards would indirectly improve morale and “have a positive impact on their ability to do their mission.”

“Providing sailors with the phone cards so they can call loved ones is a way we can impact readiness, and say ‘thank you’ for serving our country. Bottom line is, ‘mission first, sailors always,’” he added.

The cards are not just for sailors, though.

The Marine Corps received 65,000, and others were delivered to the Air Force and Army, though Winters did know how many went to each branch.

In the Navy, “each of these … cards will be enclosed in a Hallmark holiday greeting card, which will be presented in an envelope to each receiving servicemember,” Winters said. “The Marine Corps Community Services is responsible for distributing their cards.”

At Misawa Air Base in northern Japan, Capt. Miki Gilloon, 35th Fighter Wing spokeswoman, said about 5,200 phone cards are being distributed to active-duty and TDY troops assigned to Air Force, Navy, Army, Marine and associate units through first sergeants and service representatives.

Winters said the effort even touched the lives of servicemembers in typhoon-ravaged Guam.

“We were able to quickly package and forward more than 3,500 … to the sailors stationed in Guam. These cards will allow sailors and their families stationed there to communicate directly with loved ones in the United States,” he said.

With similar cards priced at $10 in retail settings, Winters said the donation represents a $2.65 million gift to the Navy alone. He said other corporate partners of VFW’s Operation Uplink include AT&T, Hallmark and FedEx.

“The goal here is for those sailors serving abroad to have the opportunity to be close to family and friends, albeit telephonically, during the holidays,” he added.

The VFW helps veterans and their families obtain entitlements and other services. In addition, the organization works for the well being of those serving on active duty in the National Guard and the Reserve. Founded in 1899, the VFW and its Ladies Auxiliary has 2.6 million members.

— For more information about Operation Uplink, please visit http://www.operationuplink.org.


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