Navy finds a Web alternative for holiday greetings

Navy finds a Web alternative for holiday greetings

When anthrax threats led the Defense Department to cancel the Operation Dear Abby holiday letter-writing campaign to service members stationed overseas, the Navy cooked up an alternative program.

The Navy's LifeLines Services Network set up a Microsoft SQL Server 2000 database that lets service members send and receive electronic messages through its Web site, AnyServiceMember.Navy.mil.

The Defense Department signed off on the plan as the official alternative to the Operation Dear Abby and AnyServiceMember programs that each have run for more than a decade. The alternative allowed service members from any branch to send and receive electronic holiday messages in lieu of the bulk postal mail deliveries, said Randy Eltringham, director of the LifeLines network.

'This is so important for the morale of our troops during the holidays,' Eltringham, the wife of a Navy officer, said.

The effort really took off. By Nov. 30, 10,000 messages had been posted to the site'just one day after the official announcement of its opening. Eltringham attributed some of the response to the patriotism felt by Americans since the war on terrorism began.

'I think for the first time in a long time, we as Americans are really understanding what freedom, and defending that freedom, is all about,' she said.

Simplicity and security

The format works as the electronic equivalent of Operation Dear Abby. To receive a message, service members log on to the site and choose messages from their branch of service and home state. Those sending a message may include a return e-mail address if they choose.

The Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command gives technical support to the LifeLines network. John Maguire, an information architect, designed and built the system. The developers created the site using Microsoft Active Server Pages and Hypertext Markup Language. Security protocols are built in because the address still uses the .mil domain, Maguire said.

It took about a week to set the server up, Maguire said.

'It's a very simple design. We had a more complicated design when we first started in terms of the color and images on the page, but we realized that this was maybe too much,' Maguire said. 'We wanted it to be simple and easy.'

Operation Dear Abby was founded by the newspaper advice columnist and has delivered mail to service members overseas during the holiday season for more than 17 years. The AnyServiceMember mail program began during Operation Desert Storm in 1990 and continued to grow during operations in Bosnia in the mid-1990s.

Lifelines offers quality of life information and keeps service members in touch with people from home. The site customizes information to fit with user bandwidth and offers low-bandwidth versions for wireless and shipboard users and high-quality video for those with high-speed connections.

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