When Gina Root and her friend Deborah Lien spent $75 on ingredients and spent days baking 150 pounds of cookies to send to the troops in the Persian Gulf, they expected to get a thank-you note from a grateful soldier.
Instead, they got angry. And they wanted some answers.
They received a thank-you note all right, but it came from a center for the homeless in San Diego, Calif.
"I was pretty P.O.'d," Mrs. Root said in a telephone interview from her home in Corvallis, Ore., this week. "I was really mad because of all the work we did. My reaction is if I wanted to feed the homeless, I would feed them in Corvallis. I don't need to pay postage to feed the homeless in California."
Beginning last fall, Mrs. Root and home cooks in Baltimore and across the country baked snacks to be sent to the Middle East through Operation Cookie, a bicoastal airlift of goodies in military aircraft on a space-available basis.
The airlift received cookie contributions from as far away as Alaska and Hawaii. All of America seemed to be baking; cookies arrived faster than they could be sent to the troops without spoiling. And Operation Cookie became a victim of its own success.
Neither East Coast nor West Coast coordinators will say how many of the cookies baked for the troops in the Middle East ended up feeding the poor and the homeless, but they admit that some of the shipments had to be donated to charity.
Stephen Butler, the West Coast coordinator, said the airlift from the San Diego area stopped about six weeks ago after several successful shipments.
"There was a great deal of problems getting the cookies out on a space-available basis because there was no space," Mr. Butler said. "We had a choice. Either throw away the cookies or see to it that they made it to a recognized, well-operated charity. It was a judgment call on my part. I am sure that the cookies were baked with a lot of love and sure that the people who made them didn't want them to spoil or be thrown away."
One of the main recipients of the cookie contributions was the St. Vincent de Paul/Joan Croc Center, a $16 million shelter in San Diego that houses 450 homeless people and provides 2,800 meals daily.
The Rev. Joe Carroll, president of the center, was aware of the cookie contributions to his agency and others in the city. He said charities, including his own, often share food or other donated items if there is a surplus. But usually, he said, the giver doesn't know because no thank-you note is sent.
The founder of Operation Cookie in Palm Bay, Fla., said she has proof that Mr. Butler did coordinate cookie shipments to Saudi Arabia.
"He had been doing such a terrific job of getting the cookies out, but people have got to realize that they were going out on a space-available basis, and it came to the point where there was no more room for the cookies," said the airlift's organizer, Sylvia Mease, the British wife of a retired Air Force master sergeant. "Rather than waste them, he donated the cookies to the homeless. I don't see anything wrong with that."
In fact, she said, she also donated cookies sent to her East Coast airlift if they had no return address and if she didn't know where they came from -- and if they contained chocolate chips or other ingredients likely to spoil.
Despite these giveaways, she said, the last airlift during the week of Dec. 10 contained 12,000 pounds. On Dec. 20, the mayor and city council of Palm Bay issued a proclamation thanking her for distribution of an estimated 20 tons of food, games, writing paper and other items to the Middle East since August.
Operation Cookie may have turned into Operation Headache for Mrs. Root in Corvallis, but she didn't give up her campaign to feed the troops.
With donations of flour, eggs, money and coffee tins spurred by publicity in her hometown, she and her friends baked more than 1,000 dozen cookies and had them shipped to Saudi Arabia with the help of the Whidbey Island Naval Air Station near Seattle.
"If Stephen Butler couldn't send the cookies, he didn't need to accept the shipment," Mrs. Root said. "I could have sent them out with the Navy. He should have let us know."
Still interested in sending cookies to the Middle East? Your best bet is to use the U.S. Postal Service.
Mail to Saudi Arabia goes at domestic rates; mail from Saudi Arabia is free. To reach a specific person, include his or her complete name, unit number and APO number. The package size limits are 70 pounds and 108 inches in length and width combined. Customs forms, available at the post office, must be attached.
Packages intended for random "equitable distribution" by the military should be addressed "Any Servicemember."
Those intended for Army, Air Force and Marine Corps troops should be addressed: Any Servicemember, Operation Desert Shield, APO New York, 09848-0006. Mail for unidentified Navy and Marine Corps personnel aboard ships should be addressed: Any Servicemember, Operation Desert Shield, FPO New York, 09866-0006.
Do not include items that are banned by Saudi customs: alcohol, pornography, sexual materials, weapons or explosives, pork and pork byproducts, Communist literature and non-Islamic religious items (a single Bible is acceptable). Do not send perishables. Send cookies that can withstand long storage periods and high temperatures.