For all the billions of dollars being spent on the war in Iraq, 14-year-old Brittany Bergquist is surprised that the U.S. military doesn't do what she and her little brother are doing: helping soldiers phone home free.
"I'm kind of happy that they didn't supply them," she said, "because we've always wanted to do something for the soldiers."
With $14 from their piggy banks, she and 12-year-old brother Robbie started Cell Phones for Soldiers. In less than nine months, the organization has provided $250,000 worth of prepaid calling cards to American soldiers in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Kuwait.
They raise money by collecting old cellular phones and selling them to companies that refurbish them for resale.
It all started in April, when the family heard about a Massachusetts soldier who ran up $7,600 in cell phone charges calling home from Iraq. T-Mobile forgave much of the bill. But Brittany and Robbie figured there must be other soldiers — including a cousin of theirs — who are stationed in Iraq and want to call home more often but cannot afford it.
The Bergquist kids pooled their money and got friends to kick in $7 more. They opened a bank account at South Shore Savings Bank, which was so impressed it contributed $500. Yard sales followed, along with newspaper articles and TV interviews. Hundreds of schools and organizations, from Hawaii to Georgia, have started local chapters and become drop-off centers for used cell phones.
"It's hard doing everything," said Brittany, an eighth-grader from the Boston suburb of Norwell. "But it doesn't matter to us. We think about how hard the soldiers work every day and they don't have a choice to stop."
Last week, the IRS granted Cell Phones for Soldiers nonprofit status, meaning contributions to the cause are tax-deductible.
The USO, the private organization that entertains U.S. troops overseas, runs a similar program, called Operation Phone Home. A $10 donation will buy a serviceman or servicewoman a 100-minute global calling card.
Army Lt. Col. Joe Yoswa, a Pentagon spokesman, said soldiers can use military-run phone banks and Internet cafes, but they have to pay the costs out of their own pockets. And using a cell phone in Iraq can cost a soldier up to $3 a minute in roaming charges, according to Bob Bergquist, the Bergquist youngsters' science-teacher father.
The Bergquists have traveled to Minnesota, Texas, Louisiana and New York to hand out calling cards to soldiers about to be leave for the war zone.
The Bergquists have gotten appreciative e-mails from soldiers and their families. One wrote: "Hearing from family members is what keeps a soldier going and gives them the drive to get the job done and get home."
A woman e-mailed in September from Fort Stewart, Ga.: "My husband is going to Iraq in January for a year. He has been to Bosnia and Korea. So, we really understand the need for phone calls to take place. I have two beautiful girls (who) love to speak to their dad."
Brittany and her brother have made sacrifices. She skipped a statewide cheerleading competition, and Robbie has missed big soccer and hockey games. But Brittany said that helping families stay connected is the reward.
"That's a big motivation, for families to know where their sons and daughters are at all times," she said.