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Group helps troops stay connected with phone cards

BUFORD - It all started because of a mistaken search-engine query.

Barbara Swenson's attempt to learn more about a medical ailment led her to a site about adopting soldiers.

While she could write letters and e-mails to offer her support, Swenson knew the one real connection her adopted soldier needed was with his family.

"There are soldiers out there raking up the phone bills," the Buford resident said. "But how can they not connect with their loved ones?"

So Swenson began sending phone cards.

Soon, she started getting requests from the entire unit, and then she adopted more soldiers, including sending cards to military personnel recovering from injuries at U.S. hospitals.

"It went from one soldier to five units," Swenson said while surrounded by her team of volunteers at Jittery Joe's coffeehouse in Buford. "The phone cards are essential. ... This is critical to their morale and well-being."

Swenson and the volunteers are planning a motorcycle ride and concert to raise money and get more phone cards Saturday at the Buford Sam's Club.

She hopes to make people aware of the charity, so shoppers can go inside and come out with either an international or domestic phone card to donate.

Volunteer Chip Oehring said the phone cards will become even more important to soldiers, since the military began limiting use of MySpace and other Internet services.

Oehring wasn't able to serve in the armed forces because of asthma.

"The best thing I can do to support the troops is support the families," he said.

Janis Kriel and her son, Jason, are also giving what they can to support the troops. As owners of Jittery Joe's, they have offered up their business as a meeting place, and they are working on a special coffee blend to ship overseas and to sell, with proceeds going to help soldiers.

"This has nothing to do with political beliefs," Janis Kriel said, adding that there were times when her brother was serving in Korea and Vietnam when phone calls were too infrequent. "We're doing this for the kids. I have two sons and I can't imagine them being there."

Swenson, a retired banker known as Bebop because she used to dance to her father's jazz records, wears a Purple Heart emblem on her lapel to honor her father and decorates her clothing and car with the American flag.

"My dad was very proud, very patriotic. ... Memorial Day was not a day for a party. It was a day to go to the cemetery and recognize the loss," she said. "I wanted to reignite the American people. Our soldiers need to see this (support).

"After all these years, I never realized this would be my destiny."