WASHINGTON -- When it comes to buying prepaid phone cards to call home from Iraq or Afghanistan, not all cards are alike.
Friends and loved ones who purchase prepaid cards at supermarkets, gas stations or warehouse stores may think they're sending deployed troops a big stockpile of calling minutes. But that's often not the case.
Many prepaid cards that offer low per-minute calling charges are actually geared for stateside use, according to Judd Anstey, public affairs specialist for the Army and Air Force Exchange Service. When used overseas to call home, these-type prepaid cards often buy just a fraction of their advertised calling minutes.
In contrast, the Military Exchange Global Prepaid 550- and 200-unit phone cards, part of the "Help Our Troops Call Home" program, offer lower per-minute rates than other prepaid cards, including AT&T prepaid cards sold by other retailers, Anstey said. "It's the best value out there," he noted.
In fact, the program remains a big hit that's saving troops and their loved ones big dollars. And this is a year after the Defense Department made the unprecedented move of allowing military exchanges to sell prepaid phone cards to anyone wishing to buy them for deployed troops.
Last April, DoD introduced the since-named "Help Our Troops Call Home" program, which enables even people not otherwise entitled to exchange privileges to buy Military Exchange Global Prepaid Calling Cards for deployed troops.
A year later, the program is within striking distance of the $2 million mark -- enough to buy and distribute more than 78,000 prepaid cards, according to Anstey.
Cards purchased through the program can be sent to individual servicemembers or to "any servicemember" through the American Red Cross, United Service Organizations, Air Force Aid Society or Fisher House Foundation. During the past year alone, these partners have distributed almost 27,000 prepaid phone cards through the program, Anstey said. More than half of those cards were donated through the American Red Cross.
If usage is any gauge of the cards' popularity, they're a big hit. During February alone, troops generated nearly 20 million minutes of calls using the cards at AAFES phone centers in the Middle East, Anstey said.
The Help Our Troops Call Home program enables the public to tap into an exclusive DoD contract with AT&T that gives troops the lowest per-minute fees for calls placed from AT&T phone centers, Anstey said.
If the card is purchased in the United States, the per-minute fees are 21 cents a minute from Iraq, Afghanistan or Kuwait. If the deployed servicemember buys the card overseas, the rates are even lower -- 19 cents a minute from Iraq, Afghanistan or Kuwait, Anstey said.
These rates are lower than they were a year ago, Anstey said, and compare to as much as 40 cents per minute charged by some phone-card companies after converting calling units to actual calling minutes.
In addition to low rates, the military prepaid cards don't expire and aren't subject to additional charges or connection fees, he said.
Army Lt. Col. Debra Pressley, AAFES' chief of corporate communications, called the public outpouring through the Help Our Troops Call Home program "inspiring."
"The decision to allow the exchange services to work directly with the American public has provided a textbook study in how to safely and effectively support our troops," she said.
One participating organization, the USO, has sent almost 1,700 prepaid cards through the program, according to Donna St. John, spokeswoman for the USO World Headquarters, in Washington. That's in addition to the USO's own "Operation Phone Home" program, which had sent almost 300,000 100-minute global calling cards to deployed troops as of April 1, St. John said. AT&T has donated more than $6 million in prepaid cards to the USO program.
The USO also distributes prepaid phone cards to wounded troops recuperating at military hospitals stateside and overseas and has included "several hundred thousand" phone cards in Operation USO Care Package boxes sent to deployed troops, St. John said.
More information about the Military Exchange Global Prepaid Calling Card is available on the Army and Air Force Exchange Service, the Navy Exchange and the Marine Corps Exchange Web sites, or by calling (800) 527-2345.