BAGHDAD — At a pre-Christmas "packing party" almost 8,000 miles away in Los Angeles last month, Dawn Sutherland's living room was strewn with piles of goodies such as black hair products and manicure sets, T-shirts and the latest issues of Essence and Ebony magazines.
They weren't Christmas gifts for family and friends. They were to go into care packages for "sister soldiers" in Iraq.
Moved by the unique challenges many black women say they face when deployed in war zones, Sutherland and her book club, a group of professional African American women called Sisterfriends, have "adopted" about 40 servicewomen.
"We wanted to reach out as black women to other black women in need," said Myraline Morris Whitaker, a member of Sisterfriends. "We thought we were looking at our younger sisters. We wanted to get them what they need to make them feel comfortable, and make them feel positive about themselves."
Morris Whitaker, a hotel consultant based in San Luis Obispo County, got the idea to help after a conversation with a former Marine who said one of her strongest memories of being deployed was the struggle her African American roommate faced in dealing with her hair.
So Morris Whitaker began surfing the military support website anysoldier.com, a kind of clearinghouse for care package wish lists.
"I was amazed at how many requests there were, especially for black hair-care products," Morris Whitaker said. "Almost everyone who identified herself as African American asked for hair-care products."
But the appeals on the website sparked more than concern about mane management.
"We want to give them nourishment for the soul, as well as for their hair," said Morris Whitaker, who, independent of her book group, has sent 25 boxes to African American military personnel in the last year.
A request sent last April by Sgt. 1st Class Tamara Williams, 39, of Detroit particularly caught Morris Whitaker's attention.
Williams, who is based at Camp Victory in Baghdad, asked for "magazines (People, OK, Essence) anything to keep you sane or laughing," and "DVDs (action, scary, comedy) again, anything to take your mind [off] our current plight momentarily."
Williams had just learned of the Defense Department's decision to extend the tours for all active-duty Army units in Iraq and Afghanistan from 12 to 15 months. "Needless to say, we have some very grumpy soldiers," Williams wrote on the website.
Morris Whitaker promptly sent many of the items on her list.
"I'm forever grateful," Williams said recently at Camp Victory, speaking about her experience in Iraq and the gratitude she feels toward people such as the book club members. "It's been a blessing."
Although there are many ways to donate goods to troops deployed to Iraq and other places, African American female soldiers said it was rare to find groups specifically for them.
There are almost 8,000 blacks among the 25,600 or so women deployed in Iraq, Afghanistan and other countries supporting the U.S.-declared "war on terror," according to statistics from the Defense Department.
Many of the experiences, challenges and dangers black women face are shared by all female soldiers.
Many have left children at home. In places such as the Middle East, they have to deal with a culture that largely views men as superior. And female soldiers sometimes feel they must work harder to prove themselves in the male-dominated military.
Some black female soldiers, however, believe that certain challenges are more acute for them, such as learning not to take offense at the grins, awkward stares and sometimes overly enthusiastic attention from those Iraqis who have never had direct contact with a black person. They also must deal with some fellow service members' fixed notions about them.
And a factor not to be underestimated is the lack of products specifically designed for African American hair and skin.
"My hairdresser back home would make a killing if she came out here," joked Staff Sgt. Kathaleen Wright, 34, from Augusta, Ga., who is on her second 15-month tour in Iraq. A fuel transporter, currently assigned as a noncommissioned officer in charge at Camp Stryker in Baghdad, she wore her straightened hair in a short bob.
The commissaries at the military bases typically have a section of goods such as hair oils and straightening perms for black customers, but these products fly off the shelves as soon as they are stocked, soldiers said.
Making matters worse, they sometimes have trouble finding a hairdresser on base who knows about grooming black hair.
Sgt. 1st Class Kerensa Hardy, 33, a public affairs officer, wanted to make sure her hair would be manageable during deployment, so she cut her once-long tresses into a short-cropped style.
Hardy also shipped tubs of her favorite Maison brand hair-care products to Iraq before leaving her home in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Like many other "sister soldiers," she has learned to chemically straighten her own hair -- a procedure typically done at a salon every month to six weeks.