Mail to the troops
Simple errors delay military mail
By Spc. Blanka Stratford
June 24, 2004
FORT McPHERSON, Ga. (Army News Service June 24, 2004) -- Something as simple as adding the name of the destination country to an address can delay the delivery of mail to service members overseas.
It is a problem that the military postal system encounters daily, said Capt. Faye Slater, Third Army and Coalition Forces Land Component Command chief of theater postal operations.
To alleviate this situation, Slater said help is needed from the family and friends of deployed service members. Senders stateside are actually slowing the delivery of the mail by not properly addressing letters and packages. The sender needs to know the name of the country and the name of the base camp where a service member is stationed are incompatible with regulated military addresses.
"The U.S. Postal Service system has automated sorting machines that read the address and determine whether a letter or package goes through military postal channels, regular USPS or international postal channels," Slater said.
By writing Kuwait or Iraq on a letter or package it is routed through civilian mail channels rather then military ones. When that happens, the mail can be delayed significantly. This is attributable to the sorting machineís inability to discern whether or not the letter is intended to reach an Army or Fleet Post Office address.
A recent case of this common mistake occurred when Soldiersí mail was found in the post office in downtown Baghdad rather then being sent to where the Soldiers were deployed.
"They brought us 21 letter trays filled with mail dated between December and February," said Lt. Col. Edward Passineau, commander of the joint military mail terminal at Baghdad International Airport. "Based on the attached (tracking) tags, this mail never went through the military mail channels, but was sent directly from John F. Kennedy Airport and passed through either Kuwait or Jordan."
Additionally, there have been a number of reported cases of internationally channeled military mail being opened, searched through and/or tampered with -- a matter that could potentially be identified as a danger to both individual and unit security, said Slater.
Slater said it is important for loved ones who remain at home to understand the step-by-step procedures that shape the entire military mailing system and current updates on any and all developments made to the military postal service. Knowing the latest rules can help decrease the time needed to process the mail.
"I really believe there is a lack of information and understanding of the military postal system," she said.
Slater hopes to develop awareness by presenting the general public with an idea of the measures and steps taken between the time a letter or parcel initially leaves a senderís hands and the time it is finally picked up by a recipient.
Particularly in a war zone, there may be instances when several critical measures must be taken into consideration.
"For example, the delivery may possibly be heading for a remote site that is not located near a main logistics hub, and it is not easily accessible," said Slater. "If thatís the case, other issues may emerge, such as organizing a convoy and sustaining certain security procedures, and those issues may delay the anticipated time of the parcelís arrival."
Force protection on mail convoys is an ever-present issue, and conditions causing delays change daily, she said.
Prior to a letter or package even reaching such proximity to its final destination, it must undergo a series of transfers, starting from the mailbox or post office where it is first dropped off.
"From the local town post office, the mail is transferred to the stateís general mail facility, in which the mail is consequently processed at one of USPSí international gateways," Slater said.
The facilities of the USPS not only handle international mail but also all of the international mail of the armed services.
"A small military contingent operates with USPS at these gateways to assist USPS in routing mail to overseas points," she said. "They are called Joint Military Postal Activities. JMPAs work to assure that USPS arranges, assembles and consolidates the letters and parcels to the correct locations, then dispatches correctly on commercial airlines. Both military personnel and USPS civilian employees work hard to get the mail to its proper destinations."
At this point, the mail is loaded onto the aircraft for delivery to the Southwest Asia area of operations. Those letters are sent on connecting flights that average less than 29 hours from takeoff to delivery at the first offload point in the Middle East.
"The U.S. Postal Service, reimbursed by the Department of Defense, contracted Kalitta Airlines to provide air delivery service to and from Southwest Asia," said Slater. "Currently, Kalitta does not fly into Baghdad, because the commercial airport is not yet fully operational and does not grant Kalitta the authority to fly in."
Instead, Kalitta flies to an alternate location, where it off-loads the cargo to a different air carrier that flies the deliveries into Iraq. Delivery into Iraq used to be only through Baghdad, but now there is also direct service from the transfer point to three other locations in Iraq.
Once the shipments arrive at the main transportation hubs in Iraq, Kellogg Brown & Root drivers contracted in advance by the Army, are standing by to drive the mail to the receiving campís main post office. The departures depend on local ground dangers, highway problems and the force protection that must accompany the convoys.
"At the camp, post office personnel take the mail and sort it by the different units that it supports," she said.
The day the mail is delivered to the main post office is not necessarily the same day that all units arrive to retrieve their mail.
"There are literally dozens, if not hundreds, of units situated long distances from the main bases or camps that are unable to get a hold of their mail everyday, for (vital) reasons such as operational security," she said.
Slater said obstacles like mission delays or additional safety precautions might, at times, slow down the final deliveries. On the same token, those mission delays or additional safety precautions may save lives.
"This is not like the USPS in the United States, where you can go up to your lockbox and pick up your mail," she said. "This is a war zone. Itís a totally different world."
Nevertheless, the present mailing system is a vast improvement from the method used during Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm.
"We continue to peel back the onion on postal operations, timeliness and movement," said Col. Alan Dodson, Third Army/CFLCCís deputy chief of staff for personnel (C-1).
Both Dodson and Slater said the routine of preparing, organizing and delivering mail to service members deployed to the Middle East is a method that the U.S military postal service evaluates and takes steps to enhance on a day-to-day basis.
In response to ongoing queries about delivery of mail via the Military Postal Service System, agency officials said that more than 65 million pounds of letters and parcels were delivered to the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility during calendar year 2003, at a cost of nearly $150 million.
"On a daily basis, just in Iraq alone, we receive up to 300,000 pounds of mail," said Slater. "Thatís two huge 747-size plane-loads. Even on days we donít get that much, there is enough for at least one 747 from Newark, NJ. And the U.S. Postal Service contracts for planes that have the sole purpose of transporting mail in and out of the theater every single day."
(Editors note: Spc. Blanka Stratford is from the Third U.S. Army/CFLCC Public Affairs.)
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