MANAMA, Bahrain — Even in the age of the Internet, there’s a solemnity, an intensity, to mail call in wartime. Troops in dusty camouflage at far-flung outposts eagerly line up in hopes of cookies, crayon drawings and photos — pieces of that increasingly faraway world called home.
It’s a lifeline, a slice of normality for GIs who haven’t eaten a home-cooked meal, kissed loved ones or played with their children in months.
“You can’t put perfume or cologne on an e-mail,” said Chief Petty Officer Romel Jackson, who helps oversee the mail center in Manama that processes nearly all of the mail from and for troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as sailors at sea in the Middle East and Africa.
The mail center, a massive metal-roofed warehouse at Manama’s commercial airport, bustles 24 hours a day, with boxes of mail coming in to be scanned, stacked and shipped out to the U.S. or deployed troops.
Mail from the center goes throughout the CENTCOM area of responsibility, which is 1.3 times the size of the continental United States, encompassing 4.6 million square miles and 20 countries, as well as ships patrolling an area of water about the size of Australia.
Air Force Master Sgt. Frank Wesley, who helps oversee the Air Force side of the operation, constantly checks the pallets of mail, tugging on the netting to make sure it’s tight enough and making sure boxes are stacked properly. With a long flight and often a bumpy overland journey ahead for much of the cargo, poor packaging could mean a box falling off a truck before reaching an outpost.
“Every time a mistake is made … to that guy that’s deployed farther afield or at a (Forward Operating Base), that’s huge,” he said. “It could be a power of attorney, it could be a last will and testament … that could be some soldier’s last letter home.”
Added Jackson, “It’s probably one of the most important missions, as far as morale.”
About 120 million pounds of mail, from love letters, ballots, to urine samples, comes through the Mail Distribution Center annually. Around the holidays, the warehouse and adjacent parking lot over flow with boxes stacked several feet high.
With a postal route in a neighborhood that covers thousands of miles and pushes into two major war zones, getting packages to deployed troops in a timely manner takes monumental coordination. Staff Sgt. Elliot Denney, an Air Force reservist who works as a U.S. Postal Service letter carrier in Tucson, Ariz., in civilian life, went from picking up letters on a neighborhood route to tracking flights from all over the world.
“Everything I learned in the civilian postal service does not apply,” he said.
Mail center employees scan all packages for contraband such as ammunition and pornography, and the mail room employees have seen some unusual keepsakes.
They see a lot of antique pistols, the occasional bullet, creatively concealed booze (yes, they know the Sprite bottle-vodka trick) and, once, even a Samurai sword-shaped, um, adult toy. When something is confiscated, the mailing party is sent a letter detailing what was taken and why, with a number to call with questions.
“Nobody ever calls,” said Air Force Tech Sgt. David Mashburn with a wry smile.