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Postal Clerk Seaman Natasha Taylor takes care of a customer at Atsugi Naval Air Station's post office. The post office has reopened for business after a suspicious package closed the facility temporarily.

Postal Clerk Seaman Natasha Taylor takes care of a customer at Atsugi Naval Air Station's post office. The post office has reopened for business after a suspicious package closed the facility temporarily. (Jim Schulz / S&S)

NAVAL AIR FACILITY ATSUGI — The “itchy letter” scare of two weeks ago has been scratched from Naval Air Facility Atsugi’s emergencies list, base postal officials said this week.

Letters and packages are being delivered routinely, they said; postal workers unload the daily 18-wheeler mail truck with latex gloves and keep an eye out for suspicious-looking letters and packages.

In other words, it’s business as usual.

“We’re as cautious as we were before, and that’s why this was caught,” said Chief Petty Officer Bill Struck, NAF Atsugi postal officer. “Since 9/11, we were fully trained in all of this.”

The post office and a helicopter squadron here were locked down for almost five days when two mail handlers from Helicopter Anti-Submarine Squadron Light 51 reported itchy skin after touching suspicious-looking letters Feb. 19. Those letters, addressed to a foreign country and apparently sorted into the Military Postal System by mistake, tested negative for chemical and biological substances, including anthrax.

Though the test results put any lingering fears of tainted mail to rest, the incident raised NAF Atsugi residents’ awareness of the potential dangers associated with the mail, some said Tuesday.

Airman Mike Sherwood, 20, an aviation electrician’s mate from Atsugi, took time to match the number of packages he received with his recent order from Amazon.com. He would not have thought twice about his order a month ago.

“I did count them. But I opened them up carefree,” he said.

Those who are the first to open and sort the mail when it arrives at Atsugi say they’re taking it all in stride.

“What can you do? You can’t hide,” said Pam Lindsey, one of the post office’s five civilian clerks. “You just can’t protect yourself against idiots.”

Besides the 10 postal clerks, numerous mail orderlies distribute mail to Atsugi’s various tenant commands. The tenant unit commander “screens them first, to make sure they’re trustworthy,” Struck said.

All mail handlers undergo training every six months emphasizing how to spot and react to suspicious-looking mail.

Excessive postage and oily residue are among characteristics that should raise a red flag, Struck said.

Individuals should notice who the sender is before opening mail, he said. “The biggest suspicion is if you don’t know the return address.”

Once trained, orderlies receive a mail card which authorizes them to pick up mail at the post office for their department. The two orderlies who reported the suspicious mail two weeks ago still are distributing mail, Struck said.

The incident remains under investigation. NAF Atsugi officials said Tuesday they could not discuss what may have caused the mail handlers’ allergic reaction until the investigation is complete.

Sherwood said he was reassured the base followed strict procedures.

“It was pretty cool,” he said. “They don’t joke around with that stuff.”

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Jennifer reports on the U.S. military from Kaiserslautern, Germany, where she writes about the Air Force, Army and DODEA schools. She’s had previous assignments for Stars and Stripes in Japan, reporting from Yokota and Misawa air bases. Before Stripes, she worked for daily newspapers in Wyoming and Colorado. She’s a graduate of the College of William and Mary in Virginia.

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