Sgt. Jerome Patterson, an Army reservist with the 912th Postal Company, unloads several packages from a truck that arrived minutes earlier at the front door of the facility at Baghdad International Airport that processes the mail for the 1st Armored Division.

Sgt. Jerome Patterson, an Army reservist with the 912th Postal Company, unloads several packages from a truck that arrived minutes earlier at the front door of the facility at Baghdad International Airport that processes the mail for the 1st Armored Division. (Kent Harris / S&S)

Getting mail to the Middle East is fairly simple. Delivering mail to one particular soldier, sailor, Marine or airman out of the 150,000 in Iraq and Kuwait can sometimes become difficult.

A recent rash of letters to Stars and Stripes from deployed servicemembers and from angry spouses trying to send mail suggests that many are frustrated with the delivery system. But downrange, for the most part, many seem satisfied with how things are working.

“I’m getting a lot of mail actually,” said Sgt. Keith Woods, one of dozens of soldiers from the 1st Armored Division’s 1st Brigade guarding sites around Baghdad.

Pvt. Daniel Salas, standing nearby, added: “We get it, but it’s late.”

Woods and others say it takes incoming mail two weeks, on average, to arrive. Outgoing mail seems to take a little longer to get to its destination.

Two weeks is more optimistic than U.S. Central Command estimates some mail deliveries.

Delivery to soldiers in Iraq varies “from unit to unit, location to location,” said Navy Lt. Cmdr. Nick Balice, a spokesman at CENTCOM headquarters in Tampa, Fla.

Getting letters, packages and even postcards to individuals scattered around Iraq is a challenge similar to the Navy’s getting mail to ships at sea, Balice said.

For example, if there is room left on a plane flying out to supply a ship, “then they’ll throw on some mail,” he said. “And that’s pretty much how it works in Iraq due to [logistical] limitations.”

To deal with the hundreds of thousands of pounds of mail every day, CENTCOM operates three mail terminals — one each in Kuwait, Bahrain and Baghdad.

Kuwait Joint Military Mail Terminal processes mail for ground transportation to camps in Kuwait and Southern Iraq.Bahrain Fleet Mail Center processes mail for local post offices, mail destined to ships in the Persian Gulf, and mail transfers to Iraq and Afghanistan.Iraq Joint Military Mail Terminal processes mail for ground transportation to places in and around Baghdad.The volume alone can be staggering for military postal workers. For example, on one day, April 16, the Kuwaiti facility, which was set up to handle 250,000 pounds of mail a day had more than 600,000 pounds of mail scheduled for arrival, according to a military news release. The overflow had to be rerouted to Bahrain and then shipped again from there.

Typically, after processing at one of the three terminals, mail is trucked to Military Post Offices for delivery to unit mail clerks and individuals. But for many, that means more transportation time around the Middle East. Current ground transportation rules require convoys to move only during daylight hours, and even then under heavily armed escort.

Capt. Steven King, an Army reservist from Florida and the commander of the 912th Postal Company in Baghdad, said the biggest lag in time comes from pinpointing the exact location of a particular person from one day to the next.

Especially when units move from one location to another and switch from being under the umbrella of a larger unit, such as the 1st AD, to another one.

An example cited by Army officials in a news release about mail delivery: A package came addressed to one soldier at APO 09303 — the Army Post Office designation for the 3rd Infantry Division troops at Camp Bushmaster in Iraq. That number had been crossed out, replaced by a scrawled 09326, which had itself been crossed out in red and replaced by a 09327.

Just for cases like this, King has a tracking board in Baghdad on where troops are and where they’ve been.

Once in Iraq, the transit time for mail is 13 to 18 days to units dispersed across the country, according to information from 3rd Personnel Command Postal Operations Directorate, responsible for Kuwait and Iraq postal operations.

“I’d guess it’s as good as it could be, considering the conditions,” said Capt. Lester McFarland, of the 1st Brigade’s 2nd Battalion, 3rd Field Artillery Regiment currently in Iraq. “It seems … if they mail it in the States, it’s getting here quicker.”

That isn’t the case most of the time, military officials said.

Mail to Iraq takes four or five days from Europe, and no more than 12 days from the United States, according to military officials at CENTCOM, and Army and Air Force officials in Europe.

Getting mail and parcels from thousands of Europe-based military families and friends to soldiers deployed in the Middle East takes a lot of moving pieces, with the complex operation ultimately pivoting on one of two air hubs in Germany — Frankfurt International Airport or Ramstein Air Base.

But first it has to get mailed.

The route the mail takes depends on whether the mailer is based in central Europe or Italy, said Carolyn Jackson, public affairs specialist at U.S. Army Europe headquarters in Heidelberg, citing information from the 1st Personnel Command Postal Operations Directorate in Schwetzingen, Germany.

In Germany, Belgium or the Netherlands, the process starts when base postal workers collect and cancel mail dropped off at an Army post office or dropped in a collection box before the day’s last pick up, Jackson said.

Later the same day, the mail is taken to one of 20 geographic processing centers in those three countries. At the processing centers, the mail and parcels are sorted and consolidated by destination, then trucked to the German Aerial Mail Terminal at the Frankfurt airport, Jackson said.

In Italy, the process is slightly different. Mail and packages sent are collected from APOs or post boxes and the majority of it goes that day to one of two processing centers — a main center in Vicenza, or a smaller center at Camp Darby near Pisa — though there are several satellite centers. Once consolidated at either Vicenza or Camp Darby, mail goes to commercial airports in Venice and Pisa, respectively, then on to Frankfurt the following day via a commercial flight.

At the Frankfurt terminal, there are two ways of mail getting to Baghdad or to Kirkuk in the north, said Tim Lynch, chief mail transportation flight, USAFE air postal squadron at Ramstein Air Base.

Mail from European bases to Baghdad goes to Frankfurt, where it’s processed and trucked to Brussels, Belgium, Lynch said. From there, DHL Worldwide Express — a unit of Berlin-based Deutsche Post World Net — flies it to Bahrain, where it’s transferred to a second DHL flight from Bahrain into Baghdad, he said.

Mail headed to Kirkuk goes from Frankfurt to Ramstein’s Air Mobility Command Terminal, where it’s sealed on pallets, then loaded onto daily flights from Ramstein to Kirkuk. Once mail arrives in Iraq, it may take time to accumulate enough mail to justify running a truck to any specific unit.

“If it’s not full, it’s not going,” Lynch said.

If it doesn’t go, some of the 150,000 soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines in the Middle East will have to wait.

author picture
Kent has filled numerous roles at Stars and Stripes including: copy editor, news editor, desk editor, reporter/photographer, web editor and overseas sports editor. Based at Aviano Air Base, Italy, he’s been TDY to countries such as Afghanistan Iraq, Kosovo and Bosnia. Born in California, he’s a 1988 graduate of Humboldt State University and has been a journalist for almost 38 years.

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