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Holiday gifts for troops overseas

Bring the holiday season to soldiers who  need a taste of home. By Teri Goldberg

Mailing Santa a letter this holiday season may be easier than sending a package to a loved one in the military. As we all know, Kris Kringle will receive most any mail addressed to him, whether it’s sent to the North Pole or a U.S. court house. (Remember the piles of mail delivered to Santa at the court house in “Miracle on 34th Street.”) But writing the country name on a package addressed to a soldier in the Middle East may delay its arrival. And packages containing any materials prohibited by the military — such as a juicy Christmas ham or an electronic kid’s toy with the batteries intact — may never reach its destination.

Special rules and regulations have been established when mailing a package to military personnel overseas to protect the troops and to help the military postal service move the mail as efficiently as possible, explains Mark DeDomenic, assistant deputy director and chief of operations for the U.S. Military Postal Service, the division of the Department of Defense (DoD) that is responsible for all military mail.

“Please do not put the name of a foreign country on any package sent to the military overseas, whether it’s Iraq, Israel or Italy,” pleads DeDomenic. Putting the country’s name on the package shifts delivery from the military postal service to the “regular” international mail system, which not only takes more time but also can be more costly.

International mail tends to take more time because it is sent through exchange offices to post offices operated by foreign countries, explains Lt. Col. Ellen Krenke, a DoD spokesperson. In contrast, military mail is processed by the USPS and then transported to military hubs where the mail is handled by military postal service personnel, she says. “In contingency areas, getting mail to the soldier is the real challenge,” says DeDomenic, who remarks, “soldiers are still getting shot over there.”

No matter what the destination, military mail is also considered domestic mail. So a letter addressed to soldier in Baghdad only costs 37 cents, whereas the same letter sent international rate costs 80 cents per half ounce.

Read the rules and regulations
Packages sent to the military overseas should contain an APO/FPO (Air/Army Post Office or Fleet Post Office) address, a military zip code of sorts. A list of new military postal codes can be found at the Web site of Operation Home Front, an organization run out of the Office of Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn of Illinois to help men and women of the National Guard and Reserves and their families with their deployments. For other guidelines, see tips and FAQs posted at the USPS Web site.

Operation Military Pride

Reading the list of rules and regulations can be overwhelming. DeDomenic explains the logic behind some of the restrictions. Batteries have to be removed because electronic devices can inadvertently go off while in transit. “We just don’t want things going boom,” says DeDomenic, who has heard “clocks tick inside boxes, radios turn on and sex toys vibrate” on military airplanes. All these relatively benign incidences “immediately puts us in bomb mode,” says DeDomenic. We prefer if friends and family do not mail batteries at all, he concludes.

Other restrictions apply because of requirements of the host country. To monitor what’s coming into their country, custom forms are required with each package. Different regions also have different restrictions. (The USPS also lists military restrictions on its Web sites.)

In the Middle East, religion is sensitive, says DeDomenic. So it’s OK to send a bible to a loved one stationed in the Middle East but not a stack of bibles or “bulk quantities of religious materials contrary to the Islamic faith.” Homemade cookies are fine but pork or pork products are prohibited because of dietary restrictions in many Muslim countries.

Like religion, sex and politics are also sensitive subjects. So “obscene articles,” “any matter depicting nude or seminude persons” and “unauthorized political materials” are all prohibited. (Sorry, you can’t send Playboy magazines to your buddies overseas.)

To ensure delivery, DeDomenic also recommends:

  • Mail packages early. Last year, the military processed and transported 8.5 million pounds of mail during December.
  • Use strong reinforced materials to package the goods. Remember military packages have to travel a long way and are handled a lot.
  • Do not use boxes from grocery or liquor stores printed with the name of a hazardous or prohibited material. For example, any box labeled bleach, whiskey or wine will automatically be “unmailable.”
  • Check postal deadlines carefully. (See the release posted at the DoD Web site.) The last day to mail a package parcel post or by container ship is Nov. 13. Dec. 6 is the deadline for space-available mail and Dec. 11 is the last day for priority mail. Note: Any package sent to a military address in the 093 zip code or the countries involved in Operations Iraqi and Enduring Freedom (OEF/OIF) is sent by aircraft.

Cyber treats

Fortunately, there are cyber alternatives for friends, family and others who want to support the troops, who would rather let someone else do the packing for them.

One such group isTreats for Troops. Cyber shoppers at Treats for Troops can select items in the “market store” to make their own package or choose to send a “gift-to-go” to a loved one. The market store stocks a limited selection of goods that soldiers frequently request, from freshly baked cookies to practical items, such as duct tape and lip balm. Ready-to-send packages also run the gamut, from a collection of Burt’s Bees natural bath and body products to holiday-themed gifts.

The least expensive item, priced at $9.95, is a festive holiday sack filled with a jumbo mint chocolate chop cookie, salt water taffy wrapped in holiday paper, ½ pound of red and green jelly beans, a candy cane, fruit leather and a snowman ornament. It’s hard to imagine putting together a package for that price. Remember, though, the price does not include shipping and the minimum order is $15. A heftier holiday gift is the “feast for four,” priced at $149.95, which includes turkey jerky, turkey pepperoni, cheddar cheese, crackers and a variety of snacks, from pumpkin pecan fudge to peanut brittle.

Army And Air Force Exchange Service

Friends and family of military overseas also can sent a gift certificate from the Army and Air Force Exchange Service (AAFES), one-shop shops for military personnel worldwide that stock all sort of goods, from licorice sticks to digital cameras to “bug-out” bags. A “bug out” bag is a backpack that service members pack in anticipation of having to change locations at a moment’s notice, explains Judd Anstey, an AAFES  public affairs specialist. Soldiers can buy anything they want with the gift certificate but CDs and DVDs have been the most popular, she says.

Sold in denominations of $10 and $20, gift certificates can be redeemed at any AAFES PX (Postage Exchange) or BX (Base Exchange) throughout the world. The AAFES currently operates 51 stores in the “SW Asian theater” or the countries involved in Operations Iraqi and Enduring Freedom (OEF/OIF), including 29 in Iraq, 10 in Kuwait, five in Afghanistan, four in Qatar/UAE/Djibouti, one in Pakistan, one  in Kyrgyzstan and one in Uzbekistan.

Leave no soldier behind
Don’t know anyone in the military but want to help? Several organizations offer some simple ways to support the troops overseas, and help make this holiday season a little brighter:  

Every donation of $25 to the United Service Organizations (USO) — best known for its entertainment shows in World War II — covers the cost of delivering a package to members of the U.S. Armed Forces deployed around the world. Each package contains a pre-paid worldwide phone card, sunscreen, travel size toiletries, a disposable camera and more.

Anyone can send a gift certificate to a soldier by making a donation to one of the organization listed at the AAFES Web site. Currently, the list includes the American Red Cross national headquarters, the Air Force Aid Society, The Fisher House and the USO. “What all of the organizations have in common is that all have the ability and access to get phone cards and gift certificates in the hands of deployed troops as quickly as possible,” says Anstey.

Operation Military Service has an “adopt a soldier” program where any interested person can request the name of a military person overseas along with their wish list. Frequently requested items are also listed on the site.

Soldiers’ Angels helps fund a variety of programs. The organization not only has mounted an effort to send 140,000 stockings to men and women deployed in Iraq but individual angels also deliver handmade blankets and backpacks filled with goodies to the wounded in combat support hospitals (formerly called MASH units), Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany or any of the stateside hospitals, such as National Naval Center in Bethesda, Md. or Naval Medical Center in San Diego, Calif. “Our mission is to connect American people with the soldiers,” says Viktoria Carter from Fort Bragg in Fayetteville, N.C., whose husband was supposed to retire in May 2002 after 22 years in the military and re-enlisted after the attacks on America on Sept. 11, 2001.

To date, Soldiers’ Angels has enlisted 16,000 angels. After talking with Carter, who was on her way to comfort a wounded solider and his family at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, my guess is many of the volunteers are truly angels.