Holiday mail surge hits Afghanistan
November 29, 2010
By Natalie Cole
KANDAHAR AIRFIELD, Afghanistan (Nov. 29, 2010) -- For Soldiers and civilians working Army postal operations in southern Afghanistan, the holiday season brings a two-month-long deluge of packages, cards, and letters averaging 70,000 pounds a day, and peaking at 125,000 pounds a day.
Known as the holiday mail surge, the influx of packages sent to deployed areas happens each year from Nov. 1 to Jan. 1, explained 1st Lt. Jennifer Yurk, the 1st Theater Sustainment Command (TSC)-Kuwait officer in charge of the Postal Assessment and Assistance Team for Afghanistan.
Postal teams have projected the 2010 holiday mail surge will bring about a 250-percent increase in the volume of mail coming into Afghanistan, said Yurk. Bagram Airfield (BAF) receives more than half of the influx, while Kandahar Airfield (KAF) takes in the other portion of the surge.
During the regular season, mail is more of a mid-level priority for many leaders, who are typically focused on procuring the food, ammunition, and equipment - the beans and bullets - needed to complete their missions, said Maj. Todd Smith, Human Resources Operation Branch officer in charge for the 184th Expeditionary Sustainment Command (ESC).
However, once November hits, Smith said the mail and Army Post Office operations climb the list of many leaders' priorities.
"We know, during this time period, we're a hot item. If anything goes wrong, (leaders) know it," said Smith.
The 184th ESC is a Mississippi National Guard unit that assumed responsibility for the Joint Sustainment Command (JSC) - Afghanistan in October. As part of their mission, the 184th ESC oversees Army postal operations in southern Afghanistan with support from the 43rd Sustainment Brigade (SB) out of Fort Carson, Colo.
The 184th ESC and the 43rd SB on KAF receive hands-on support from civilians and Active Duty and Reserve Component Soldiers with the 328th Human Resources Company. Personnel with the 328th HRC receive and sort the mail at the KAF APO, the site where all the mail for southern Afghanistan comes before being sent out to Forward Operating Bases (FOBs) or being distributed to units in Kandahar.
To help the JSC-A tackle the holiday mail surge, the 1st TSC volunteered to send in some reinforcements from Kuwait to help pitch and sort mail alongside personnel with the 328th and other augmentees that came from units within Afghanistan.
"We got the augmentees in from the 1st TSC, we've gotten the local military augmentees, we've adjusted the contracts to provide more contract personnel. We've worked with the 1st TSC to procure additional supplies: Packing tape, bubble wrap," said 2nd Lt. Bryan Rushing, Postal Operations officer in charge for the 184th.
Such collaboration of sustainment units within the theater is vital to delivering holiday packages to the tens of thousands of Soldiers in the region, Smith added.
The planning for the transportation, delivery, security, and manpower needed to handle the holiday mail surge starts in May each year, with adjustments made along the way. Smith, who was a high school football coach for 15 years before joining the Active Guard Reserve, likened holiday mail planning to football season: "We're in the playoffs right now. This is our playoff season. Once January, February gets here, we'll be in preseason until the next season."
Because the 184th arrived in Kandahar in October, Smith said much of the holiday mail plans were already in place.
"Once we got here, we had to make a lot of adjustments to that plan based on some of Lieutenant Rushing's analysis and different changes, like the extra zip codes that were added, the extra locations where mail is coming in. So we had to take that holiday plan and adjust it to fit what's going on in the theater right now," he explained.
Spc. Carlos Caballero, with the 1st Sustainment Brigade, 1st TSC, volunteered to travel from Camp Arifjan, Kuwait to the APO in Kandahar to sort the heaps of mail in the APO yard. Caballero said he wanted to help sort mail during the busiest time of the year "just to get a new experience; to try something new."
Personnel with the 328th HRC do much of the holiday mail sorting during brisk afternoons in an outdoor lot amidst dust clouds and the beeps of oversized forklifts that bring in a steady stream of pallets stacked eight feet high with packages. As each pallet hits the ground, the postal personnel hustle to break open the pallet and start tossing and sorting the packages into the appropriate bins, which are marked for different FOBs and units in Kandahar.
"It takes a little getting used to, just to know where everything kind of goes, how the operation is run," Caballero said about joining in the hustle and bustle. "You just gotta really get used to where everything is at because everything is well organized, has its set places, but the personnel here, whether it's the civilian or the military side, they'll help you out."
In addition to working long hours and exerting the energy to heave large boxes into bins, certain augmentees and permanent personnel at the Kandahar Army Post Office face risks as they leave the security of the base to escort packages, according to Yurk.
"APO workers help in their own way to provide that holiday cheer to the Soldiers (by) getting out to these forward operating bases. A lot of the postal workers actually have to go out from their bases and escort any accountable mail to drop it off at these bases that are out in the middle of nowhere, so they're facing a little bit of danger to deliver that package out to them," she said.
While there are shops and post exchanges where personnel can buy necessities and even souvenirs in Kandahar, those at FOBs do not have such shopping opportunities, making holiday packages a welcome sight. Additionally, even for personnel who have access to shopping facilities, mail from home has an unbeatable personal quality, Smith said.
"For me, for instance, it's a lot different just going and buying yourself something at the (Post Exchange) versus opening a package that came from your wife or your mother. There's not only the things that you need - snacks, shaving cream, stuff like that. There's also the sentimental reasons. Your wife at home or kids at home are taking care of you," said Smith, who said he recently received his holiday packages in the mail.
"And you also get schools that will send you care packages, so it makes the Soldiers feel good whenever they get something from a school, a city, or a local church that (shows) 'Hey we're there, we're supporting you, we want to do anything we can to help (make) your life a little bit easier while you're here.' It's more of a sentimental thing. I know it is for me," he said.
In addition to the sentiment, holiday and care packages contain necessities that can quickly sell out on crowded bases, Rushing said.
"There are things you can't get here that people do ship to you. For example, I mean, they're always running out of shaving cream or whatever, so those kinds of things you can get from home that you cant necessarily get here," Rushing added.
With thousands of packages containing holiday goodies and coveted necessities on planes, on pallets, in convoys, and in Army post offices, everyone working the postal mission is busy this time of year.
"The motivational factor for me (is) to support the troops. They may have their beans and their bullets, but if their mind is worried about how their family is doing back home or if they haven't heard from their family back home, emotionally, they cannot do their mission as well," Smith said.
"But if they're getting those letters, cards, packages from their family, it makes them feel better. It connects them to home. It gives them that motivation to work harder that day and achieve the ultimate goal which is to go home safely," Smith said. "So I feel like we play an important role in that factor of getting the Soldiers emotionally fit like they should be, to be able to carry out their mission."