FORT MEADE, Md. (Army News Service, Nov. 23, 2015) -- Time is running out to send holiday packages to deployed Soldiers. In fact, Wednesday is the last day to send parcels by the affordable "Space-Available Mail," or SAM, to ensure they reach forward operating bases by Christmas.

The deadline for Parcel Airlift Mail, or PAL, is Dec. 3. For those willing to splurge, Dec. 10 is the deadline for sending packages to most areas by Priority Mail and also for sending letters or cards by First Class Mail.

After that, the only way to get it there in time for the holidays is by the premium Priority Mail Express Military Service. The deadline for PMEMS is Dec. 17 for most overseas locations.

The deadlines are simply "to make sure people get it before Christmas," said Pete Graeve, chief of plans and policy for the Military Postal Service Agency.

Another way to ensure timely delivery is by completing the online customs form before taking packages to the post office.

CUSTOMS FORM

The online customs form can be found at www.usps.com. Completed forms for items being mailed overseas should be printed and attached to packages before taking them to the post office.

Graeve said filling out the forms at home beats trying to complete them while standing in line with other customers. The forms, he said, must be included to ensure delivery.

"Basically anytime a package crosses an international border, we have to have a customs form on it," Graeve said.

Attention to detail in filling out the form can also help speed delivery, Graeve said. If postal employees have reason to question the contents list or need to type the form themselves into a computer, that can slow the delivery process, he explained.

MAIL PROCESSING

After a package is dropped off, postal employees must sort and process the mail.

"There are multiple steps in the process," Graeve said, and this time of year is usually the busiest for both the USPS and military post offices.

Most of the packages going to Army and Air Force Post Offices, or APOs, in Afghanistan or elsewhere in Southwest Asia will then go to the International Service Center, or ISC, in Chicago. While there are other similar centers, such as the ones in New York or Miami, about 90 percent of military packages going to the Middle East or Southwest Asia go through Chicago, Graeve said.

A Military Postal Service Agency liaison office is part of the Chicago ISC. That office is called a Joint Military Postal Activity, or JMPA.

"In Chicago, we have a significant presence," Graeve said. "We're monitoring mail that is going back and forth. If there are issues with overseas [mail], they know where to push the button to make things move or get it resolved."

From the ISC, mail will go to an airport or sea port of embarkation, known in military terms as the SPOE.

MODES OF TRANSPORT

"There's a lot of variables that go into the movement of the mail," Graeve said. "It's not a one size fits all."

Standard mail usually goes on surface carriers. For overseas, that usually means by ship. A ship might take weeks to reach its port.

First-class and priority mail flies on aircraft when going overseas, Graeve said. Space-available might go by either ship or air.

Packages arrive overseas at a port of debarkation, which is either an aerial port or seaport of debarkation, known as a SPOD. There the mail will be sorted again and put on a mode of transport such as a commercial truck to get it to a Military Mail Terminal, or MMT.

At MMTs, like the one at Camp Arifjan in Kuwait, the packages may be processed by military mail handlers, along with contractors and civilian employees. Then they will be sent forward to a military post office.

"Once it gets to the post office, the post office will further sort it to the individual," for delivery, Graeve said.

"It's kind of like a hub-and-spoke approach," he said.

In garrison, post offices like those in Germany and Italy, volunteers often augment processing this time of year, Graeve said. Family members and military volunteers will help sort the mail so it can be sent forward to recipients in time for the holidays.

Graeve has a few simple tips to ensure timely delivery: "Make sure [packages] have good addresses to the people, and make sure they follow all the USPS rules and regulations. If they stick to those time frames, the items should get to the addressee in time for Christmas."