Issue Date: May 10, 2004

Troops want to know: Where’s my %&#@ mail?!
Stolen packages, lost letters take toll on war-zone morale

By Karen Jowers
Times staff writer

Troops, families, lawmakers and congressional investigators have a special-delivery message for defense officials: Fix problems with the military mail system.

A mounting wave of anecdotal evidence, bolstered by a General Accounting Office report, shows that problems with delays, disappearances and thefts within the system take a toll on the morale of troops in Iraq and their families at home.

“The mail is taking way too much time to get to its destinations — if it makes it there at all,” Dayon Dillihunt, a soldier deployed to Kirkuk, Iraq, wrote in an e-mail. He is with the 2nd Brigade of the Hawaii-based 25th Infantry Division.

Dillihunt, who did not give his rank, said mail “is a big morale factor. It’s a shame that ... our most secure, cheapest and convenient form of communication [is] failing.”

In late February, Marine 1st Sgt. Drew Benson still was getting mail forwarded to him at home in Minnesota that was sent to him a year earlier in Iraq.

“The single biggest thing that increases troop welfare is receiving mail!” he wrote in an e-mail. “I think a more serious investigation should be given, and someone should come clean and be held accountable for the simply atrocious way the mail was handled out there.”

In 20 years of service and duty in “several wars,” Benson said he can’t recall the military mail system being “this screwed up.”

An April 14 report by the GAO detailed problems with the military’s mail service for Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Auditors also found problems in planning and executing postal operations in Iraq that will continue to affect mail delivery in future contingencies if they are not addressed.

The GAO cited the military’s continued inability to devise and execute a plan for efficient joint-service mail operations in wartime settings. Auditors also said some postal personnel were trained inadequately and the initial postal force designed for early phases of Iraqi Freedom was too small.

Postal facilities, equipment and transportation assets also were inadequate, the GAO said.

Officials with the Army’s 3rd Personnel Command, which oversees mail operations in the Iraq war zone, insist average transit times for both letters and packages is about 12 to 13 days.

But the GAO said the military lacks a “reliable, accurate” way to measure timeliness. As such, auditors resorted to interviewing 127 soldiers and Marines who served in theater. Almost 60 percent were not happy with the mail. Nearly half waited four weeks or more to get mail after arriving in theater, and many said mail took up to four months to get through to them.

Nearly 80 percent said they knew of mail that was sent to them but was never received while they were deployed. In many cases, the mail finally caught up with them — after they returned home.

The military’s claim of an average delivery time of 12 or 13 days is a “significant understating” of reality, the GAO concluded.

Military postal officials have begun identifying solutions to longstanding postal problems, but “no single entity has been officially tasked to resolve these issues,” the GAO said.

That is a growing concern in this election year, evoking memories of the absentee-ballot mess in 2000. With up to 250,000 troops deployed in the Persian Gulf and Central Asia regions, the fear is that this year may be worse.

“With our troops fighting for freedom abroad, we need to do everything we can to ensure their votes are counted on Election Day ... this must be a top priority,” Sen. Christopher Bond, R-Mo., wrote in a March 3 letter to then-Pentagon Comptroller Dov Zakheim, who left that position April 15.

Military officials insist they do their best in a difficult situation and are taking action, including boosting the size and number of postal units in Kuwait and Bahrain.

In a March 17 response to Bond, Army Brig. Gen. Gina Farrisee, head of the Military Postal Service Agency, said her organization and the U.S. Postal Service do “everything possible to shorten the timeline and efficiency of processing mail to unique military unit addresses.” She didn’t elaborate.

In a separate response to the recent GAO report, Farrisee said fixing problems identified by investigators “will be key to future postal success during contingencies.”

Her agency will issue new guidance for postal operations, and the services and component commands “will be adequately resourced to implement the identified solutions,” she said.

Officials with 3rd Personnel Command pointed out that some problems are due to the fact that Iraq remains an active war zone.

“During the past year, most of our postal operations have taken place in what is ... considered a hostile environment,” command officials said in a statement. “At times, the mail has had to be delayed and/or stopped until security for soldiers and civilian contractors is established.”

Outright thievery

But problems run deeper than logistical shortfalls.

Anecdotal reports of mail theft — a federal offense — continue to surface. The GAO did not address this issue, but troops and families say it happens.

Army Criminal Investigation Command spokesman Chris Grey confirmed the command is looking into reports of mail tampering and theft in war zones. He declined to elaborate.

“We as a country need to do better by our soldiers,” said Mary Kay Salomone, wife of a retired soldier and mother of two soldiers, including one deployed to Iraq. “I’m scared to death that if you can take things out of a box, you can put dangerous things in.”

Untold numbers of items have been pilfered from boxes sent to Iraq by Operation Support Our Troops, a group founded by Salomone made up of military family members who send letters and care packages to individual troops.

Items worth about $500 were stolen from insured boxes Salomone sent to a unit whose members lost most of their possessions in a December fire.

“The thieves are so good at breaking into the boxes, slitting the bottom seam, taking out what they want, and then resealing the box with wide, clear packing tape,” she said.

In two recent incidents, DVDs were stolen from uninsured boxes she sent to her son. In each case, she tucked the DVDs into magazines and didn’t list them on the outside of the boxes. Her son told her he never realized the boxes had been opened, she said.

Many troops don’t realize items were stolen unless a family member e-mailed them a list of items or included a list in the box.

It is unclear who is committing the theft. U.S. Postal Service employees handle the mail until it leaves the United States, then military postal workers take over, and in some cases local nationals, when it arrives overseas.

In a written response to questions, Military Postal Service Agency officials said their organization “primarily deals with policy” and has no investigative arm.

However, officials said a team travels through the Persian Gulf theater doing inspections at military post offices to ensure they meet U.S. Postal Service standards, including checking that mail is stored properly and employees follow procedures for security, proper handling and theft prevention.

Still, problems persist. Rep. Virgil Goode Jr., R-Va., said he’s heard complaints from military families who sent items that were never delivered.

USPS spokesman Jim Quirk said anyone with a mail complaint should contact a local post office and fill out a report.

Postal inspectors keep such reports in a database. If they spot a trend within a certain ZIP code, they will investigate. If the ZIP code is military, inspectors will work with appropriate military criminal investigative agencies.

E-mail staff writer Karen Jowers at kjowers@

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