Friday, March 31, 2023

Holiday mail for heroes: US military’s mission to bring Christmas joy to deployed troops

VIRGINIA BEACH — The holiday season is known as the most wonderful time of the year, and traditionally an opportunity for families to be together. So, for those with loved ones deployed with the United States military, sharing the spirit of the season across the miles takes on new meaning.

While being away from home during the holidays can be difficult, there is an army of elves at work behind the scenes, doing their best to ensure that those serving our country will receive their presents, care packages and cards in time for the holidays, wherever they may be, around the world.  

When a family ships out a gift package to a deployed service member, it’s the great responsibility of the Military Postal Service Agency to partner with Santa and his elves and help them complete their vital mission to deliver Christmas joy — on time.

As part of that special operations effort launched from the North Pole, the sailors and staff at the Regional Navy Mail Center have been entrusted to help make spirits bright this time of year, and have been doing so as part of the Naval Supply Systems Command Fleet Logistics Center Norfolk since 1919.

NAVSUP FLC Norfolk is one of eight fleet logistics centers under NAVSUP Global Logistics Support, which provides operational logistics, business, and support services to fleet, shore and industrial commands of the U.S. Navy, Coast Guard, Military Sealift Command, and other joint and allied forces.

NAVSUP GLS is part of a worldwide logistics network of more than 22,500 military and civilian personnel operating from 105 locations worldwide.

“Working behind the scenes, to include weekends, the FLC Norfolk Regional Navy Mail Center postal elves assist Santa in ensuring holiday presents arrive on time this Christmas,” said Jeff Gibbs, director of the RNMC.

Gibbs said from Nov. 15 through Dec. 18 of this year, his team processed 700,491 pieces of mail weighing almost 3 million pounds, which was shipped to the deployed fleet and Guantanamo Bay.

Even more staggering is that about 50 percent of this holiday mail was processed during the period of Dec. 2-18 alone.

Sailors and Marines aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Makin Island (LHD 8) sort holiday care packages after the ship received 199 pallets of mail during a vertical replenishment (U.S. Navy photo by Lt. David Gardner/released)

During one holiday week in 2016, the RNMC processed more than 110,000 pounds of incoming and outgoing mail.

That’s twice the volume that they would see in a normal week, Senior Chief Petty Officer Marcos Perez said last year in a news release.

Perez was the leading Chief Petty Officer at the RNMC at that time and said his team took great pride in the service they provided.

“We receive a vast amount of boxes clearly marked as holiday gifts and they treat them with the utmost care,” he said. “The team really feels like they’re making a difference.”

Perez said the mail center began their preparation for the holiday season in late November, and that those preps included the use of an additional 5-ton truck, extra tri-wall containers and the help of members of NAVSUP FLC Norfolk’s reserve unit.

The RNMC supports afloat and overseas units, including Naval Station Guantanamo Bay, Naval Support Activity Bahrain, Naval Station Rota and Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti.

During the 2015 holiday shipping season, RNMC said its sailors, civilians and contractors moved 30,274 pieces of mail weighing 1.4 million pounds for fleet and shore commands.

Religious Programs Specialist 2nd Class Sha’Quanda Jacobs sorts care packages in the chaplain’s office after a replenishment-at-sea aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Makin Island (LHD 8) (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Dennis Grube/Released)

How Troops in the Field Deliver Christmas

U.S. Air Force Tech Sgt. Albert King, the 380th Air Expeditionary Wing Postmaster, is in charge of all mail operations at Al Dhafra Air Base, United Arab Emirates.

In an interview with Staff Sgt. Colton Elliott, King said he and his team are responsible for delivering Christmas and Hanukkah packages to roughly 3,800 personnel.

“There’s nothing better than watching someone receive a package, especially when they are not expecting it,” King said.

He added that, “When you see their face light up as you deliver it, it’s the best feeling knowing that my team played a part in making them smile.” 

During the first few weeks of December, members of the 380th Military Postal Operations group said they received more than 50,000 pounds of mail.

Volunteers from the 380th Air Expeditionary Wing, Al Dhafra Air Base, United Arab Emirates, help sort incoming mail on Dec. 13, 2017. The base post office has received more than 50,000 pounds of mail this holiday season. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Staff Sgt. Colton Elliott)

“We could not do this if it weren’t for a team effort,” said King. “Some members came here with little to-no-postal experience and hopped right in to help us get the job done.”

The 380th said its volunteer numbers for postal operations have grown over the past few months. In July, there were less than 100 personnel who volunteered to sort packages. Today, there are more than 700 volunteers on record. 

“Every day here feels like Christmas,” said Airman 1st Class Daniel Ray, who has volunteered more than 75 hours serving at the post office during the busy holiday rush. “I enjoy serving others and volunteering at the post office allows me to feel like I’m making a difference.” 

Military Mail Restrictions

When it comes to shipping items to an Army/Air or Fleet Post Office, family members and services members should review the general mail restrictions for each APO/FPO zip code.

For example, in Afghanistan, aerosol cans, pork or pork by-products, as well as alcohol and liquor, are among the items covered in General Order Number 1, and are prohibited from being shipped either to or from an APO/FPO address according to U.S. Central Command regulation 25-103.

The MPSA says for those who have shipped items or are planning on shipping items, expect at least three weeks for your package to arrive.

Priority mail usually takes about two weeks to be delivered, and standard mail takes at least three to four weeks.

How to Send Holiday Cheer to Service Members Overseas

To send packages to loved ones serving in the military and diplomatic posts abroad, the U.S. Postal Service offers a discounted price of $17.35 on its largest Priority Mail Flat Rate Box. The price includes a $1.50 per box discount for mail sent to APO/FPO/DPO (Air/Army Post Office/Fleet Post Office/Diplomatic Post Office) destinations worldwide.

For more on the 2017 holiday shipping deadlines for military mail, including information on free shipping supplies, visit the USPS Military and Diplomatic Mail web page.

Chief Religious Programs Specialist M. Mackenzie, left, presents a care package to Chief Personnel Specialist R. Rocha in the library aboard the aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman (CVN 75). (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman L. A. Preston/Released)

If you’d like to send a card or gift to a service member you may not know, there are a number of non-profits, such as Soldiers’ Angels, as well as government organizations that can help, including the United Service Organizations (USO). Visit the USO website for more information.

Locally, veteran-owned companies such as Troopster in Virginia Beach, provide personalized military care packages as well as donation packages to troops who are deployed or stationed away from home. 

More on the Military Postal Service Agency

Until 1980, each military service and government agency managed its own mail program.

In 1980, the Department of Defense designated the Secretary of the Army as the single military mail manager, and the MPSA was created to perform this task, with a jointly-staffed headquarters located in the National Capital Region.

MPSA is required to adhere to USPS shipping rules, federal laws, and various international laws and agreements for movement of military mail into more than 85 countries.

MPSA is the single DoD point of contact with the USPS.

How Long it Takes to Receive Mail Overseas

Transit times for overseas mail may vary due to military aircraft schedules, weather, transportation and military operations in theater, or movement of a service member’s unit.

Guide to standard overseas mail transit times (by days):

How Mail is Routed to Navy Ships and Marine Corps Units

After processing at a military gateway in New York or San Francisco, mail for Navy and Marine forces on board ships is flown to a Fleet Mail Center such as the one in Bahrain or Sigonella (Italy), according to the MPSA. 

FPO mail is sorted and transported to the individual ships by various means — often by small aircraft called Carrier Onboard Delivery, to an aircraft carrier — usually in conjunction with a supply mission. 

Bailey Uzelmeier, right, hands a care package to a Sailor assigned to Fleet Logistics Support Squadron (VRC) 40 to be loaded onto the C-2A Carrier Onboard Delivery aircraft for delivery to aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush (CVN 77)(U.S. Navy photo by Public Affairs Specialist Joel Diller/Released)

Vessels other than aircraft carriers normally get their mail during port visits or by re-supply ship if remaining at sea for longer periods of time.

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