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Tuesday, March 25

Sheer volume, transportation problems delay troopsí mail

By Robert Hodierne | Military Times

DOHA, Qatar - Thirty-two years ago, when Jack Ryals was a 24-year-old Army first lieutenant, it took 10 days to two weeks for letters from his parents to travel half a world away to his remote artillery base in Vietnam.

Mail call, he said, "was the highlight of the day."

Since then, much has changed in the military. C-rations have been replaced by MREs, dumb bombs by smart ones, dead reckoning by satellite navigation.

But two things havenít changed.

Today, when Ryals, of Melbourne, Fla., writes to his son, Capt. Jeff Ryals, at a remote base in Kuwait, the letters are still the dayís highlight.

And it still takes 10 days to two weeks for the letters to get there.

"Obviously, we have the capability of doing it better," said the elder Ryals. "Back then, we didnít have e-mail."

For a generation accustomed to real-time chats with Instant Messaging and e-mail, a month for an exchange of letters seems unreasonable.

In fact, the Ryals did keep in touch through e-mail until two weeks ago, when troop access to it in the 3rd Infantry Division was cut off for security reasons. Now that the 3rd Infantry is fighting its way toward Baghdad, its supply lines stretched over 200 miles of desert, mail is going to be even slower.

While e-mail, when available, can fill some of the letter-writing gap, it canít replace care packages from home. All across the theater, on land and at sea, troops say packages can take a month or more to reach them.

Pfc. Harvey Johnson III, 30, of Auburn, Ala., a chemical specialist with the 3rd Infantry's 92nd Chemical Company, has been sending letters to his parents twice a week since arriving in Kuwait in January. By March 17, they hadnít received a single letter, just a package he had mailed not long after he arrived. Nor had he received anything from them.

"It takes a long time," he said. Heís not frustrated with the Armyís inability to get his parentsí letters to him in a timely manner - "Iím over here to do a job," he said - but his packages to his parents are "a different story."

But itís not just the slow speed that aggravates the troops.

"It wouldnít be so bad if the mail was regular," said Pfc. Adam Towe, 20, a motor transport operator for Battery M, 3rd Battalion, 11th Marine Regiment from Decatur, Ala. "I got three boxes in one day. They were all mailed within a week of each other. Then, nothing. ÖYouíll get a lot at once, then nothing."

Itís not that the military doesnít understand how important the mail is - or doesn't try.

Air Force Maj. Kelly Kirts, 39, of Des Moines, Iowa, is in charge of the joint postal cell for Central Command. He's basically the postmaster for all U.S. troops in the gulf region and Afghanistan.

Kirts said "all commanders at all levels" are aware of the importance of speedy mail delivery.

But "some difficult decisions have to be made," he said. "Sometimes mail service cannot be provided until it can be sustained and supported. ÖThe complexity involved, basically standing up a mail distribution center in addition to all the other competing resources that are going on. Itís not a trivial effort."

Since Jan. 1, Kirts said 13.5 million pounds of mail have been shipped into the gulf region and Afghanistan.

When Ryals puts a letter in his mailbox in Florida, the U.S. Postal Service flies it to New York. That can take five days. Add a day or two in New York for processing. Then, from an airport in Newark, N.J., it flies by commercial aircraft to Kuwait City. USPS officials now have chartered a 747 specifically to carry military mail directly from Newark to Kuwait three times a week.

After passing through Kuwaiti customs, the letter finally reaches the Military Postal Service Agency, which trucks it from Kuwait City to the troops.

"There can be unforeseen bottlenecks," said Tesia Williams, a spokeswoman for the MPSA. "There is a limited amount of trucks and equipment" to get the mail to units, and a limited number of clerks sorting a "massive amount" of mail.

Troops also move around quite a bit, so the mail has to catch up with them, she said.

"Itís important to understand that since the first part of February until now ... in some areas, weíve increased by four times the amount of mail weíve moved," Kirts said.

And just as the volume of mail jumped as the number of troops in the theater increased, the northeastern United States was crippled by a blizzard, which had "a direct impact on the February mail deliveries," he said.

"I think (that) as we are able to streamline and reduce some of the transit problems that weíre coming across, weíll be able to improve" delivery time, possibly down to seven to 10 days, Kirts said.

"Thatís our goal," he said.

(Contributing: Sean D. Naylor, C. Mark Brinkley and Karen Jowers of the Military Times)