When they sign their contract, soldiers essentially wave any number of civil liberties. They forego their rights to privacy, free speech, and myriad others, up to and including their fate. As Defense Secretary Gates noted during the recent DADT hearings, he was unable to think of a single precedent in American history in which the armed forces were polled on a policy issue. Incredulous, he added “are you going to ask them if they want to be part of the surge in Iraq?”
In the face abrogation of basic rights, one state service seems to have been deemed inalienable: mail. Soldiers (and those who share their bases) live in the confidence that, no matter how long it may take, their letters and packages will reach them, generally intact. Even at the most isolated FOB, mail often supersedes passengers for limited helicopter space. It is perceived on par with food and ammunition in terms of mission importance. Such partiality for mail betrays its position as intrinsic to maintaining morale and welfare. Lest my case sound overstated, you can almost tell when a soldier (or, again, deployed civilian) has received as particularly effecting package, and it can be really beautiful. Hardened war-fighters, veterans of two or more wars, break into the delighted smiles of little boys upon receiving cookies from their mothers, and commanding officers unashamedly tear up when they find a card from their children. One soldier ran from room to room in his B Hut, sharing a photo from his wife’s first ultrasound with his unit. With so many already dancing on the edge of PTSD, I think that more than one service member might well go crazy without these small tokens of love and human connection.
Out-going mail is not held quite as sacred, but retains a certain level of significance. In addition to sending gifts home, mail is the primary way the military returns non-government-issued equipment in preparation for re-deployment. I actually opted to delay shipping home my own Christmas packages, as the Post Office has been swamped for weeks. Since, I kid you not, roughly mid-October the line was 10-12 GIs deep, with boxes and gorilla trunks stacked high enough to be mistaken for a Hesco barrier.
Even with their withdrawal from theatre imminent, some of the units at Phoenix continued receiving mail at a steady clip. Not all of it comes from families, though. A substantial minority is sent from community groups seeking to support the troops from their towns. Some of it is quite helpful, chock-a-bloc with the under-appreciated goods that the PX frequently runs out of, such as q-tips and batteries. One brilliant individual even sent over wrinkle remover (irons being scarce here). More regularly, packages tend to be well-intentioned rather than functional. The vast majority, for example, are comprised of candy. Lots and lots of candy. This is useful in its own way, I suppose, as the troops often re-purpose sweets for COIN efforts, giving kids all across Afghanistan American-style sugar highs. Now that I think about it, that might actually be counter-productive to winning parental hearts and minds. The candy is not infrequently accompanied by toys, some of which make eventually it to the Afghanis (though footballs are usually given second-hand). Frisbees, I’ve noted, never do, as they apparently make excellent targets and liven up the time spent at the range when the ANA neglect to bring their weapons for training.
The utility of other care packages is a bit more context specific. Lady speed stick deodorant, for example, is a fantastic item to send over, though perhaps not for Sgt. Benjamin Murphy (my friends in the National Guard kindly made certain that I would be stocked with deodorant for the remainder of my deployment. Thanks, confused Massachusetts community groups!). In some instance, though, military mail strays from the unobservant into the plain bizarre. Each member of the all-male National Guard unit at one point was the perplexed recipients of ladies’ underwear; oddly, not the same package as that with the deodorant. Not that I’m judging – if they want to wear Danskins and smell rain fresh on their next patrol, more power to them. I just suggested they might want to wait until the DADT repeal is official.
Another one of my departing friends gave me a box of Christmas decorations that had just arrived (notably after he had already asked for the shipments to stop. These community groups are persistent). It contained fake poinsettias, a stocking filled with traditional Christmas goodies like pens and toothpaste, some seemingly random bows, and ornament hangers. No ornaments, mind you. I rather like to think the soldiers were meant to make their own from spent shell casings and MREs.
On a final and only marginally related note, school children often send cards that are put up in the DFAC for major holidays. One in particular that I noted on Thanksgiving was from a fourth-grader named Jordan. For the most part, it was generally unremarkable; a childish turkey was cut out of crate paper and contained sentiments thanking the troops for their service, etc. However, it also had the reminder that the troops “are not forgotten”, which I found unexpectedly depressing. Whatever may come, I ask that you not let Jordan (and apparently a rather activist fourth-grade teacher) be the only one remembering the Afghan campaign and all the lives it impacts this holiday season, be in in politics or prayer.