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Tuesday, March 25

Care packages flowing in for troops

By Kirk Moore | Asbury (N.J.) Park Press

FORT DIX, N.J. - One soldier said the stacked boxes hold everything from clothes to beans - so-called care packages and last-minute items from home that Army soldiers will need when they get final orders to leave this mobilization base.

About 4,000 pieces of mail move through the Fort Dix post office every day, compared with 1,500 a day before the war, and soldiers themselves are pitching in to keep the envelopes and boxes flowing to the more than 6,000 troops in training here.

But people should be careful about what they send because post-Sept. 11, 2001, security rules require that only mail addressed to specific soldiers will be delivered, said Charlotte Gentner, the post office manager.

"Ever since they found anthrax in the mail, they've discontinued that,'' Gentner said, referring to the still-unsolved postal attacks of late 2001. "You have to have a specific soldier's name and address.''

Department of Defense officials reiterated that ban on unsolicited mail over the weekend.

But if the stacked packages here are any indication, plenty of stuff is already getting through to soldiers.

"They've probably asked me a dozen times this weekend,'' said Lt. Benjamin Gorman of Lancaster, Pa., who is stopping by the post office to check on any mail for his 37-member platoon in the 254th Quartermaster Company, an Army Reserve unit that came here from Pennsylvania eight days ago.

"It's very important to them,'' he adds. "They're touching base with home and family and loved ones.''

Gorman leaves with two envelopes. Next in line is Pfc. Michael LaMorticelli from Natick, Mass., picking up for the 726th Headquarters Unit from Boston.

"Everything from clothes to beans,'' LaMorticelli said. "Stuff they forgot, stuff they need.''

There are some limits. Post office staffer Robert Kane runs boxes through an X-ray scanning machine the size of a small car, watching a video monitor for any contraband items, and slaps an "X-rayed'' sticker on each box that passes. Soldiers are not allowed to receive personal weapons in the mail, for example, and a couple of knives have been confiscated, Gentner said.

Once, she and Kane had to summon base police when they thought a handgun was in one package, she recalls. It was only a paint-ball gun, and they wound up giving it to the soldier "because he was going to be in a paint-ball tournament,'' she added.

For packages bound to soldiers in Kuwait, the rules are more strict. U.S. Customs checks packages for items that offend Islamic sensibilities: alcoholic beverages (and any fixings such as beer yeast), pork or pork products, any material "depicting nude or semi-nude persons.''

Army instructors warn soldiers that in conservative Persian Gulf societies, even a Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue is considered virtually in the same category as pornography.

Four to five soldiers per shift help Gentner and Kane sort mail. Spc. Jay Decker of Reading, Pa., said he remembers the feeling that came with mail during his time on active duty in Germany.

"To me, it's the biggest morale booster,'' Decker said. "Not everyone over there has e-mail.''

The postal workers recently got some mail themselves: a card from Sgt. Heather Arrison of Philadelphia, who has put in her summer duty at the base post office for three years and is now with her postal detachment in Kuwait.

"She said it's horrible. They were living in a warehouse in the middle of a junkyard, with no toilets or showers,'' Gentner said. "She said she's in the real Army now.''