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Friday, May 7

Authorities try to speed delayed mail to troops

By Karen Jowers | Army Times

Troops, military 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, show delays, disappearances and thefts within the system take a toll on the morale of troops in Iraq and their families back home.

Poor mail service is especially a concern in this election year, when up to 250,000 troops deployed in the Persian Gulf and Central Asia regions will vote by mailed-in absentee ballots.

"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 the Pentagon comptroller.

Problems run deep

Officials with the Army's 3rd Personnel Command, which oversees mail operations in the Iraq war zone, insist letters and packages are delivered in 12 to 13 days on average.

But the GAO, the watchdog arm of Congress, said the military lacks a "reliable, accurate" way to measure timeliness.

Of the 127 soldiers and Marines interviewed by auditors, nearly half waited four weeks or more to get mail. Many said mail took up to four months.Nearly 80 percent said they never got mail that was sent to them or the mail finally caught up with them after they returned home.

Army 1st Lt. Spence Burnett returned with the 3rd Infantry Division to Fort Stewart, Ga., from Iraq in August. In early February, he received a letter his wife mailed to Iraq on June 5.

Burnett said troops understand mail delivery is more difficult in a war zone than in peacetime.

"But it's a different story when we receive mail ... that was sent eight months ago," he said.

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.

Military officials say they are taking action, including boosting the size and number of postal units in Kuwait and Bahrain.

In response to the GAO report, Army Brig. Gen. Gina Farrisee, head of the Military Postal Service Agency, said her agency will issue new guidance for postal operations.

Officials with 3rd Personnel Command say some problems are due simply 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."

Accusations of theft

But problems run deeper than logistical shortfalls.

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, mother of two soldiers, including one deployed to Iraq.

She founded Operation Support Our Troops, a group of military family members who send letters and care packages to the 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.

Recently, DVDs were stolen from two boxes she sent 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.

"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.

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 and in some cases local nationals take over when it arrives overseas.

U.S. Postal Service 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.