Thursday, January 29, 2009

Mail Woes

During my first tour overseas, any mail was good mail. It momentarily propelled me out of Iraq and sent me home, provided me with ample food and books to keep me entertained, and even helped supply things that we couldn’t get through our own supply lines or PXs on other bases. It was, in short, a lifeline.

New to the whole deployment thing, I wasn’t terribly prepared for the vast assortment of interesting, strange, or even outright wrong mail we received. I’m still amazed at the stuff people wasted their money sending.

I think the most universally useless items that arrived were mountains of Christmas ornaments. Just where we would hang these developed later. But this is Iraq. Christmas ornaments? Don’t people usually save these things? Especially when they’re carefully handmade? While I felt guilty at first, I started just throwing them away after a time. Not only were they useless for where we were, but even if I was in the states I’d be hesitant to display some of those that were sent.

But then the Christmas trees starting arriving – lovely, plastic sizes of all shapes and colors. I guess to get us in the festive mood to better enjoy our “special crawdad dinner,” which was interrupted by a mortar attack. One guy, when I was complaining about all the trees we were getting, put it in perfect Marine Corps perspective:

“Yeah, they’re not good for much, but ours sure burned well. Once you light ‘em, they’re gone in a matter of seconds. I thought we were going to burn down the place. Wanna see the pictures?”

I did not. While he burned his, a number were smaller, and people actually put them in their rooms and elected to NOT incinerate them. They were still gaudy, though.

I knew a Navy nurse who, while stationed in Guantanamo Bay, went through similar experiences.

“Every year,” she told me, “they’d cut down live tress in the states and put them on ships for Gitmo. Forty days later, when they arrived, we’d buy them, and the second we touched them, all the needles fell off. They were dry – and dead – as a bone. That led to a lot of jokes.”

We weren’t getting the live ones. Just the fake, inflammable ones.

Our company XO, perhaps as a joke, or perhaps in protest of all the wasted garbage being sent to us, elected to put up a tree of his own. It was positively stunning. Little more than sparse, bare, dead tree with about four branches. He hung random Easter eggs and other crap from the branches, and I think there may have been some pumpkins and fake spider web stuff, too. It was propped up with rocks at the base, and fell over a lot – especially since it was between our barracks and the nice little pile of palm trees everybody liked to piss in instead of walking to the porta-jons. We’d run into it, curse, then go leak in the bushes. On warmer days, the whole area reeked so badly that we didn’t want to admire the tree, anyway.

But Christmas junk wasn’t the only junk we’d received. There was plenty of it, even letters.

I’m still trying to figure out who released the false information, but folks in the states were all told that they should never send us chocolate. It melted in the harsh desert sun, and made a mess of things. With that went my favorite treat: chocolate chip cookies. While I made every effort to refute the incorrect briefing, I never received enough. The idiot that told them all no chocolate had left his mark.

Other items were well-intentioned, but became ridiculous with quantity. Apparently we were all dying of cancer in the same desert sun that ruined cookies, so we were sent literally cases of lip balm, sun screen, and dry skin lotion. Half of these things blew up in transit, and the rest were picked through methodically and discarded. For a long while, we had boxes of unwanted things sitting in a spare room. If you wanted it, just take it. We sure as hell didn’t. We used most of the other toiletry items, or at least found somebody else who needed them. I replaced my toothbrush once a week, and could have tried a different flavor of toothpaste every day if I was so inclined – though I was not.

Candy was also a nice gesture, but by the time we had about fifty pounds, we had to do something with it. Rather than throw it way, we chose instead to toss it to the Iraqi kids as we drove around the AO [area of operations]. Before long, however, that too caused problems. Kids, knowing we were going to throw candy, would line the sides of the road and wait for it. We always threw enough (well, I did), but they’d end up fighting over it anyway. The boys would shove the girls, and then the boys would get punched by bigger boys. Everybody was firmly convinced that the other side of the road had more candy, so they’d go streaking across the road directly in front of us. Several were nearly hit. Before long, we weren’t allowed to throw candy at all, so we threw it away. Lord knows we’d get tooth rot if we ate it all.

Though I did not do it, I have a hunch that a couple of my associates would routinely find a crowd of kids and then carefully throw only a couple pieces – then stand back to watch them scrap. I never did this. Nor did I get creative and cruel like some of our other counterparts who, instead of throwing candy, threw the individual, metal fruit cups – at peoples’ heads. Those incidents were undoubtedly the deciding factor in us being forbidden to throw anything at all.

The letters, above all else, took the cake as being the strangest. I remember one I received from a stranger in South Carolina, which read something like this:

“Hi this is so and so from South Carolina. My husband was a Marine Gunnery sergeant, so I’m familiar with deployments and having him gone a lot. He’s retired now, but still thinks he’s a Gunny. He just runs around the house screaming orders at everybody like we’re Marines, too. We just ignore him. That’s our Gunny. Signed, the Gunny’s Wife.”

Nice. My friend, however, received undeniably the worst, from a package of letters written by an elementary school class.

“Thank you for being in the war. I know that most of you die, so you may not actually get this. But if you don’t die. Thank you for protecting us. I hope you don’t die anyway.”

Whoever filters their students’ writing should do so a little more carefully. At least they left out handy, illustrative drawings to prove their point. Nevertheless, the letter really bothered my buddy, and he talked about it for days. In fact, had he an address, he would have sent back a response:

“Dear snot-nosed kid; No, I have not died yet, and am also hopeful that I do not. And while I’m at it, f**ck you. Thanks a freakin’ lot. How old are you? Are you hot?”

That one, to my knowledge, was never sent. Most of the others were friendly, encouraging, and fun to read. Though I had little time to thank more than a handful, I appreciated their thoughts and prayers – however anonymous they may have been.

One of the problems that quickly surfaced with military mail is security. While the post office was very careful to get things to us reliably, once they arrived in the hands of military mail clerks, that went out the window. The pricks would read the packaging labels, and if the boxes contained anything interesting, they’d steal it – routinely. A lot of DVDs, electronics, cigarettes, and other expensive items never reached their destination at all. I remember one card that was opened, the single piece of candy removed, the wrapper replaced, and a label on the envelope stating, “this package has been opened.” Well thanks guys. They’re all a bunch of thieves. Nobody ever took things that weren’t expensive.

To combat this, I informed everybody that if they wanted to send me anything at all, the label, regardless of content, should state that the contents were books and baby powder. Those always seemed to arrive. I’ve received many a tin of brownies, electronics, tools, coffeemakers, and other sundry items all disguised as books and babypowder.

Just never put soap in the same box as food. No matter how many times you wrap it, the brownies still taste like Lever 2000. And even though we still eat them, it’s not with quite the same enjoyment.

The most vicious rumor that nobody in particular started and everybody spread around was that our mail shipping containers had met a terrible demise by either falling off a ship, getting lost, or blown up by IEDs. We’d fret and worry, and think about our lovely tins of brownies now either being eaten by fish or burning in a heap on the side of the road – and they always arrived anyway – though sometimes well over a month after they were sent. I never figured out who started these rumors, but they’re worse for morale than eating crappy food overboiled by the most apathetic military cooks. Combat cooks. That’s another stupid term. But anyway…

Regardless of the scores of items that never arrived, the food that tasted like soap, the flammable trees, and the disheartening mail, we were well supplied with any number of items we needed – mostly by strangers who took the time to pick out things, buy them, and wait in long lines to send them to people they would never meet. While I have certainly kept in touch with a few, most will never hear a thank you. So, hear it now: Thank you. You kept us alive, well-fed, and eager to come back to a country we knew would welcome us.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved


  1. Even Brownies that taste like soap are good.

  2. Oh yes...the letters. We check ALL letters before they are placed in a care package. The following letter was so unbelievable that I saved it because...well... you decide.

    Dear Soldier,
    God bless you,
    for your strenghth and courage overseas.
    What a gift you are giving all of us.
    Words cannot express the gratitude we feel
    for your ultimate sacrifice.
    Come home soon.

    I am not kidding you. Somebody wrote this!