CAMP TAQADDUM, Iraq -- If you’re a Marine in Iraq, there’s a new set of eyes scanning the mail you’re sending home.
Postal Marines operating at Al Asad Air Base and Camp Taqaddum – the two main Marine Corps air stations and central locations for mail delivery in western Iraq – are utilizing new X-ray machines recently installed here, part of a push to ensure mail routed through the country of Bahrain back to the United States is safe for air travel.
There are eight sets of the system working in Iraq and Afghanistan, all operated by civilian contractors with the civilian mail carrier company DHL, Inc. The machines are used to scan all parcels leaving the respective countries for explosives and other prohibited or otherwise dangerous content and contraband.
The machine, which resembles X-rays devices commonly found in airports across the United States, takes digital two-dimensional photographs of packages service members and civilians here want to mail out. Items of concern for the postal workers are metallic objects, which are easily noticeable on the image and often represent the dangerous items postal personnel are trying to keep from entering the mail system.
Prohibited items include ammunition (live and casings after fired), grenades, shrapnel and magazines for weapons. Each of these items poses a significant threat for aircraft and other mail handlers, said Chief Warrant Officer 4 Don McCarty, the officer in charge of postal operations for the 1st Marine Logistics Group.
The process to approve the X-ray’s purchase and installation began in January after officials in Bahrain – where all mail leaving Iraq is routed – expressed concern over the amount of prohibited content being found there, said McCarty, who is responsible for running all postal operations in the Al Anbar province.
The systems now in place serve as a precautionary safeguard throughout Iraq and Afghanistan, providing a more accurate way to ensure all mail is thoroughly scanned – and searched if necessary – before receiving a final X-ray at Bahrain.
“The intent is to make it safer to move the mail. We have to guarantee that no explosives of any type get onto those planes,” said McCarty, 43.
By implementing the system, the Department of Defense is protecting its ability to move mail in and out of Iraq and Afghanistan, said McCarty.
The government of Bahrain threatened to revoke the U.S. military’s ability to route mail through the country after repeatedly finding prohibited items in packages that hadn’t been thoroughly checked before making their way into the DHL inspection process, said McCarty.
Other options, such as trucking mail on long convoys to Kuwait, would severely slow down the transportation of mail, he said.
With only a month of use the X-ray scans between 500-700 packages a day, although business is slow right now, McCarty said, who is anticipating a large rotation of troops here in the next month.
Only postal personnel are allowed to inspect any package that passes through the post office hubs at Al Asad Air Base and Camp Taqaddum. The DHL Inc. employees who operate the X-ray machines alert the Marines to anything suspicious, who then open and search the parcel, declaring in writing anything prohibited that is found.
If a service member is caught intentionally mailing anything that is not allowed, severe punishments can be expected, said McCarty, an Omaha, Neb., native
McCarty said that his Marines average roughly 10 parcels identified a day as suspect, with about seven typically containing one or more of the prohibited items.
With more than 30,000 service members sending and receiving mail in Al Anbar, the new X-ray should help the Marines who run the postal facilities who used to have to inspect every package and could not always find something the new X-ray can detect.
There have been instances of attempts to hide weapons and other prohibited items in soccer balls, stereos and other hiding spots that got by military postal inspectors only to be later found in Bahrain.
Random searches will now be conducted, as opposed to personal inspections of every package by postal clerks.
With this significant drop in searches, less personnel are needed to conduct them allowing greater distribution of the workload for the Marine-run post offices where these new X-rays have been implemented, making the mailing experience quicker and easier for customers, said McCarty.
A variety of things have been found with the new X-rays including live machine gun ammunition and a pair of grenades that were already defused.
Violations like these are punishable under the military’s justice system with a maximum punishment of dishonorable discharge, confinement for 2 years, total forfeiture of pay and reduction in rank.
“No matter how much a service member wants a war-trophy, it’s not worth it,” said Lance Cpl. John Udui, a native of Hawaii and a postal clerk here.