CAMP TAQADDUM, Iraq -- In a country which feels impossibly far away, a letter or package can deliver a little piece of home to the field. This year, these special deliveries come to Iraq faster.
During the first year of operations in Iraq, mail could take more than two months to finally reach a Marine in the field. Now, it takes two weeks or less.
"It's a 180-degree turn around from last year," said Staff Sgt. Ramon Arredondo, 34, with the 1st Force Service Support Group's main post office here.
Postal clerks in the Marine Corps were overwhelmed by the amount of mail being sent to Iraq last year. Some units were assigned more clerks than they needed, while others were left lacking. As a whole, there was just too much mail for the personnel to deal with under the war time conditions, said Arredondo.
Additionally, it was difficult for the clerks to anticipate where the mail would be able to catch up to the unit it was intended for because the nature of operations in Iraq last year kept many Marines on the move, said Arredondo, a native of Sanger, Calif.
In 2003, mail sent from the West Coast was forwarded to the East Coast before being sent overseas. This increased both delivery time and shipping costs for the sender, said Arredondo.
This year, mail is sent overseas from both San Francisco and New York. Instead of arriving in Kuwait, as it did last year, mail is now flown directly to the Baghdad International Airport, and then moved along by convoys and cargo planes in order to reach its final destination.
During the combat stages of Operation Iraqi Freedom last spring, convoys sent out of Kuwait were laden with troops, food, water and ammunition. Mail was not the first priority, so mountains of letters and packages piled up waiting to be pushed forward into Iraq, said Arredondo.
Increases in civilian and military postal personnel, transportation improvements, stationary bases of operation and better equipment are the major factors leading to this year's superior service.
The Military Postal Service Agency in San Francisco has provided one of the biggest improvements: a multimillion dollar machine which presorts the mail by location and unit before sending it overseas, said Arredondo. Additionally, civilian contractors with Kellogg, Brown and Root sort the mail even further when it arrives in Iraq, which allows Marine postal clerks to focus on getting bags of mail to the correct unit, vice individual letters.
Mail was often sorted in cramped tents last year, but now, Marines at Camp Taqaddum sort the mail in a warehouse. This allows room for large bins organized by location and unit, helping prevent mail from being misplaced, said Arredondo. Mail is then either delivered on base or sent on to other locations such as Camps Fallujah, Al Asad and Blue Diamond.
Accurate ZIP code assignments for each base further increase speed. Also, the Marines here are the first in Iraq to use hand-held bar-code scanners to track mail by scanning presorted boxes. This ensures the mail is moving where and when it should be, said Chief Warrant Officer 3 Donald Darling, 41, I Marine Expeditionary Force's postal officer from Temecula, Calif.
Upon its arrival on a base, mail is normally delivered within 24 hours.
In 2003, 135 congressional investigations were launched after service members and their families sent scores of letters to Congress complaining about the slow service. This year, not a single investigation into military mail has yet arisen, said Darling.
While mail can always go astray due to incorrect addressing, letters and packages sent to Iraq also have to contend with the possibility of attacks on transport convoys. Arredondo said that so far only two truck loads have been lost to rocket-propelled grenades in transit to and from Camp Taqaddum. Since more than 9.4 million pounds of mail have moved in and out of Taqaddum since March, the losses aren't overwhelming.
"The mail this year is as reliable as the mail back home," said Cpl. Daniel Pertl, 23, a mechanic from Erie, Pa., currently serving his second deployment in Iraq with 3rd Battalion, 24th Marine Regiment's Truck Detachment.
"It's good to have a reliable mail service in such an unreliable environment," said Pertl.