In this age of (near) instantaneous contact via email or, where accessible, the various pieces of social media our deployed Sailors, Marines, Soldiers and Airmen can access, there is still nothing, and I do mean nothing, quite as satisfying as a letter or package that arrives in the mail.  The whiff of perfume still tenuously clinging to the envelope with the distinctive cursive writing, or the smooshed package that nonetheless opens to homemade chocolate chip cookies regularly trumps the electronic media.  Why?  Because it carries an intangible – that somewhere along the long, busy process of delivery from Somewhere, USA to USS Nimitz or a dusty forward base, the hands of someone we love and who loves us touched it.  And that is one of the reasons mail is so important for our deployed service members…and why one of the most important calls a COD can make upon checking in inbound on Button 1 is pounds of pony express.  Hence our latest postcard from deployment.



So it is now only five days until Christmas as I write this, we are getting a ton of mail delivered out to us via underway replenishment and via COD. To a couple of your readers, I just received the Peet’s coffee mailed out to me. I know it was ordered in October, but one of the joys of military mail is how long it takes things to arrive on station to us. It was still fresh and appreciated because right now they are offering some bitter freeze dried bricks of coffee from the mid-east. So to understand how it works I thought this little postcard could explain it away. There are some mistakes for those of you in the postal fields, but this is how it was explained to me by a postal clerk and I try to break it down even more Barney Dinosaur style to the readers.

Nearly all military mail for units uses an system called APO/FPO and unit numbers. The way the system is designed to work so that you don’t know where the military person is located if the mail gets intercepted by the enemy. All they know is that LT Steeljaw and AT1 are assigned to VAW-13 det 5 at unit 99999 FPO, AP. Remember that point in the last sentence about no one knowing where the person is, that is slightly important. Most of the mail now a days is shipped via commercial air to the closes us military base and from there it is then sorted into bags to delivered to units around them.

APO and FPO’s are holdovers from world war 2 and they are short for Army Post Office and Fleet Post Office. These used to be primarily located in three distinct places in the nation. San Francisco, New York, and Norfolk. They were the big processing centers. Depending on where the unit was home based mail would leave your hands and head to one of these locations for routing to the military member. San Fran for most of the Pacific based units and those home ported on the West Coast. Norfolk for the East coast based units and up to the Mississippi river. New York was the clearing house for most of the European based units. So as that letter leaves your hands to me, it travels to the San Francisco post office. They then say to send it up to me in Seattle.

That letter arrives in Seattle and is shipped over to my base. At which point the base post office handles it and goes VAQXYZ is unit number ABC. Consulting a list they have about who is home and who is deployed, realizing that I am deployed the mail is dropped into a bag waiting to be shipped out to me and my unit. Once that bag is full, they then consult another list and mark it for shipment via airmail to the closes military base to where we are operating at the time that list came out. This list seems to be typically about two to three weeks behind. So even though I have been gone from Singapore for about a month. All the mail is routed there initially because the supply system hasn’t caught on that I have moved to another operating area.

So they hold on to it until the new mailing list arrives and  then ship it to the new operating area. Once it arrives on station, such as the 5th fleet operating area, they store it in a giant warehouse waiting for further sorting and shipment. The COD’s have to adjust for fuel loads, passengers, and pony. Strange as it may seem, VIP’s trump mail; ditto for parts to fix things on the ships and planes. So the letter that left your hand at the beginning of November is still sitting in some bag at the bottom of a pile awaiting sorting to be thrown on a COD that can be sent out to us. When it finally gets on the COD, it comes out to us it is then sorted by the onboard clerks to delivered out to our commands. The commands then sort it even further to work shops for deliver. What is even funnier is sometimes the supply system will try for a massed burp of mail via an unrep, so they will try and hold one of our supply ships. Throw a whole bunch of large boxes called tri-walls and fill them to the top with mail. It all finally arrives to us sometimes about a month late or even months later.

Remember how I mentioned you needed to remember why no one knows where people are? Well for some units people are moving so fast to arrive on station, that no one knows where the mail is supposed to go. Or the unit numbers on the mailing lists are mangled so unit 99999 is actually in Naples, but the mailing list says they are in Al Asad. So it goes there sitting forever until someone wonders why it hasn’t been picked up. They then ship it back to the states, via the same sort of route it comes out to us. No kidding I had gotten Christmas gifts that were mailed out in first week of November, show up to me in June when I was back home. The Christmas cookies were stale and the gifts were written off as lost.

Military mail system is one of the reasons that a large number of internet companies won’t ship high priced electronics out to us and it isn’t recommend to ship anything perishable out to us. Don’t send even chocolate bars cause there is a chance they will melt before it gets there and  just turn into a mess. So it is usually recommended that you do hard candies and imperishable foods It gets even worst around the holiday times, that the US Postal Service will actually state that if you want  a package to arrive to your military member before Christmas it should be postmarked no later then sometime in November. The best part too is letter mail can be days and months late, so you get a weekly new magazine that is about three or more months old and you already know how the story has turned out. It is just one of those things to shrug your shoulders at.

Hope all of you all enjoy your times with the families this week and remember that there will only be 364 days until Christmas on the 26th of December.



  1. Bill K

    The “whiff of perfume still tenuously clinging” – sounds next to impossible from what Charles describes. I remember back in the dark ages when I was young and single, smelling that whiff on envelopes sent from San Diego to Chicago, and thinking the little vixen who sent ’em sure knew what she was doing. Sounds like for you military folks, only patchouli might linger long enough. 🙁

  2. When one measures time away from a particular loved one in months, it’s amazing how you can pick up even the slightest trace of scent. Of course, many was the time too that everybody’s mail smelled the same because one correspondent soaked hers in the strongest possible perfume. That would linger in the ready room for days after mail call too…
    – SJS

  3. Bill K

    Is that the reason for the moniker “Nose” for the frequent commenter at Lex’s site? 😉

  4. Ah…no. Nose has his own unique attributes of which a keen sense of smell was not one.
    – SJS

  5. Tom Jones

    Ed got cookies from home once,and cologne – the cologne leaked onto the cookies and the first one or two tasted great, After that, not so much.

    It was OK b/c we had just smoked some hashish.

    1977, Baumholder, West Germany.

  6. AT1 B

    Even more COD hits today and a quickie night time VOD brought onboard 25Klbs of mail to us. Everything from the family packages to troop support organizations.

    As to strange holiday gifts, nothing can trump the home made sheets that one guy had gotten where the wife had her picture printed on it life size in a bikini and another flat sheet with just herself and nothing else on herself. He was either dumb (or smart) enough to have opened it up in font of thirty other lonely guys. A whole bunch of wolf whistles and smart butt comments later he never brought out the sheets again.

  7. CD

    Is that the reason for the moniker “Nose” for the frequent commenter at Lex’s site? 😉

  8. The first time was with a C-1A aboard Independence long ago. We also got it occasionally on vertreps. That was a major delivery method on the last trips I made to the IO on Kitty Hawk.
    Once on Ranger, we watched the sling leave the Frog and hit the drink. Three days later, one of my shipmates in the Aviation Hydraulic Shop got a water stained letter from his girlfriend!
    Broken and smashed cookies, the rolls of Copenhagen and Skoal on the hostage cruise on Ranger. The letters and cards from people we didn’t even know who gave us their prayers and love. And now such things are seen through the mists of memories from a long time ago.

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