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Friday, October 26, 2012

Sending Gifts to Military Service Members Serving Overseas

Trooper's Snack Pack
Many of us have friends and family serving in the military over the holidays. It’s tough on us, and it’s tough on them to be apart during this time usually reserved for family gatherings and homecomings. Sending gifts overseas is as close as we can hope to come to sharing the holiday season with our loved ones stationed far away, so I’m writing this blog post to make sure your gifts get there on time! Follow a few simple rules to make sure your soldier receives their package before Christmas.

Rule #1 – Start Early
Keep in mind that calculating a delivery date for a military address is difficult if not impossible. Instead of a regular daily or weekly scheduled delivery time, the delivery process for military addresses depends on a combination of the location and available transport. This lack of a delivery schedule makes it necessary to ship packages very early to account for uncertain delivery time frames. Start shopping now for holiday gifts and send presents early and accurately to be sure your soldier receives their Christmas gifts on time.

Here is how the process works. Your package is routed via the US Postal Service to one of several holding centers on the east or west coast depending on its final destination. From here, packages are taken into the custody of the Military Postal Service Agency (MPSA) and this is where tracking becomes next to impossible. If you send your gift through Express Mail, Priority Mail or First Class, packages are transported on an airplane, and are usually delivered within one to two weeks. Standard rate postage packages are transported on a cargo ship, taking much longer to reach the other side of the ocean, up to a month or more! 

Packages and mail are transported whenever transport becomes available, so there are no established shipping or pickup times. This means that calculating a definite delivery time is impossible. The riskier or more remote the station being delivered to, the longer transport will take. During peak holiday times, delivery slows down as well. To further complicate shipping to a military address, tracking normally stops when the postal service completes the hand off of the package to the military. So as you can see, it is next to impossible to determine an exact delivery date. Better safe than sorry, so send very early. With delivery times that range from one to six weeks, I recommend sending packages before Thanksgiving.
Pfc. Lucero Garcia, in Baghdad. Photo by US Army
Pfc. Lucero Garcia, stationed in Baghdad. Photo by US Army

Rule #2 – Get the address correct… Down to the letter!
A military address can be a little confusing, so here is how it is put together. A typical address looks something like this:

SGT John Doe
PSC 802 BOX 74
APO, AE 09499-0074

Be sure you include the full name of the person to whom you are sending a gift. The postal service, due to security concerns, no longer accepts packages address to “Any Service Member”. The final line is usually the most confusing due to all those acronyms! One of three types of postal offices, an APO, FPO or DPO is designated first in place of the City reference. APO stands for Air/Army Post Office. Packages addressed to APO’s are taken into custody by the Army or Air Force. FPO stands for Fleet Post Office; these packages are claimed by the Navy. DPO’s are Diplomatic Post Offices for delivery to embassies. AA, AE and AP designations replace the state designation.

•    AA stands for Armed Forces Americas, serving all of the U.S., Central America and South America,   excluding Canada.
•    AE stands for Armed Forces Europe, serving Europe, Canada, Africa and the Middle East
•    AP stands for Armed Forces Pacific, serving Asia and the Pacific

This designation determines the holding center to which the USPS will deliver packages. Those marked AA are delivered to a holding center in Miami. AE designated packages are routed to New York City, and AP marked packages are sent to San Francisco.

It is essential that the address is perfect. What may seem like a simple mistake such as a one digit zip code error will likely mean the package will be lost. Don’t assume that the postal service will correct the address. If in doubt, confirm the address with the recipient before shipping your package. Make sure that you print and write very legibly. Check and re-check that address before you send!
Military Packages

Rule # 3 – Pack carefully

1.    Choose the right box.  Do not overstuff a box; if the box is too full, it might open on the way to the destination.
2.    Waterproof the contents by lining the box with a garbage bag.
3.    Package the items so that they are secure and cannot move around.
4.    If the item is fragile, use bubble wrap.
5.    If you are shipping several items in the same box, make sure that you put anything that can spill inside a baggie.
6.    To make receiving more fun, wrap each item separately. This will also help protect the items and is particularly true if you mix the contents.
7.    Add a copy of the recipient’s address to the inside of the box. This way, if the outside label is torn or becomes unreadable, the package will still arrive.
8.    Finish the process with lots of clear packaging tape. Seal the box shut on all sides and then tape along all of the box seams.
9.    Be sure to add a return address to your box.
10.    Take your box to the post office and ask for a customs form. The clerk will help you complete the form if you need assistance.

Stick to these guidelines and your gift should be set to go, neatly packaged and ready for its long voyage across the sea!

To Consider Before Sending
•    Be sure to check on military mail restrictions before sending. Mail going to personnel through the Military Postal Service Agency is subject to the host country customs requirements. Contact your local Post Office, or visit the USPS website for a list of restrictions. Common prohibited items include alcohol, firearms, perishable food items, batteries, flammable materials and fruits. Soldiers serving in the Middle East or Afghanistan cannot receive a bulk amount of material contrary to the Islamic faith, pork or pork by-products or material considered pornographic or politically inflammatory.
•    Be sure to consider the amount of time your package may likely be in transit. Obviously, the transit time prohibits fresh flower gifts. Even chocolates should be avoided in most cases due to the fact that temperature controls may be lacking during transport. Desert temperatures typically exceed 100 degrees; this can damage delicate goods such as electronics.
Trooper's Snack Pack
Gift Ideas
Care packages and gifts specifically designated for military members make wonderful options for sending to soldiers. Arttowngifts.com features a selection of care packages boxed in disposable containers to help soldiers avoid the hassle of carting around bulky packaging. Care packages like this Soldier’s Snack Pack feature an assortment of fun snacks and sweets, plus puzzles and games to ward off boredom. If you want to send food, avoid the temptation to send fresh baked. Instead look for food items with a long shelf life such as beef jerky, jelly beans, snack mixes and sunflower seeds. Other ideal gifts include personalized gifts such as multi-purpose tools, flash lights, knives and dope bags. Some military sites recommend razors, word puzzles, baby wipes, socks, disposable cameras, duck tape, lip balm, reading materials, writing materials and mints. Include cards and letters from various friends and family members to make gifts very personal and pleasing. It is difficult to spend holidays away from home, so be sure to send gifts that comfort and remind the soldier that he or she is missed and loved.

Not All Online Retailers Ship to Military Addresses

Keep in mind that many online and brick and mortar retailers do not offer shipping to military addresses due to the lack of tracking, additional paperwork required, etc. There are some alternatives such as ShipitAPO or APO Box. Using these services, you can place an order with any online company and send the order to their location and they will reship to the soldier for a handling fee plus the additional shipping charges.

The final takeaways: start early and send carefully. The uncertainties in shipping to military addresses can leave your soldier without a Christmas gift if left until the last minute. Plan ahead and send before Thanksgiving to avoid this. As you prepare to send, decide what to send carefully, and make sure that what you plan to ship is permissible through the postal service. Check and re-check your address for correctness and pack your box neatly, keeping in mind the long journey ahead. Nobody needs Christmas cheer as much as the troops serving far from their families and loved ones, so making an effort to send out packages on time is well worth your effort, and well worth the joy felt by service members overseas as they receive holiday packages. Start now for a happier holiday all around!
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