This might sound a little surprising if you’ve never served overseas before, but one thing that the military does an outstanding job of is sending mail into war zones. The military mail system is a well-developed branch of the United States Postal Service, and understanding how it works will go a long way towards making your first overseas contract job a lot more comfortable.
Without getting into the history of the military mail system, the least you need to know is that by using the military mail system of APO addresses, you can have people send you care packages from back home without any huge international shipping costs tacked on. There are two major Army Post Office (APO) locations outside the United States that you should be familiar with before you leave for your first contract. They are:
APO AE: Armed Forces Europe (almost all work in Afghanistan or Iraq)
APO AP: Armed Forces Pacific
Sending a package to a military location overseas usually involves marking down the recipient’s name, along with the unit, camp, and building number, then the APO address and zip code behind that. When filling out a standard shipping form, just put “APO” in the blocks for the city and “AE” or “AP” as the state. Each camp or work site in theater will have a different ZIP code, so double check with your site manager to make sure the address is current before you have anything sent.
Using the military mail system is a pretty good deal because even though you’re still charged a shipping fee based on the weight of the package, the cost by destination is figured from the US “neck city” for each address. For APO AE addresses this is New York City and for APO AP addresses it’s San Francisco, so basically you can ship a package halfway around the world for the same price it costs to send your Christmas presents every year. For an even better deal you can use the standard-size Priority Mail boxes, where everything you can stuff inside is shipped at a flat rate regardless of weight.
Making use of the military mail system is a great way to move your stuff if you end up getting transferred between bases while you’re in country. It used to be free for all military personnel and contractors to send packages and footlockers in between bases, but I’ve heard that the Post Offices had started charging civilian contractors in the past few years. Still, $40 or so per box is a steal when you consider that the alternative is hauling your gear on and off of helicopters in the middle of the night. Letters and photo CDs that you send home are always free, although you do have to fill out a customs slip for enclosed material.
Customs slips are required when shipping packages between countries, and you should also get used to having your packages searched by postal inspectors. If you’re sending stuff from your camp, you won’t be able to seal the package until it’s been checked by one of the mail handlers. Prohibited items include some of the common-sense things like pornography, weapons, alcohol, and drugs, but even shipping political or religious materials in large quantities could get you hemmed up. Also, it pays to be a little vague when filling out the customs forms. Marking “iPod” or “Xbox” in big bright letters is a guaranteed way to make your package “fall off the truck”. When using military post offices in a war zone, you need to make sure to bring enough cash with you. It’s very unlikely that a credit card machine will be in place unless you’re at the biggest camp in country.
Last, but most importantly, understanding the military mail system allows you to take full advantage of online shopping. Target, Old Navy, and Wal-Mart are just a few of the bigger retailers who ship to APO addresses at their regular rates. Only a sucker would stand in line at the PX in the hopes of scoring the last pair of thermal underwear in Kandahar when you could just as easily order a set online if you’re willing to wait an extra week or two for shipping. If you’ve planned ahead and placed a few strategic orders while you’re home on leave, your PX trips can be better spent sucking down the Mountain Dew slushees and flipping through American Iron magazines.
Living and working in a war zone can be challenging, but it doesn’t have to be completely miserable. Understanding how the military mail system works, and using it to your full advantage, will go a long way towards making your first contract a lot more manageable.