MORALE HAS CURDLED in many American units around Iraq, despite the amazing success of coalition forces since the invasion began on March 20th. The reason isn't 95-degree heat or the relentless dust or the suicidal harassment by Saddam's Fedayeen. It's the shameful total breakdown of the army's postal system.
"It's the worst thing about this war" said Sp. Stephen Clifford of the 64th Armor Regiment, "The whole thing went well but they screwed up a lot of the small details: When the first task force came over six months ago they had enough people to handle the mail. But when everyone else came over, they never grew it!"
Mail is the only means the men and women here have to stay in touch with their loved ones, and vice versa. "It's your only connection to the outside world, your only connection to the people you love" explains 1st Lieut. Matthew Ross, 24, of Spring Lake MI, serving with the 54th Engineer battalion.
But Ross's unit (currently camped at Objective Peaches on the West Bank of the Euphrates), like others throughout the theater, has not received any mail for more than a month (some haven't gotten mail in two months) thanks to what looks like unbelievable incompetence and a lack of concern for the ordinary fighting man on the part of the rear echelon--and CENTCOM itself.
Nor are the pressures of war any excuse for the army's postal failure: The two months the 54th has gone without mail includes the six weeks it spent in the Kuwaiti desert--just 40 km from Kuwait City.
Throughout the first Gulf War, troops received mail regularly, even on the front line. "Mail was squared away in the first Gulf War" says Sgt. Scott Thomas, who was in the 23rd Engineers in the Spearhead (3rd) Armored Division and was in fierce combat along the "Highway of Death" in 1991. "It was no problem. They'd even fly packages into the task force on Blackhawks and Chinooks."
It's true that "task organization"--the attachment and detachment of units like the 54th to different commands (the 54th has been under four different brigade commands since February)--complicates things. And the troops did get some mail when they first arrived in country.
But some mail that was posted the day before the unit left Germany on February 14th has yet to arrive.
And as Master Sgt. Donald Ruel pointed out when the unit first stopped for a breather before the move up to the Karbala gap, "if some doesn't come soon, it will really affect morale."
"It's a big screw up" says Captain Will Brown, 30, of Dover-Foxcroft, Maine.
"If I could, I'd write a letter to my congressman" said Major Jeff Harrison at a meeting of officers to address morale and welfare. Many other soldiers here are planning to do just that.
The battalion commander Lt. Col. Ed Jackson feels his men's pain. "The guys love what they're doing and they believe in the mission, but they miss their wives and children. I've got a two-year-old and I haven't seen him for two months and I'm not getting any mail either. My wife told me in February that she's writing every day but I haven't had anything for six weeks." Lt. Col. Jackson also points out that "a lot of people out here rely on care-packages for things like toilet paper and toothpaste." (These items, along with baby wipes, cigarettes, and batteries, are so valuable they're a kind of currency here in the desert.) The CO's wife sent him a camp chair, but it hasn't arrived.
A majority of the soldiers here have spouses and children. Some have pregnant wives or ailing relatives. And as Command Sergeant Major Michael Buxbaum, a Gulf War veteran, points out, "if you give a soldier a choice between a hot meal and mail, he'd choose mail. I would. Soldiers can always eat an MRE but [they can't get] contact with their loved ones."
"I don't know if my husband is in Germany still or if he's been posted to Kuwait City" complains Sgt. Rhonda Loy, 36, of Annapolis, Maryland, who works in the battalion ALOC (admin, logistics and operations center).
"My parents and relatives have been sending packages and I haven't received any of them. And it's not just us, the whole 3rd ID hasn't been getting its mail," says Captain Derek Watkins, 26, of Jamestown, NY.
He's echoed by Chaplain John Sutton Jr.: "My wife sent several packages just after we left in mid-February and they haven't arrived. Apparently they need some kind of x-ray machine in Kuwait that they don't have, so everything is coming by boat, though that may be just for outgoing mail."
"Logistics have been mishandled compared to last time" observes the veteran of the first Gulf War, SFC Milton Otero of New York City. "We've moved so fast and there's not enough fire support to protect the logistics lines."
One sergeant at the morale meeting said he'd heard that at the beginning of the war there was only a six-man postal detachment at Camp Doha in Kuwait handling all the mail for the entire theater. "Now they're missing 15 Milvans [containers] between Camp Virginia [in Kuwait] and Objective Rams [halfway up Iraq]. It includes a month of our mail," he added.
But it doesn't matter where the mail is piling up. What matters is that it's not getting where it should.
In the words of Captain John Hudson (whose wife has sent "a couple of videos on disc of our eight month old crawling that I can't wait to get"). "I expected mail to get screwed up once we got the green light and crossed the border and crossed the desert. We had enough problems getting fuel and ammunition and food--though less than I expected. But now that we're in a more stable environment, we should be getting fairly stable mail flow. And when we were back in Kuwait there was no excuse at least after the first week when we were new kids on the block."
The GIs in the desert--and their families--deserve better treatment than this.
The troops will keep on fighting and doing their job with extraordinary professionalism. It's a shame that those entrusted with the duty of getting mail to the troops apparently don't seem share that dedication.
Jonathan Foreman is embedded with V Corps in Iraq.