An aroma of jet fuel and exhaust permeates the air. The tight compartment seems to almost gasp for oxygen with every vibration and rattle. The cargo containers vibrate and dance against their restraints as if taking part in a ballet, a performance attended by only a handful of lucky Sailors. The final approach is always the best, or the worst, depending on who you ask and where they sit.
The stop is a force of controlled violence. Halting an object moving just under 200 miles per hour is no gentle endeavor, and doing it in less than 344 feet requires more than one attentive eye. A quick turn on the deck, a handful of chains, and the cargo compartment of the C-2A Greyhound opens at last on the busy aircraft carrier, USS Nimitz (CVN 68).
You’ve got mail.
Packages pass through the hands of civilians, military personnel and a battery of machines during the journey to their recipients. If it’s a document describing the inner workings of a nuclear reactor, a chart showing the medical ailments of an unfortunate Sailor or an online order of the latest Adele CD, all items arrive on the ship equally at the same time in an orange bag. From warehouse to a Sailor’s berthing, in 30 days or less.
“Seven-to-ten days is the delivery expectation to Fleet Post Offices (FPO) and Army Post Offices (APO),” said Drew Butler, Senior Manager of Joint Military Postal Activity Chicago (JMPA-CA). “There’s about 1,000 zip codes, of which 650 or so are Navy.”
When military mail is dropped in a post office box, one of the first places it will stop is a USPS sorting center with a JMPA attachment.
JMPAs are located across the United States with hubs in major cities like New York City, Chicago and Honolulu. Smaller detachments can be found as far as Japan and Spain. The mission of the postal activities is simple, to ensure the mail is processed quickly according to a classic postal operating plan, “in by noon, out by midnight”, to deliver to service members around the globe.
Averaging 60 active duty members, JMPAs are predominately independent duty personnel, hailing from all of the services. The bulk of the service members however, come from the Navy.
“We rely on responsible people when they come to these locations to not only represent their service branch but all branches as a whole as they’re a liaison to USPS,” said Butler. “They have to truly care about what they’re doing as their work can directly affect the morale of nearly every Sailor overseas.”
An average of 100,000 pounds of mail passes through the USPS sorting center every day, under the eyes of JMPA service-members. Once through the battery of screening processes, searching for drugs, weapons and other non-mailable items, one of the more dynamic parts of the mail system comes into play.
The rapidly changing time table of some ships can make sending and receiving mail quite challenging. When ships pull out to sea, they dispatch mail routing instructions to JMPAs and Fleet Mail Centers in the region they’ll be working in so the USPS has an idea of where to try and send the post.
Mail is sent via commercial air carriers like Delta Airlines, from USPS to a Military Mail Terminal (MMT). The mail terminals act as a local hub for multiple FPO and APOs. When letters and packages are sent to a ship, they need to make their way to an FPO ahead of the target ship so it can either be picked up on a port call, delivered via C-2 Greyhound or even transferred during an Underway Replenishment.
“Communication really is key. Navy movements can be classified, so you could (overwhelm) the capacity of an airstrip by trying to drop cargo ahead of a Navy vessel,” said Butler. “It’s a constant challenge trying to work with the airlines to ensure that the capacity is there to ensure the transit of the mail.”
From start to finish, expedited mail can make it to a ship within 10 days with deferred mail taking up to 30 days. One of the biggest challenges to overcome is a problem that can easily be addressed by the Sailor making the order or receiving the package.
“The biggest thing that can help us out is to make sure the mail is addressed properly,” said Logistics Specialist 2nd Class Mario Garciacantu, Nimitz’ Custodian of Postal Effects and a native of Houston. “A wrong zip means mail goes to the wrong ship. A bad or non-existent box number means we’ll give it to the wrong department once it’s on the ship.”
Packaging can also affect the transfer time of an item. Plastic footlockers, improperly contained liquids, or even inadequate amounts of tape can make even a small package struggle through the mail process.
“Footlockers tend to crack if they take a drop,” said Butler. “Liquids escape from bottles, which can cause damage to other items in shipping. It always helps to write the intended address on a slip of paper inside the package. If the package is ripped or torn, it’ll tell us who the package belongs to.”
More than 45 million packages are sent to military members each year within the United States and its borders. Despite technological advances, there will always be a place for that special package.
“The people are what makes this effort worth it,” said Garciacantu. “When someone is having a bad day, and they light up because I give them their mail, I feel really good about my work. There isn’t a happier time while working in the mail room than when you see that smile.”
Story by MC3 Sam Bacon