News: Smuggling Mail Not Worth the Risk
Pfc. Matthew Clifton
MNC-I Public Affairs Office
September 6, 2005
CAMP VICTORY, Iraq -- For service members deployed to Iraq, sending and receiving mail can be a morale booster as well as a way to stay connected to friends and family in the U.S., but the luxury of having mail service comes with the responsibility of not abusing its policies.
Post offices in Iraq follow numerous policies dictating what Soldiers can and cannot ship home, said Sgt. 1st Class John Milliner Williams, postal first sergeant, 129th Postal Company, 18th Personnel Service Battalion, 18th SSG, XVIII Airborne Corps, Fort Bragg, N.C.
"I remember a case a couple weeks ago where a Soldier took apart a television and concealed two pistols inside," Williams continued. "The scanners we use for the mail are similar to the scanners used when you go through the airport, they can clearly differentiate between the working parts of a television and a handgun."
When the inspectors find a prohibited item inside another Soldiers package, it is immediately confiscated said Williams.
"The first thing done when a Soldier comes to our inspectors is hand over their identification card, and during the inspection process if a prohibited item is found the inspector makes a log of the Soldier and the item confiscated," Williams said. "We then send a letter to the Soldier's command noting what the item was."
As far as punishments go, it is left entirely up to the particular Soldier's chain of command, Williams said.
To avoid having Camp Victory Soldiers look through lengthy policy books, they are referred to a poster on the wall of the local mail room. These policies have also been distributed to all first sergeants and sergeants major in the Victory area of operation, Williams said.
One policy contains a long list of items that can and cannot be sent through the mail.
"The list of prohibited items comes from the carriers who ship our mail from here to the U.S.," Williams added. "These carriers are civilian carriers, and they are prohibited by law to carry certain items."
The most commonly found prohibited items Soldiers are trying to ship home include pornography and weapons, Williams said.
"Over here Soldiers obtain a lot of different weapons and weapon parts, and they order a lot of fancy accessories to put on their weapons, but all of that stuff is prohibited," Williams said. "Combustible products like lighters are also prohibited."
There are many types of lighters Soldiers buy in Iraq as memorabilia, but they cannot send them home through the mail, Williams added.
Other items postal troops see a lot are aerosol products, hair spray and shaving cream. Soldiers may not think of these as being prohibited items, but because they are compressed and combustible they cannot be shipped home, Williams said.
When he first arrived in Iraq, Williams was shown a picture of a plane that had its backside blown out thanks to items like these that had exploded when the plane was ascending.
When Soldiers bring mail in to the post office, the 129th Soldiers must inspect all packages except for free mail, which are letters in envelopes. Free mail is only inspected when the envelope contains a disk or tape, Williams said.
"Our Soldiers will look through the entire package, through every inch of it," Williams said. "Mainly they are checking for prohibited items that might cause problems down the line."
"I don't often find prohibited items in Soldiers mail," said San Diego Army Reservist Sgt. Shawn Smith, postal sergeant with the 129th Postal Company. "One thing I do see a lot of are ponchos, poncho liners and other things that Soldiers don't really use but are still considered issued equipment, and therefore cannot be sent through the mail."
"I don't think many of the Soldiers really know what items they can't send home," Smith continued. "The best thing to do is ask the Soldiers who work at the post office; anything else you hear is just hearsay."
Once a package has been inspected, the postal Soldiers seal the package while the customer waits, the customer pays for the delivery, and the mail is put on a truck and send to the Joint Military Mail Terminal where it is shipped out of the country."
"Before any mail reaches the U.S. it is scanned to detect any prohibited items that may have fallen through the cracks," Williams said. "The scanners used are so complex they can detect a single 9mm round out of an entire footlocker of equipment."
Williams receives a monthly report on prohibited items found by the scanner and says there isn't a single month goes by without something being found.
"It's very easy for a single round to get past the inspector because the bullets are small and can easily be overlooked," Williams said.
When things like single rounds are found, it is usually a case of a careless Soldier not making sure the equipment he is sending home is free of such items, but there are also many instances where Soldiers are deliberately trying to smuggle illegal items, Williams said.
"Because of how easily accessible some of these prohibited items are, commanders tend to be extremely harsh when a Soldier is caught trying to smuggle something illegal home," Williams added.