Sunday, December 13, 2009

‘It doesn’t look like your average post office’

In the weeks before Christmas thousands of postbags pile up at the Forces Post Office in Camp Bastion each day

By Melissa van der Klugt - Times

Every day in the weeks before Christmas between 1,000 and 2,500 blue, grey and white postbags pile up at the Forces Post Office in Camp Bastion. At the post office in Kandahar the same amount arrives. Each sack weighs eight kilos and bulges with Christmas parcels and letters for those serving in Afghanistan. Even though the winter air is chilly, everyone in the sorting area is wearing T-shirts.

In December the post office receives as much mail in a single week as it does in the course of a month during the rest of the year. Captain Charlie Malcolm, Officer Commanding the Operation Herrick Postal and Courier Squadron, is based at Camp Bastion and is in charge of 24 soldiers in six locations. The scale of the post received in Camp Bastion is hard to imagine until you see it, she says. Even people who have worked in Forces Post Offices for years are amazed.

“It doesn’t look like your average post office,” she says of the large tunnel-like tent that sits in the flat expanse of the desert base. “But it does look like a Forces post office.” Everything is sorted manually. Postbags are wheeled into the sorting area by trolley and divvied up into different boxes for each unit.

Over the counter they sell stamps, cash cheques and package parcels. Letters are bagged up and sent to Kandahar to make the journey home, along with presents bought at the local bazaars and stalls.

The job of sorting starts as soon as the aeroplanes from RAF Brize Norton and RAF Lyneham land. Sometimes it is 8am, sometimes mid-afternoon. There are days on which no post comes in at all. The mail takes its order alongside all the other stores and equipment coming into theatre from the UK: ammunition, rations and clothing. But, especially during December, there is a push to try to make sure a constant flow of mail reaches the troops.

Two or three times a day unit postal orderlies come to collect their mail and take it to the forward post offices (FPOs) in Kabul, Lashkar Gah and Forward Operating Base (FOB) Price, near Gereshk. Finally, when every bag has been emptied, the sorting team finishes for the night.

A couple of sackfuls with unrecognisable addresses are often left over. Some are intended for chaplains — in the hope that they will pass gifts on to the troops — who left Afghanistan years ago. One chaplain recently reported that he had 70 new toothbrushes sent by wellwishers in the back of his church in a forward operating base. The post office also receives Christmas packages for military dogs in Afghanistan: collars, biscuits and tins of dog food.

In the downdraft of a Chinook the mail lands at the FPOs. From here it is sorted into sub units and transported to some of the remotest FOBs: FOB Edinburgh, near Musa Qala, in the north of Helmand, about 150km away from Camp Bastion or FOB Inkerman, near Sangin, about 120km away. It takes anywhere from five to ten days for a letter to make its way across the country, depending on the operational tempo or the arrival of debilitating sandstorms.

As with every movement in Afghanistan there is an element of risk. “At this time of year there are more letters, more moves and more risks,” says Captain Malcolm.

Every FPO and six FOBs have e-bluey suites, a facility where e-mails written by family and friends in the UK are printed out on to blue paper, folded and glued by a machine for privacy. When Captain Malcolm starts work in the morning she often finds an e-bluey from her husband on her desk that he wrote the night before. “It is one of the perks of working at the post office,” she says.

Last week they received 6,500 e-blueys and 1,000 photographs, that can also be sent digitally. The office spaces around Camp Bastion are dotted with printouts, a testament to their popularity. Fax blueys, more intimate, handwritten letters that are scanned in and e-mailed back to the UK, are also popular among serving personnel.

Preparing to tackle another mountainous pile of mail, Captain Malcolm talks of facing the challenges of this time of year. “Each day you start at the beginning again and keep going until you finish. It’s just another load of mail to get through.”

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