The holidays can be difficult for anyone separated from their family, but especially for our service men and women. And even more so for those who don’t have family or friends to write letters and send care packages.
Yes, there are service men and women who don’t get a letter from home. Ever.
That’s why I wanted to just put the website AnySoldier.com on your radar. It’s a great resource if you want to support our troops. And while the deadline is looming to send packages and have them arrive by Christmas, you have until December 10 in most cases, if you’re sending it Priority Mail.
Here’s how it works: someone in a unit volunteers to be a contact person with Any Soldier. They give a brief description of what their group needs or what might be helpful in boosting morale. When you send letters and packages, they then distribute them to any soldier who might be in need of a letter of encouragement or a treat from state-side.
I’ve sent packages via the website several times. Twice I’ve heard from the contact person, so I know how important the small gesture meant. I’m not talking huge things here. Instant oatmeal, granola bars, coffee, tea, trail mix, jerky, Kool Aid, magazines, tampons, razors, butt wipes. These are important things for service men and women in miserable combat situations.
If you’re interested in sending to “any soldier”, here are a few things to keep in mind. (And I have to apologize if I’m using any incorrect terminology. I tried to use “troop” and “unit” and “service men and women” in the right context, but forgive me where I’ve screwed up.)
1) This isn’t a pen pal service, so don’t expect a reply. While every single thing you send is appreciated, these are men and women who are literally in war zones or battle. They have far more important things on their minds than sending thank you notes. (Having said that, don’t be surprised if you do get a reply. It’s a beautiful thing to hear first hand how your package filled with Pop Tarts and beef jerky made someone’s day.)
2) Take some time to surf around the Any Soldier website before you request an address. Read the backstory. Read the “What to send”. Read the “How to send.” There are restrictions on what you can send, how to address packages, etc. Understand that the contact person doesn’t represent an entire unit; they’re acting on behalf of the number of men and women they think they can reasonably distribute material to. A serviceman who lists 8 male/2 female may be part of a gigantic troop.
3) After you’ve got a clear idea of how it works, go to “Where to send”. This is where all of the service men and women who are signed up are listed. You can search for a contact person by name, branch of the military, male or female. You can also select a name by the number of times the address has been requested. It’s a bit tricky to get the hang of, so spend some time just looking around. (You can also use the random selector in the middle of the page and Any Soldier will give you a name.)
Here’s what the contact person’s page looks like (I’ve removed the name on this one):
At the top is the service man’s name, branch of military and where he’s deployed. The next section gives lots of info, like how long they expect to receiving mail (but not necessarily at the same address; that’s important to note). You can see the approximate number of people this person has contact with – 10 males and 3 females. You can also see how many times this address has been requested: 31 times. (But that’s not necessarily how many times someone actually sent something. Not everyone follows through.) You’ll also notice a lot of blue footnotes. READ THOSE. They give you very important information.
Also note the line that says “APO/FPO:” and what this marine wrote – FPO AP. That means that the mailing address will be to the Fleet Post Office on the West Coast of the US. (APO is Army Post Office and AE is the East Coast of the US.) You’re not paying for postage to Iraq or the Republic of Georgia or Afghanistan or Korea; only to the military post office in the US. They take it from there. Any Solider suggests picking whichever is closer to you to save money on postage. (For example, if you’re in New York, pick one ending in AE. If you’re in Seattle, pick AP.)
4) Let’s say this is the person you’d like to send a package to. DO NOT request the address yet!! The address can change on a moment’s notice. Remember, these are active military personnel. They don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow.
Instead, it’s time to start putting together your care package. Pay attention to what your person has requested. This person did a good job of giving a list. You’d be surprised how important laundry soap pods, Visine and tampons can be when the PX stock is limited. But not everyone makes such a detailed list. Just use your judgement and pay attention to the information you’ve been given. If you’re sending microwave popcorn, make sure the person has said they have a microwave (not all units do). Chocolate bars sent to the Middle Eastern desert often arrive as chocolate soup. Send hard candy if you’re in doubt.
Also know that you cannot send homemade food. Sorry, no cookies or baked goods. Food needs to be factory sealed. And everything you send must be legal – not “burned” CDs or DVDs…or, ahem, any other illegal products. Packages may be opened at customs and Any Soldier cooperates with the FBI and other law enforcement.
Another important thing to remember is that quality is more important than quantity when it comes to things like socks, shirts, underwear and other clothing. What you might wear here in the States on a weekend hike won’t last 48 hours in the harsh conditions of combat. Rather than sending 20 pair of socks from the Dollar Store, Any Soldier recommends Extreme Outfitters to purchase tactical gear. (And yes, our servicemen and women do buy some of their own gear, from eye wear to boots – I even saw bullet proof vests requested once. Don’t be surprised when you see things like that on wish lists.)
Also know that you don’t have to send a huge package to make a big difference. Remember, the goal with these packages is to reach those military persons who don’t get things from home, or help support a small group’s morale. A small box with some hard candy, trail mix and a personal note is all that’s needed to brighten someone’s day.
5) Once you’ve gathered your items and are ready to mail them, now you can request the address. And here’s why you need to wait. First, the unit may have moved and the address changed from the time you first found it online. (Yes, even in a day.) Second, Any Soldier wants to make sure that if you request an address you’re actually going to mail something. Remember that little “This address has been requested 31 times” line on the contact page? That’s not necessarily how many people actually sent packages. So imagine that 31 people requested the address and only 5 actually sent something. Someone looking to chose a person based on how often their address has been requested might see “31 times requested” and think this person has enough support. So make sure you follow through!
You’ll give Any Soldier all of your information, and then you’ll get an email with the mailing address of your service person. Make sure you’re ready to mail the package the day you get your address.
6) Pack everything in a sturdy box. If you have things that might break or leak, just assume they will. Double bag liquids (one bag closed, and then upside down for the second one). Wrap breakable things in bubble wrap. Include a note of encouragement. And feel free to include a self-addressed, stamped envelope. If the service man or woman is able to write back, this will make it easier for them to do it. And feel free to let them know they can ask for specific things they might need. (Tampons are great, for example, but if a woman is partial to a particular brand, imagine how much more grateful she’d be if you sent that.) They might send a note back or simply update their page at AnySoldier, so check there in a few weeks.
7) Write the address legibly on the box, exactly as it was given to you. Military addresses are weird to us civilians. Just go with it.
** NOTE: I just saw that the Military Times says that the USPS deadline for guaranteed delivery by Christmas was November 7th. So if you’re sending a package, it may not get there until after Christmas unless you send it Priority. The deadline for first class letters and cards is December 10 except for AE ZIP 093, which is December 3. So if nothing else, send a card during the holidays and send a package later. **
8) Expect to fill out customs paperwork at the post office. The clerk can help with that. One tip I got: there’s a spot where you can check what should be done with the package if it’s not deliverable. If you check “treat as abandoned”, and note “open and distribute”, it will be opened and distributed at the military post office. I’m not sure if that’s something Any Solider recommends, but my post office did.
9) I expect at this point you’re feeling pretty inspired. Look at you! You just did a nice thing and some Soldier or Marine or Airman or Sailor is going to get a nice treat! So you can do one of two things: find another person to send a package to, or start gathering small things for your next package to the same person. Just remember to follow the same process, even if you’re sending to the same person. Check the website, see what they need, and don’t request the address until you’re ready to mail the package. Things change quickly in the military.
10) Share your story! If you do support a service person through Any Solider, I’d love to hear from you. What inspired you? What did you send? What did you learn – about the military, the country where you were sending the package, about giving to strangers?