November 11, 2010: Once again, the Department of Defense is having problems getting parcels to the troops overseas. This time itÂ’s the growing use of overcharges by mail-order firms for parcels going to APO (Army and Air Force Post Office) or FPO (Fleet Post Office) addresses. The APO/FPO system was established during World War II, to facilitate the shipment of parcels and mail to troops overseas. The APOs and FPOs addresses were actual postal facilities in the continental United States, thus people sending mail to troops overseas paid domestic rates. The government paid to get the APO/FPO mail to the troops, no matter where they were in the world. Companies that charge higher rates for parcels going to APO/FPO addresses have no excuse, but legally they can charge whatever they want for shipping charges. A few, like Target, charge less for shipping to APO/FPO. Most, like Amazon, charge the same. But some, like Wal-Mart and many smaller firms, charge more. These overcharges are quite annoying to the troops, who have been relying more on buying stuff by mail in the last decade. It's a connection with home, and a way to ease the stress of life in a combat zone.
Despite the APO/FPO system, there have always been problems getting mail to the troops overseas. This has been a problem for over a century. And the cause of the problem has not changed. Basically, the postal service usually does a pretty good job of rapidly delivering the mail to APO/FPO addresses, where the military takes over. Each of the services is responsible for taking the mail from those locations (the APO/FPO ZIP codes) to the individuals, wherever they are. But six years ago, as several hundred thousand troops found themselves in the Persian Gulf and Afghanistan, the Department of Defense discovered that it didn't even know how long it took to get mail to the troops. Back then, the military assumed that it took 11-14 days. This was considered excellent, as the wartime standard was 12 to 18 days. But an independent survey of the troops found that it tool closer to three weeks, with half the troops waiting four weeks or more to get mail from home.
The problems were traced back to the last reform of the military mail system in the late 1970s. This led to the establishment, in 1980, of the Military Postal Service Agency. While run by army personnel, it was responsible for getting all overseas military personnel, and Department of Defense civilian employees, their mail in a timely manner. The agency proceeded to work out arrangements with the other services to assure the smooth delivery of mail to the hundreds of overseas bases where troops eagerly awaited it.
There was just one problem with this arrangement; it had not been tested in a long war. Oh, there were some complaints in 1991, during the Gulf War. But that one was over so quickly that the complaints soon faded from memory, and the agency saw no compelling reason to reform itself. Iraq, however, turned out to be a rather large and sprawling operation that went on for a while. The agency couldn't handle it. Or, actually, the army, marines and anyone else inside Iraq couldn't handle it. But that was the key problem.
The Military Postal Service Agency was set up to make sure problems like that did not arise. But the agency was never given the power to force the various services to do this or that. Because the agency was created in a peacetime environment, it developed the custom of careful negotiation in a stable, non-chaotic environment. The agency wasn't prepared for something like Iraq, and, worse yet, didn't even know it. Bureaucracy at its finest, after a fashion. But the pressure from the White House and Congress quickly became quite intense, and long needed reforms were made. The troops began getting their mail in a more timely manner. And when they didn't, they had no problem getting the email addresses of people in Congress who would apply pressure to get it fixed.