ABOARD USS TARAWA -- Most people on a deployment will agree the next best thing to going on liberty is getting mail and the Marines and Sailors of the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable) and Tarawa Amphibious Ready Group recently received tons of it, literally.
A landing craft with the Tarawa ARG brought 120,000 pounds of packages and assorted mail to the USS Tarawa for Marines and Sailors aboard the Tarawa and the USS Rushmore.
It was more mail than Sgt. Jamie Sisson had ever seen at a unit level she said. Sisson, 26, postal chief for the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable), organized the processing of all the mail, which was a daunting task for her and more than 150 Marines and Sailors helping sort and deliver the highly sought after postal items.
Sisson and her two assistants, Cpl. Timothy Armstrong, assistant postal chief and Cpl. Eric Armstrong, postal clerk, worked with the Tarawa's postal clerks to sort the monstrous mountain of mail sitting aboard the landing craft. They quickly organized the working party of Marines and Sailors into a human chain to move each bag of mail and package off the landing craft to the ramps leading from the hanger bay to the flight deck and from the vehicle deck to the hangar bay. The original plan was to use the hangar bay to sort the mail, however, it was filled with aircraft and not available.
As soon as the mail arrived in the well deck, the Marines and Sailors worked feverishly to sort it into three piles for the different ships of the ARG. Once that was complete, they sorted the Tarawa?s mail into "blue" and "green" piles, for Navy or Marine. From there, each large pile was sorted into different units to be delivered to the individuals.
The working party ensured the success of the mail operations that night, Sisson said. It wasn't until 4 a.m. until the working party finished sorting most of the mail. They started at 2:30 p.m. the previous day. "The working party helped out tremendously. It was awesome."
"At first I was like, WOW!" she said laughing about the experience. There was a rush of emotions ranging from surprise that there was so much mail to relief that it finally arrived. After a short recovery from initial shock, she took a step back to evaluate the task and said, "You just go at it from there."
The only time Timothy Armstrong had seen so much mail was at a Fleet Mail Center where it is received and sorted. Mail coming from the United States gets routed through a FMC in San Francisco, where it's sorted and sent all around the world. During this deployment, the 15th MEU's mail has been routed through Japan, the Philippines and Bahrain. All the mail going to service members participating in Operation Iraqi Freedom was routed through Bahrain.
This much mail isn't normally received at one time, Sisson said. Most often, mail is delivered frequently in small batches, however, the number of people in the Area Of Operation combined with the speed that the 15th MEU traveled throughout southern Iraq at made it difficult for the mail to keep up with the Marines and Sailors.
Another factor that made the delivery difficult was the mail's routing process. Normally, all mail is routed through the ship before it's taken to the field by aircraft operated by 15th MEU. But for this operation, the mail was routed through a ground unit to the MEU, which meant new challenges for everyone involved.
Sisson said that often the mail had to take a back seat to combat essential supplies such as food and repair parts. But she didn?t let it bother her, "I have to eat too," she said.
Once the mail was delivered to the individuals, the ship looked like "Christmas in May." Nearly every office and berthing area was filled with torn open boxes, all containing piles of candy, snacks, beef jerky, health and comfort items and of course, tobacco. Hallways outside of berthing were lined with boxes full of goodies with "Free-Take it All" written on the box lids.
Even after the postal section distributed all the mail, there was no time to rest on their accomplishments. The next day, they immediately began coordinating the delivery of the Rusmore's mail so those Marines and Sailors could enjoy the same rewards.