Last post: US mail service winds down in Afghanistan
Gardez: Even in the age of emails and Internet video chatting, there`s nothing like a parcel or a letter from home for US soldiers on deployment in Afghanistan.
The incoming mail at Forward Operating Base (FOB) Lightning consists of everything from televisions and T-shirts to golf balls -- and still plenty of handwritten envelopes from family and friends.
But the mail service is winding down in parallel with the pullout of US combat troops after 13 years of war and, as bases close, so too do the post offices.
Troops at FOB Lightning have been rushing to send out carpets, scarves, trinkets and other souvenirs in their last chance to use the mail depot before it shuts and is replaced by an occasional delivery-only service.
Mail will still get through, but it could be less reliable as the US force shrinks from the current 44,000 troops to a 10,000-strong follow-up mission next year.
"The mail service is like Christmas time. I`m like Santa," said Sergeant Michael Claggett, from Fort Hood Texas, who works at FOB Lightning post office in the volatile eastern province of Paktia.
"When I have mail, it`s a good day. When I don`t have mail, it`s not so positive for everyone.
"(Outgoing mail) is mostly for people who want to get a last-minute gift to send to their loved ones. They might not come back to Afghanistan, so they get something from this country."
The small post office is a simple plywood hut attached to a metal container, with a counter for reception and a back room to sort and store the mail.
But the place is packed because posters have been plastered around the base announcing it is to close soon.
One soldier wraps up a large cardboard box with strong tape. Inside are framed pictures of Afghanistan being sent home to Chicago."Soon, soldiers will only be able to receive mail but not send anything," said Captain Daniel Hernandez, in charge of the base`s postal service.
"Mail equals morale. I know that feeling when the truck came with the mail. You open up that letter and read about your loved ones and smell that envelope. I see the smiles.
"We have email, but in my bag I carry all the letters that my wife sends to me.
"Even though we are (withdrawing), we are still trying to get that mail out to that soldier."
The post arrives at FOB Lightning near Gardez city in huge boxes unloaded from the tailgate of a Chinook helicopter from Bagram airfield, the biggest US base in Afghanistan.
Waiting for the delivery are soldiers in fatigues with rifles slung over their shoulders or wearing exercise shorts and T-shirts.
"I ordered a new watch for myself because mine is about to die, I ordered something for my team to show them my appreciation, and I got another box from my family," said Major Steven Bearden.
"This could be the last mail I get before we leave. We usually order things we can`t purchase here like snacks and clothes.
"This is my third deployment, I`m feeling good about it. And mail is very helpful."
FOB Lightning will close completely in October as US-led NATO soldiers end their long battle against the Taliban.
There were 150,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan at the height of the military intervention in 2011 after the Taliban regime was ousted in 2001.
As they pull down, bases have been flattened and kit transported out of the country as the vast military infrastructure is cut back to a skeleton of its former self.
About 10,000 US troops are set to remain into Afghanistan into next year.
But the force will be reduced to a normal embassy protection force by the end of 2016 -- ending the days of parcels and hand-written letters being choppered across Afghanistan to eagerly awaiting US soldiers.
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