CAMP TAJI, Iraq — It's Christmastime at Camp Taji, and Army Staff Sgt. Jared DeAtley looks traumatized, but not by the war outside the camp or holidays away from home. It's only 9 a.m., and the mail warehouse already has called.
" 'Come get the mail,' " said DeAtley, who's from Fleming County, Ky., shaking his head.
Those calls have been coming earlier and more emphatically lately. The daily mail pickup by Battery B, 2nd Battalion, 138th Field Artillery, a National Guard unit from Carlisle, Ky., easily fills the bed of a Chevy Silverado, sometimes twice.
With the holidays approaching, the volume of mail headed to service members in Iraq has skyrocketed. In one 24-hour period last week, 788,473 pounds of mail came into Iraq, according to the U.S. military's Postal Operations Division in Kuwait. Compare that with a 24-hour period in July, when soldiers received a mere 294,808 pounds.
For the 2-138, the sheer volume — Xboxes and iPods from family, treats and cards from well-wishers they've never met — prompts them to deny adamantly that they need anything. Once, after the unit arrived in August, some soldiers mused that they'd like soft toilet paper and a bag of Werther's Original. They received crates of fluffy rolls and 40 bags of hard caramel candy.
"You have to be careful what you ask for," said Capt. Steve Mattingly, of Bardstown, Ky.
The mail warehouses at this base 20 miles north of Baghdad are crammed with mail — 60,952 pounds arrived one day last week — from all over the world, funneled through Bahrain.
A good portion of that is destined for the 176 soldiers of the 2-138, whose family support group in Kentucky appears to be tireless. Other units coming to the warehouse to pick up mail might find two crates waiting, while four will await DeAtley and others.
There are Gummi Bears and chewing gum from Kentucky Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell, sunscreen from cheerleaders in Bowling Green, Ky., and packages from a hospital in Glasgow, Ky., a church in New Hope, Ky. and a school in Owingsville, Ky. Cases of Ale-8-One ginger ale come from the plant in Winchester, Ky. The Department of Corrections sent each soldier a denim bag stuffed with a University of Kentucky calendar and a job recruitment flier.
The soldiers hope never to need the quantities of anti-fungal nail cream they've received or the ACE bandages, Band-Aids and bags and bags of lip balm. Mattingly likes to dig for the peppermint kind, the same flavor his 4-year-old daughter likes.
"Sometimes she'll lay one on me and I can feel it tingle," he says. "I can feel that tingle now."
Goodies without recipients' names attached land on a free-for-all table or in the hands of Iraqi children. The soldiers covet only a few items: electrical tape, Girl Scout cookies, the rare unmelted Reese's peanut butter cup — a treat found only in cooler weather.
Opening mail is usually a community effort. The nine women of the 2-138 share the shampoo, razors, face wash, tampons and lotions that come in packages marked "any female soldier."
Sgt. Andrea Kaichi got a Christmas care package of MoonPies and candy-excreting penguin toys. She got Hanukkah packages, too. Kaichi, of Lexington, Ky., isn't Jewish, but a support group somewhere thinks she is; it keeps sending menorahs and candles.
"You only need seven of them, I think," Kaichi said of the candles. "I've got enough to last eight years." Actually, for Hanukkah, she needs more, but, still, she has plenty.
The soldiers try to write thank-you notes for the crayon-colored cards and homemade cookies. They need only scratch "Free Mail" in the corner for letters to make it to the United States. The tough part will be shipping all the big stuff back when they leave next year. Post office lines are long, and it won't be cheap.
Some, such as Spc. Johnny Elliott, already have a solution: "I'm leaving it all here for the next guy."
(Gumbrecht reports for the Lexington Herald-Leader.)