Soldiers Hand Over Baghdad Mail Operations to Contractors
American Forces Press Service
BAGHDAD INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT, Iraq, Feb. 9, 2004 After enduring months of intense heat, long hours, dust and Spartan living conditions since their arrival in May, Army postal units have nearly completed turnover of military postal operations to contractors.
The turnover began in October, when the first KBR postal workers began to arrive, said Lt. Col. Steven Heggen, commander of the 461st Personnel Services Battalion, an Army Reserve unit from Decatur, Ga.
Originally, the Joint Military Mail Terminal here was manned exclusively with soldiers from the 461st PSB and units from the National Guard, Army Reserve and active Army, numbering about 300 in all. Now, except for a handful of postal unit soldiers, KBR employees almost exclusively staff the terminal. Heggen said the handoff was necessary partly because the Army does not have enough postal units to support continued operations.
To date, Heggen said, the cavernous terminal has processed more than 90 million pounds of mail, distributed in more than 1,100 mail convoys to a dozen points throughout Iraq.
The mail operation has not been without its human cost. Two KBR employees were killed in separate hostile incidents. A transportation unit soldier was killed while on security escort duty. Another soldier with the 151st Postal Company was killed in a helicopter crash. Soldiers have received medals for valor and the Purple Heart. A DHL plane delivering mail managed to land safely after being struck by a missile.
The giant mail terminal was found in decrepit condition when U.S. forces entered the Baghdad area early in Operation Iraqi Freedom. The building, which appears to have once been an Iraqi Airlines cargo storage facility, was chosen because of its loading docks and large covered area. It did not appear to have been used for more than a decade, except by a small division of pigeons that had covered the floor with its droppings. Army engineers modified parts of the structure and hauled out tons of debris before operations began, Heggen said.
Opened to relieve the load on the Joint Military Mail Terminal in Kuwait, which now supports camps only in Kuwait, the Baghdad terminal supported almost all the Army and Air Force post offices in Iraq, until mail began to be flown directly to other points, mainly Mosul and Kirkuk.
For the first month, everything from electricity and water to hot meals were in scarce supply for the postal soldiers. Field rations made up two of three meals a day, while a small chow tent served hot meals once a day. Sleeping arrangements were wherever they could be found. Some soldiers set up in the office areas of the building, some in spare mail containers, and still others in an eight-story building half a mile away dubbed the "crack house" due to its dilapidated condition.
As the months went by, conditions at the joint facility improved. The building was electrified by a contracted Iraqi company, air-conditioning units were put into the offices, better toilet and shower facilities - no more hose attached to a bucket of cold water - became available. Also, the large Bob Hope Dining Facility and a post exchange opened across the highway, and the soldiers even got Internet access and television via satellite.
But most importantly, the postal units got the upper hand on the mail, conquering the logistical nightmare of supporting more than 100,000 troops constantly moving around in a war zone and reducing delivery times down to seven to 10 days, a third of what they were when the terminal opened.
The last real challenge JMMT soldiers and KBR employees faced was during the Christmas mail surge.
"It was horrible," Sgt. Janet Resto recalled with a laugh. She's assigned to the 912th Postal Company from Orlando, Fla., and is a transportation traffic manager in her civilian job. "It began before Thanksgiving and lasted until the second week in January.
"We worked 14 to 18 hours every day," she said. "We got so much mail it was incredible, but we never got behind." The unit caught up in time to manage one day off: Christmas. "Soldiers appreciate what we do here," she said. "They say, 'Thank you.' It's nice to hear that."
The Army will continue to have a small presence at the terminal as oversight for KBR operations, as well as other points in Iraq, Heggen said. Soldiers from the 461st still process mail for 10,000 soldiers from local units based at the airport, via the post office across the street run by the Army Reserve's 394th Postal Company from Long Beach, Calif.
Randy Jarrell, KBR's JMMT manager, said KBR has 56 employees working at the terminal. After arriving in September, KBR employees first cross-trained with the Army units to learn their system, he said.
"We've changed some processes since then so we wouldn't have to utilize as many personnel," Jarrell said.
The KBR records clerk works closely with the Army to update records of soldiers moving from camp to camp. KBR employees also needed to get clearances to process registered mail, one of the last major functions that postal soldiers recently handed off to the contractor. Many KBR employees have worked for the U.S. Postal Service or are former postal unit soldiers, Jarrell said.
Living conditions are essentially the same for KBR employees as they are for the military. They can eat at the dining facility or they may choose to eat at the Burger King stand nearby, said to be one of the busiest in the world. For some, it has been a test at "roughing it."
"Most were pretty enthusiastic to begin with," Jarrell said. "Some of that excitement is slowly wearing off." That was to be expected, he said, and in fact fewer employees than projected decided the conditions weren't for them and went home.
"Our people have proved their 'stickability' here," he said.
(Based on a Combined Joint Task Force 7 press release.)