Officials at the Mail Recovery Center here hope to assist service members in recovering their lost items and offer tips to prevent misplacement or delays.
Lionel A. Snow, Mail Recovery Center manager, shared the mission of the U.S. Postal Service’s only remaining mail recovery center.
“We have an operation specifically designated for the military -- all military,” he said. “So anything that comes across those belts or comes in our door that’s military affiliated, we take it and put it in our military operation.”
Workers at the center look at the lost mail and separate it, Snow said. “If it’s a duffel bag, we open it up and see if there are any fatigues,” he said. Other clues they look for, he added, include names, follow-on orders, parents’ address and letters home.
Snow said the Mail Recovery Center uses any means available to quickly assess what’s in the bag or trunk, although not everything is inventoried, “because we’ve probably got about 300 to 400 bags back there now.”
The center has handled just short of a million pieces of mail this year, he said, and last year processed 88 million pieces of mail -- letters, flats, parcels and loose mail. Workers try to work quickly, he added, because items are held for only 30 days.
Using the Automated Military Postal System, or AMPS, Snow said, the Mail Recovery Center is able to share data with the military to better facilitate tracking and returning items to their owners.
“It’s a ‘big little operation’ that we call it that really takes up a lot of space at times,” Snow said. “As long as we can kind of keep things moving, we’re in good shape.” He also noted that the return rate on returnable mail -- items for which the sender or recipient has been located, not the totality of all incoming lost mail -- is about 27 to 32 percent.
As the only mail recovery center, the manager said, the facility is unique because it is the only part of the Postal Service that can open mail.
“Every bag that has a lock on it, whether it’s a trunk or a duffel bag, [the lock] gets cut,” he said. “We have to open it to see what’s inside of it and make sure there no bombs inside of it, no unlawful stuff, and to be able to identify what the contents are.”
Once the bags are opened, the locks are recycled, and the item is re-secured using a tag and label for inventory, Snow said. Then, after 30 days, the center’s staff goes back through and checks their searches again.
“We check the AMPS to try to see if we can find this military guy, hoping we got a call,” he said. “If we don’t, we strip it. We pull out all of the civilian clothes. Anything that’s used goes to nonprofit groups or charity.”
To prevent personal items from suffering this fate, Michael R. Miles, communications program specialist for USPS corporate communications, Snow and Aleta Montague, acting supervisor for the Mail Recover Center, offer the following tips:
-- Secure labeling on the outside of packaging using tape;
-- Provide full, accurate mailing addresses and return addresses;
-- Include identical information inside the package, parcel, bag or trunk in case the mailing label comes off;
-- Consider including a phone number and email address inside of the package;
-- Track all mailed items when possible and always confirm receipt with the recipient;
-- Include secure tags on all items, especially duffel bags or trunks with military equipment; and
-- When searching through the Mail Recovery Center, provide accurate, detailed descriptions of missing items, especially unique items.
“All military stuff we call classified stuff, because it’s stuff that doesn’t need to get into the hands of the bad guys,” Snow said. “It might be goggles, Kevlar stuff -- things guys are probably reissued. The key is these are military things we can’t dispose of. There’s a way we can dispose of a lot of things. We can’t dispose of … things that the bad guys shouldn’t get their hands on so.”
Center officials want to get these back into the hands of the military, Snow added.
Montague explained the Mail Recovery Center search process for any service member attempting to locate a missing package, bag or letter.
Service members who call the Postal Service’s toll-free customer service number -- 1-800-275-8777 -- should say they are military and provide a tracking number for the missing item, Montague said. “Once you give us that, it comes through our systems and then you get it back,” she said.
Montague noted the word is starting to get out about putting additional information on the inside of mailed items.
“When we get it, we open it up,” she said, “and [the information] is right on the top. Some of have even gotten to where they tape it in there, so that’s good.”
Having identifying information inside the package has helped to reduce the inventory from 1,000 to about 200 Items, she added.
Using “locators” contracted with each military service, officials at the Mail Recovery Center are able to track down troops, Montague said, but she noted it is increasingly difficult because of frequent moves.
“That is kind of hard, because the military has to use their travel resources to do that for us and for the soldiers,” she said. “But it gets hard when people get reassigned, move around or travel back and forth.”
Montague emphasized it isn’t enough to simply tape a label to a piece of mailed item.
“It’s imperative that they understand that taping a label to a trunk or a duffel bag is not the way to go,” she said. “We really need to get tags out to every installation.”
In the event that a mailed item is lost and ends up at the Mail Recovery Center, the staff noted, service members must provide as much detail as possible when providing descriptions of lost mail.
“Unfortunately, a lot of guys are not describing their stuff,” Montague said. “It says: ‘A duffel bag with men’s clothes.’ OK, I’ve got 200 duffel bags with men’s clothes. Give me something else. I need specific information.
“If they give us a better description it helps,” she continued. “You can’t just tell me ‘men’s clothes’ or ‘fatigues’ or something. I need something else.”
Montague said people often are incredulous to the idea of labels coming off of packages.
“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard, ‘There’s no way the label could have come off,’” she said. “I have 100,000 packages to tell you, ‘Yes, this happens all the time.’”
Despite the difficulty in returning items -- especially massive amounts of military equipment and supplies -- the Mail Recovery Center’s staff of almost 100 people handles the mammoth job with determination and an appreciation for the service and sacrifice troops and their families make, Snow said.
“It’s not only because we have a bunch of [former] military guys here,” Snow said. “We owe them a great deal of gratitude for all that they do -- going into those areas of combat. If it were up to us, we’d keep those things forever and get them to the [troops].”
(Follow Army Sgt. 1st Class Tyrone Marshall on Twitter: @MarshallDoDNews)