WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Postal Service gets the mail out despite rain, snow, heat or gloom of night, but many letters aren't getting to the troops in Operation Desert Storm very efficiently.
The Postal Operations Subcommittee of the House Committee on Post Office and Civil Affairs heard testimony Wednesday about problems in delivering mail to troops stationed in the Persian Gulf, much of it from members of Congress who are hearing from anxious constituents.
"Mail service is not a nice-to-have luxury; it is a military necessity," said Rep. Beverly B. Byron, D-6th. Though acknowledging that resources directly related to combat must take priority when troops are threatened, Byron said mail from loved ones back home is essential to soldiers' morale.
"Make no mistake, the sustainment of combat power rests on the ability of commanders to maintain morale as much as it does their ability to supply guns, bullets, food and water," said Byron. "If my experiences in talking with American service members around the world has taught me anything, it is the necessity of paying the price for consistent mail service, whatever the cost."
Byron and other witnesses cited complaints from soldiers and constituents about problems with mail delivery in the gulf. In some cases, Byron said, troops have received 20 letters in one batch and then no mail for a month.
Rep. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, read a moving letter from a Maine reservist -- a professor at the University of Maine in Orono -- serving as a battalion captain.
"Still the letters do not come and morale continues to suffer," he wrote. "Somewhere between Maine and our dusty little circle of tents in this vast desert are hundreds of letters and packages containing the love and encouragement we need to carry on."
Snowe was joined by Reps. Byron; Patricia Schroeder, D-Colo.; Pat Williams, D-Mont.; Ron Marlenee, R-Mont.; and Steve Gunderson, R-Wisc., who, along with subcommittee members, all had mail-horror stories from their districts.
Schroeder said that, while the country is witness to the high technology available to fight the war, "we can't get the mail out."
Ground transportation in Saudi Arabia has been the prime problem, said Diane K. Morales, deputy assistant secretary of defense for logistics. Morales testified with several military transportation specialists.
By Feb. 14, Morales said, about 467,000 troops had been moved to the Persian Gulf, along with an airlift of about 60 million pounds of mail. From the date of its postmark in the United States, she said, a letter will get to a service member in 14 to 20 days on the average.
The Defense Department's new goal -- with additional trucks and automated sorting machines -- is a delivery time of nine to 13 days, Morales said.
Assistant Postmaster General Allen Kane told the subcommittee how domestic mail is shuttled to military postal centers across the country -- which takes about five days -- before it is airlifted overseas on military planes designated only to carry mail.
Once it reaches the military, Kane said, it's out of the postal service's hands.
"This whole thing could be over in a month," said Rep. Frank Horton, R-N.Y., a member of the subcommittee. "Go back and tell the postmaster general this is a high priority."