Sunday, June 2, 2013

To Send or Not to Send, That is the Question.

In these, our digital times, it seems absolutely ludicrous to be forced to sit down at a flat, non-moving surface, locate a working pen and blank paper, and physically compose a message, that, when finished, will take 4-10 days to reach the recipient. Well, dust off your grandmother’s writing table and get ready to channel your inner Emily Dickenson or Edgar Allan Poe for the next ten weeks while you take a trip back to the pre-Steve Wozniak/Jobs, pre-E-mail, pre-SMS age when the personal letter was king of the technological jungle, and the mailperson was its keeper.

I am neither a techno-phobe, nor a techno-geek, but I am someone that truly enjoys the concept of electronic communication. The military during basic training, is NOT! And they have some very set rules about what they want their future soldiers to be exposed to during their relative captivity. If you know the terms going in, you and your solider will be able to communicate in the 17th century style reasonably well. If you ignore the rules, you may be fine, but your soldier will likely cringe each time they open a parcel from you. Your choice!

Here are some of the things I have learned either through my experience writing to FM, what I’ve researched from the experience of others, and what FM has told me about his experiences being a letter/package recipient at BCT. Bet you didn’t know letter writing could be so complicated!
As I said in my previous post, write often, and write as soon as your solider leaves. It keeps you connected to your solider, and it allows you to have something to send to them as soon as you receive their address.

Know what your solider can and cannot have at basic. Your solider should come home with paperwork explaining to family what they should and shouldn’t send to BCT. If they do not, you or they lost the paper, Scruffy the Pup ate it, or a magical Leprechaun sprouted from a pot in your kitchen and made off with it, here’s the FAQ section from Ft. Sill’s website on proper mail etiquette.
I by no means claim to have all of the answers, but these are certainly a handful of great tips! Here are the things I have found to be most important when considering what to send to your solider:

These things will never be an issue to send

-Newspaper/magazine clippings (Yes, clippings, not the whole paper & keep it PG, no adult content is allowed, and try to keep the subject matter upbeat)
-Pictures (again, keep it PG, pornography will not be tolerated, so resist the urge to entice your solider with alluring pictures of yourself fresh out of the pool/shower/etc.)

Write letters out by hand

I am pretty sure I just heard a sigh and a groan. But before you skip this section entirely, hear me out. Your solider only has two tools in their communication tool belt. Paper and pen. They have no choice but to write every down word they want to tell you. Does it seem fair that you should get to type your side of the conversation, twice as fast and with less than half the effort in return? While your trusty desktop printer probably has much better handwriting than you do, exert the strength it will take to put pen to pad and make your solider feel like you are commiserating with their struggle to get everything down in writing.

If that line of persuasion does not work for you, try this one. Handwritten letters seem so much more personal, and can even make you feel like you have taken a step back to a more romantic time. Think: WWII dame with perfectly pinned hair and red lipstick writing to her strapping young solider overseas about tying a yellow ribbon ‘round the old oak tree and waiting for the day they return. Has a cutesy ring to it.
Finally, if none of those got your goat, think about it as a bucket list item. You get to have a real pen pal for a while. Note the emphasis on “pen.”

When BCT ended, FM was quite impressed that I had kept my promise to write him handwritten letters. We both thought it added a little special element to an otherwise boring means of communication. And the point goes to the girlfriend!

Find something you know will give your soldier a smile/laugh

BCT is a rough time. There were many letters that broke my heart to read knowing that FM was so unhappy. The best possible thing you could send your solider is something that you know will lift their spirits. Send funny cards about human flatulence, send pictures of great times you shared (especially if you have kids), send amusing news/magazine articles and comic strips that made you l.o.l. Remember, they have no access to TV/radio/music, so something has to brighten their days.

One of my favorite things to send was excerpts from Tucker Max’s four hilarious books that I was reading at the time. And while it may have infringed on copy write laws (my apologies Tucker), it made FM and his battle buddies crack up and eagerly anticipate every piece of mail I sent. In actuality, you probably owe me Tucker, I just gave you 55 more fans in the U.S. Army. You can check out Tucker’s site here and buy his books pretty much anywhere. Really, go do it! You will not regret it.

When I got word that FM was feeling a bit down in the dusty dumps, I would send something more inspirational. In one of his now favorite letters I included Oh The Places You’ll Go by Dr. Seuss, in which I had underlined some particularly poignant passages to help give him a morale boost. I loved knowing that sending something so simple could make his day, and he appreciated that I could still be his cheerleader from so far away.

For God’s sake, don’t send anything they can’t have!

I know your immediate impulse will be to send things that are going to make your solider feel more at home, but keep in mind, there are TON of things that the soldiers cannot have in BCT, and as much as you may hate it, this is not supposed to be comfortable or homey. The list of things you cannot send is extensive but the main things to keep away from include any food products (candy, baked goods) and absolutely no tobacco/drugs of any kind. As a general rule, if what you’re sending is starting to look like a care package meant for a college student, don’t send it!! If it’s flat, you’re probably good to go.

Keep in mind, if the letter/package is large enough to alert suspicion that it may contain contraband, the solider will be required to open the package in front of a Drill Sergeant, so unless you want your lady/man bits to be displayed to random strangers, do not send them inappropriate pictures. If you send something that is prohibited and your solider becomes part squirrel and tries to store it away like a nut for the winter, they will almost definitely be caught, and once they are, they and their platoon mates will suffer EXTENSIVELY! Remember, BCT is like the Musketeers; it’s one for all and all for one. If one solider becomes a candy hoarder and is caught, all the soldiers suffer the consequences.

And in case you doubt this, ask your solider. Actually, I’m sure they’ll tell you which dingleberry got a care package and tried to hide the contents from the DS, and how badly they were “smoked” for it. FM was stuck with a few squirrels in his platoon nest, which kept the battery from phasing up multiple times, and he was forced to do several rounds of push/sit ups and lost phone privileges due to the actions of others. We all want our soldiers to excel in physical fitness, but not because they hid a package of Ho Hos under their bed. Remove the temptation; JUST DON’T SEND IT!
Be truthful, but don’t complain too much

Your dog ralphed on the new rug, your boss bitched you out, or you got a flat on your Ford Focus. Yes, these things are a big suck, but in the grand scheme of things they are not so horrible, so try to be as courteous to your soldier’s feelings and complain about the mundane as little as possible. They have got enough going on being by themselves in a new place while learning how to defend both their and their battle buddy’s lives against terrorists. Put the silly petty things aside and try to be as pleasant as possible in every letter you write so your solider does not feel guilty about not being around to help you out.

Get yourself some extra 20 cent stamps

If you send anything more than a few sheets of paper per letter, you may need some extra postage. Instead of running to your friendly neighborhood post office every time you think your letter may tip the postal scales, just get 8-10 twenty-cent stamps the first time you go, and use this link to create a handy at home postage scale you can make from household objects that is surprisingly accurate. Now you can just slap on a few extra pennies and it should cover you if you happen to go over by half an ounce. Bam! No more fearing a “Return to Sender” letter.
Finally, try to remember to stay calm and remain patient. You may receive one letter some weeks, and three another, even if you are sending one per day every week (I sent FM an average of 4 per week and received one or two typically). However many you may receive, know that your solider wants to write you everyday, but is otherwise occupied learning how to defend their country and keep themselves alive should the situation present itself. Don’t take it to heart. And most definitely keep writing to them.

Also, be nice to the mailperson. They may or may not know what you are going through based on your current trends in receiving mail, but either way, stalking them and/or having your face glued to the window/door for their arrival will only make them suspicious and nervous to approach your house. Do remember around holidays to tip them handsomely; they will become your new best friend very soon.

Like I posted previously, if you keep your expectations low, every piece of mail will be a treat! Stick to the very basics during basic and you and your solider will be able to communicate fairly well, given the circumstances, without them catching heat for your well-intentioned but otherwise catastrophic “kindness.”

Now go forth and write!

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