GAO says troops need better mail services in Iraq

Troops in Iraq are getting unreliable and inefficient postal service because the Pentagon failed to fully address long-standing mail problems, according to a new report from the General Accounting Office.

Statistics collected by the Defense Department show that mail sent to and from Iraq generally takes 11 to 14 days to reach its destination, a travel time meeting the "current wartime standard of 12 to 18 days," the watchdog agency reported (GAO-04-484). But these figures may not accurately reflect actual delivery time, the audit agency cautioned.

Lawmakers asked GAO to look into mail delivery problems after receiving more than 300 inquiries from families and friends of troops serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom. In compiling the report, GAO interviewed 127 Marines and soldiers involved in the war.

More than half of those questioned said they waited at least four weeks to receive some letters and packages. Other items never arrived, or showed up after the service members returned to the United States. "Even though the data show otherwise, military postal officials acknowledge that mail delivery to troops serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom was not timely," GAO said.

Service members also said that "problems and delays had a negative impact on the morale of deployed troops, as mail was often their only link with family and friends at home," GAO reported.

The Pentagon could prompt more efficient and reliable postal services by placing a "single entity" in charge of resolving current mail processing problems, GAO recommended. The Military Postal Service Agency, created in 1980 to transport mail to Defense employees serving overseas and outside the reach of the U.S. Postal Service, is compiling a list of problems with mail services in the Iraq region, and is considering alternative delivery methods and tracking systems, the report noted.

But the agency, overseen by the undersecretary of Defense and funded by the Army, lacks the authority to make sure the branches of the military work together to implement necessary changes, GAO said. Poor coordination among the services is one of the central obstacles to more efficient delivery, according to the report.

The Pentagon also got a slow start in setting up postal services for Operation Iraqi Freedom, because of late troop deployments, GAO reported. The post offices in place lacked properly trained staff and the equipment necessary to handle the initial surge in mail at the start of the war, the auditors concluded.

Many of these same problems plagued mail services during Operations Desert Storm and Desert Shield, GAO noted. But the Pentagon did learn one lesson from the previous Iraq war, according to the report. Defense allowed contractors to airlift mail rather than relying on military cargo planes. This "greatly improved regularity of mail service to the theater," the auditors concluded.

To resolve remaining issues, the Pentagon should establish a more accurate mail tracking system, deploy troops involved in delivering mail earlier, obtain adequate equipment in advance, and rethink the control structure of the postal services in war regions, GAO concluded. The Pentagon should also improve peacetime training for postal units, the report recommended.

The Military Postal Service Agency continues to work "diligently" with military branches and Defense officials to "shorten the timeline and efficiency of processing mail to our troops overseas," wrote Army Brig. Gen. Gina Farrisee, the agency's executive director, in a March 23, 2004, letter responding to the report.