CENTRAL SAUDI ARABIA — THE United States troops that have poured into Saudi Arabia are being followed by a deluge of cards, letters, parcels, and other mail from home. Mail seems to be the main cargo now cycling through airlift depots, as huge C-5 cargo planes arrive carrying nothing but pallets of holiday missives. The Desert Shield postal workload has far surpassed plans, which were based on Vietnam War experience. ``No one could have expected the volume of mail we're getting,'' says Air Force Maj. Michael Whitaker, commander of the 4401st Postal Squadron.
Many US service personnel and their families are from generations that have grown to rely on quick and easy phone service for most communication. But with pay phones scarce as swimming pools in the Saudi desert, they've turned back to the old-fashioned way of keeping in touch with home.
``There's a social phenomenon to this,'' says Major Whitaker. ``The art of basic communication had dwindled, but now we've got kids putting pen to paper.''
The 4401st oversees movement of US military mail into the Desert Shield theater. So far, American military personnel there have received about 20 million pounds of mail, according to 4401st estimates. They've sent home another 800,000 pounds. That far surpasses original estimates for the volume of mail generated by the US deployment in Arabia - estimates based on the amount of mail troops in Vietnam received. And the Christmas peak is yet to come.
Officers here say they believe two reasons for the high volume of mail are the relative popularity of the Desert Shield deployment and the letter-writing campaigns by many US schools.
The generic ``To Any Soldier'' letters produced by these campaigns account for about 10 percent of incoming mail volume, say officers. So many of these letters are coming in that big piles of them are common sights outside chaplains tents at US outposts, under signs that say, ``Take All You Want.''
``There's not a soldier, sailor, or airman in this theater that's not getting mail,'' says Whitaker.
In the early stages of Desert Shield, troops sometimes complained that mail delivery was slow. There are fewer complaints now, and Whitaker says the average delivery time from the US to Saudi Arabia is 10 days for a letter.
Sand is one thing that's gumming up the works. Many troops in Saudi Arabia are shoveling sand into envelopes and sending it home as a souvenirs - but it often leaks out, grinding up postal sorting machinery. Also, many schools back in the US apparently have the idea that the troops would enjoy Kool-Aid for their drinking water, and are sending it in envelopes to Saudi Arabia - with the same grinding effect as the sand.
Military postal officials appreciate schoolchildren's efforts, but they point out that powdered drink mix is already standard US military fare.
Though the troops in the field say mail delivery is perhaps the highlight of their daily routine, they still long for that voice on the end of a phone line. In any Saudi town close to concentrations of US forces, the sight of long lines at all pay phones is a common one.