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Federal rules hinder postal “breaks” for soldiers

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image Troops in the Gulf anxiously await boxes coming from the U.S.

Why donations sit in warehouse waiting to ship

By PENNY FLETCHER

SOUTH COUNTY — Local groups have been so overwhelmingly generous in donating to troops overseas that sometimes, they’ve prevented things from getting there.

This sounded incredible to me, so I checked it out.

Last week I was made aware that Our Troops Online, headed by Bob Williams, a Vietnam veteran who speaks all over the county that I wrote about last year, has 8,000 cases of donated Girl Scout cookies and 275,000 pounds of gourmet popcorn crated and ready to ship our men and women fighting overseas but he can’t raise the money for postage to get them there.

That’s because it will cost more than $30,000.

Bob didn’t call me to complain. In fact, since I wrote about his organization a year ago, which can easily be found at www.ourtroopsonline.com, he says hundreds of people, including many churches and military groups in South County have filled his list of most-requested items.

Apollo Beach resident and local realtor, Barbara Texter, who is currently collecting hair products to separate, bag and donate, emailed me about Bob’s dilemma.

Having known of Bob’s tireless volunteer work to make sure the men and women who fight in today’s war don’t feel as neglected as he did as a Vietnam veteran, I gave him a call.

“Yes, it’s true. Our biggest hurdle is postage,” he told me. “People are so generous, especially in your part of the county. I get all sorts of things for the troops. Unfortunately getting them into their hands is a problem.”

Next I called Shirley Sheehy, a trustee for the Ladies Auxiliary of the Ruskin VFW Post 6287, who also went into detail.

“The people at the Ruskin Post Office are wonderful. They open new lines for us, help us with packaging, do everything possible to help us,” Shirley said. “But their hands are tied when it comes to shipping price.

The postal service provides special boxes for shipping to APO and FPO addresses (Army Postal and Fleet Postal) that can hold up to 70 pounds each. Although there are lists of restrictions as to what may be included in those boxes, snacks, canned goods, clothing, toiletries and tiny pillows may all be put in one box as long as they can be “squeezed in,” she explained.

These special boxes ship to both APO and FPO addresses for $12.95 no matter what is in them as long as they weigh 70 pounds.

Lists of the general contents of each box must be filled out, and there has to be a name and address for both sender and receiver. In other words, boxes sent to “Soldiers Overseas” are not permitted for security reasons.

Often, groups like the VFW call people they know have family overseas and get names from them. Other times, those families call them and other stateside organizations that support the military that collect and ship items to troops overseas.

“Whether the 70 pounds is for one man or woman or addressed to a specific person in a unit to be divided, it is $70. Last Christmas sending just a few boxes cost us more than $500 in postage,” said Shirley.

When you add the postage to the cost of the items in the boxes, it’s not any small sack of potatoes.

I wanted to find out why there were no real price breaks for U.S. troops fighting overseas so I went to the source: Florida Postmaster’s Office Media Spokesman, Joseph L Breckenridge in Jacksonville; by phone, of course.

“Legislation passed by Congress in 2006 has crippled the Post Office,” he explained. “We’re seen as government, but we’re not government. The Post Office has to pay completely for itself. Even when people from a disaster area contact their families, or vice versa, a tab is kept and FEMA or the Red Cross or some organization must pay it. We are simply not permitted — by legislation — to give anything away,” he told me.

There is a reduced rate of $2 a box (which has already been figured into the special $12.95 box).

Without it, those 70-pound boxes would be $14.95. But even this is only possible because the $12.95 would be the flat rate for domestic packages at that weight; and it is being given to international mailing which normally costs more.

“The way the Post Office budget is set up, if we were to allow goods to be shipped to our fighting men and women overseas, taxpayers would get the bill in some way,” he said. “There is nothing in place to absorb it.”

Meanwhile, Bob (who started and operates www.ourtroopsonline.com) on his own and at expense to both himself and his loyal volunteers, has tried to get around these regulations every way he knows how.

But even the military can’t help. In fact, the military has recently sought help from Bob.

“Not only can nothing but military supplies and ammo go on military planes, but at times military families- even those living on base- send me things they need shipped,” he said.

Last fall MacDill personnel brought 2,000 pounds of holiday gifts and food to Bob for shipping.

“This is sad, but true,” he said. “No one is allowed to send anything on a military aircraft. Absolutely no one. Except for the supplies they need to fight the war.”

Sometimes, logistics is a problem as well, once the packages reach their destination, when there’s only enough room on jeeps and trucks to get military supplies to a destination; especially in a remote locale — like in the desert.

“The best thing people can donate now is money so we can attempt to get the donated things we already have in the warehouses shipped,” Bob said. “Some previous administrations allowed military families to send one pallet of items at Christmas time to their deployed family members. But no longer. Now the people that live on base and have a loved one in a combat area cannot even take their Christmas presents down and put them on a military transport.”

Bob said he is grateful for the tremendous outpouring of items and money he receives from Hillsborough County individuals, churches, civic organizations, veteran’s groups and more.

“They are what keep us going,” he said. “I couldn’t operate without them.

Packages of toiletries and snacks are always appreciated.

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