How not to screw up your care package for your soldier or Marine
By Chris Dominguez
So, as we have already noted, the passing of Labor Day means that there are about 100 shopping days until Christmas. I naturally want to encourage people to meditate on the meaning of Christmas, which is supposed to be about peace on earth and goodwill to men, not about Wal-Mart and the shopping mall. I am, therefore, not the kind of person who really wants to encourage Christmas shopping all that much.
On the other hand, if you know a soldier or Marine who will be in Afghanistan or Iraq this holiday season, you need to be doing your shopping for him/her right now, because it will take your package a bit of time to put together, a bit of time to mail off, a bit of time to arrive overseas once you mail it off, and a bit of time for the mail to make its way through the various battalions, companies and platoons before it gets to the addressee. This article performs an immortal service for soldiers and Marines everywhere by discussing the kinds of things that they like and need in their care packages--and the bizarre and useless things they often get instead.
Money quote:
Why, though, would anyone send a big stack of AARP magazines to teenage and twenty-something soldiers in a war zone? Or a box full of Sensodyne prescription-strength toothpaste tubes? Or a powder blue "Hello Kitty" t-shirt?
The fact is that the most important thing that a soldier or Marine can get is a piece of personally-addressed mail or a personally-addressed package. No matter what particular items are in the package, it reminds him (or her) that someone back in the States remembers and cares about him. But Wesley Morgan, the author of the article, is correct to note that many of the care packages that get sent overseas miss the mark. For example, although nearly every care package includes cookies, there is no shortage of baked sweets in the war zones. On the contrary: the troops are swimming in sugary junk food, more than they want, need or is good for them. And although chewing tobacco (dip) may not be good for your health, Morgan is spot-on in his observation that cans of dip hardly ever make their way into care packages, although they are treasured by the guys out in the field:
"If they really want to support their troops," a soldier from the 1-502 Infantry Battalion told me last month in Kandahar's unpleasant Zhari district, "folks should quit it with all the other stuff and just send more dip."
Which is true as far as it goes. But given that not everybody dips, and that there are at least one or two other things that soldiers and Marines would like besides long cylindrical logs of chewing tobacco, I'd like to offer some more detailed suggestions for those of you putting together care packages for the holiday season. This list is just my opinion, and of course it is by no means authoritative, but for what it's worth, here's my two cents:
Things not to send
Cookies, homebaked or otherwise. Nobody needs cookies. Unless you make a particular kind of spectacular cookie every single year for Christmas, and it just wouldn't be Christmas for your soldier or Marine if he couldn't taste them -- and here I caution you not to overestimate how special your cookies are -- do not send cookies. Your troops have in all likelihood been gorging on Otis Spunkmeyer cookies and muffins for several months by now and may literally get a small gagging sensation in the back of their throat every time they even see the words, "chocolate chip." Also, our nation's formidable battalions of Girl Scouts appear to have set up their own supply chain and have gone to extraordinary lengths to ensure that our troops' cookie supply is secure and operationally functional. (Believe me, ladies and gentlemen, you can't compete with the Girl Scouts.) But don't sweat it if you feel you just have to send cookies. If you send them, they will eat them, because as Mr. Morgan says in his article, who can resist cookies?
Bibles. It is unlikely that your soldier or Marine will need a Bible in his care package unless he has specifically asked for it. This is not an anti-Bible comment, folks -- I treasured my Bible while I was over there -- it's just an attempt to point out that every unit has a chaplain, who in turn has huge stacks of Bibles that he is giving out to the troops all the time. Full-sized Bibles, pocket Bibles, King James Bibles, Catholic (New American) Bibles, New Testaments, pamphlets of the Psalms: you name it, the chaplain has got it. Trust me, the kinds of spiritual needs that can be satisfied by access to a Bible are well satisfied in the war zone. (And yes, there are huge stacks of the Book of Mormon and the Roman Catholic prayer book available, too, as well as lots of rosaries and various kinds of devotional manuals.) If you want to make your care package spiritually edifying, find something else to send. Here's my suggestion: a letter handwritten by the prettiest girl from the youth ministry club back home, along with her photograph, an address, a phone number, and details on how her high school boyfriend broke up with her as soon as he went away to college. Send it off, wait six months and watch the Lord work in His mysterious ways.
Candy. For some reason, people have it in their heads that what the troops really miss most about home is the chance to eat Snickers bars and M&Ms. And while it is true that the troops like their sugar, there is no undersupply of sugary treats. Quite the contrary. As a result, most of the candy you send to your soldier or Marine will be re-gifted to Iraqi and Afghan kids, which is not necessarily bad, but is probably not your original intention. Anyhow, if you are going to send candy, make sure it is the individually-wrapped kind that you would give out for Halloween, which will make it easier to re-gift to those Iraqi and Afghan kids, who are more poetically known as the semi-delightful plague of all foot patrols in the Middle East.
Second-rate hygiene supplies. For some reason, huge numbers of cheap plastic razors get sent over to the war zone for Our Troops, and they are mostly ignored and eventually thrown away, just like the generic-brand toothpaste and the dollar-store toilet paper next to them. Don't waste your money, folks: if you are going to send hygiene supplies, send the good stuff: Mach 3 and Quattro razor cartridges (but mostly Mach 3), which, yes, are expensive, but which are also indispensable if you are trying to shave with lukewarm water, or without water, or in the dark, or in a hurry. Toilet paper is provided by the military supply chain, and is not usually in short supply, either, so if you fill up a box with toilet paper, it may get used, but it probably wasn't needed. And whatever you do, don't send cheap, poor-quality toilet paper. I'm not sure how to put this delicately, but let's try saying it this way: if you have to go a long time without a shower, or if you are suffering from some sort of intestinal upset, you probably don't want to use a cheap second-rate toilet paper. A good rule of thumb, so to speak, is that if you are going to send any kind of hygiene supplies to a soldier or Marine (even an anonymous one in a "To Any Soldier" drive), send only the kind of stuff you would buy for yourself.
DVDs of movies and TV shows. Due to the general lack of respect for intellectual property rights that characterizes much of the Third World, it is very likely that your soldier or Marine can buy DVDs of any movie (or TV show) he wants to, at a much cheaper price than you, before you even see them in movie theaters here in the States. Unless you are responding to a specific request, save your money on these.
Single-shot comic books, especially poorer-selling titles. Soldiers and Marines like reading comic books and graphic novels, but they have limited tastes for single issues of titles that they have never read before. Get a soldier or Marine a subscription to X-Men and you will light up his life. Give him an assortment of comic books that he has never read before and won't ever read again and you will have wasted your money--UNLESS it has immense numbers of well-drawn pictures of attractive women in it.
Cheap ball-point pens. This one is tempting, isn't it? We all have dozens of poor-quality promotional ballpoint pens lying around the house, just waiting to be donated to some good cause or other. But any soldier or Marine who needs to write something down in a war zone really needs to write it down. He's not going to bother with a cheap pen that dries up or might break. Send him a poor-quality ballpoint pen and all you are doing is wasting his time and your own. Do you really want to give him something that he will use? Send him a good pen, one that writes in black ink--not blue ink or green or any other color--and that won't break easily. And try to make sure that the body of the pen is not white, for reasons of camouflage. Oh--and 8.5? x 11? notebooks are of limited utility in the war zone. They are good for writing letters home, but for everyday use, most of the troops need to carry small memo pads or notebooks that can fit into a cargo pocket, so 5? x 8? or smaller is generally the way to go.
Send these instead
Canned and other packaged, ready-to-eat favorite foods. These can be a bit expensive to mail, but they are well worth it to the guy receiving the package. If your soldier or Marine loves Dinty Moore Beef Stew, he will be happy you sent him a couple of cans of it in your care package, even if he lives on a big forward operating base (FOB) with a fantastic chow hall and a great PX. It is also almost impossible to find certain kinds of regional or ethnic specialties at the PX, so (for example) I was very appreciative of my relatives who sent me tortillas, cans of refried beans, canned menudo and Bufalo hot sauce for Christmas. Cans of corned beef, lobster bisque, chicken and dumplings, chili and other ethnic/regional specialties are similarly welcome. Cans of fruit cocktail and peaches in syrup, which are overly abundant through the workings of the military supply chain, are a complete waste of money. Also: a lot of guys work out a lot at the gym, and they tend to eat lots of protein to bulk up their muscles; these guys are always happy to get cans, or foil envelope packages, of tuna and other lean meats.
Books that might appeal to a 20-25 year old. Oddly enough, this doesn't just mean Tom Clancy novels. If you know a high-school English teacher, you might ask him/her what is on the local high school's required reading list--a lot of servicemen actually liked some of those books in high school and would be glad to have the chance to pick them up again. (Yes, it's surprising, but really: you'd be amazed at how many guys in the Marine Corps loved Lord of the Flies. Or maybe it's not so surprising, come to think about it.) If it's currently on the best-seller lists, it has a pretty good chance of finding an audience overseas, whether it is fiction or non-fiction, so money spent on Malcolm Gladwell and Nick Hornby probably won't go to waste. By contrast, mysteries and mass-market romance novels from 15 years back probably won't find an audience over there, so go ahead and hang on to your collection of Harlequin romances and Ellery Queen mysteries. Yes, Harry Potter and Twilight series books would find an audience among our service personnel. So would science fiction books. And so would books about soldiers and warfare, oddly enough, whether these are fiction or non-fiction. (Here are a couple of suggestions: Love My Rifle More Than You, by Kayla Williams, which is a non-fiction memoir of one female soldier's experience in Iraq; Gates of Fire, by Steven Pressfield, which is a book about the Spartan army at the famous battle of Thermopylae.) In addition, each of the services has a recommended reading list full of other suggestions.  But best of all is a book that you have read and enjoyed and that you would personally recommend. And don't forget the self-help/career books--a lot of those guys are going to be getting out of the service soon and wouldn't mind reading books on how to get into college, how to ace the SAT, how to study for civil-service exams or how to start a business.
Semi-nutritious snacks. Instead of candy, which is vastly oversupplied, think about sending other kinds of snacks: nuts, dried fruit, different varieties of trail mix, beef jerky, energy bars, protein bars, and so on. If a soldier/Marine is in the desert, he probably craves salty snacks more than sugary ones anyway. And don't go crazy with the old-fashioned granola bars; think more in terms of Tanka Bar or Clif Bar-type products, which are more nutritious and taste more like regular food. Also: spearmint-flavored chewing gum, which is not exactly a substitute for toothbrushing, but keeps one's mouth feeling clean during long days in the field.
Quality hygiene supplies. Again, we're talking Mach 3 or Quattro razor cartridges, and good toothbrushes, mouthwash, toothpaste and floss. Soap he probably has plenty of, but small bottles of whatever shampoo he uses at home will probably be welcome. (Small bottles of all this stuff are best because he probably has to walk 100 yards to get to the shower trailer.) Good quality, odor-eating inserts/insoles for boots will be welcome, given that when you wear your boots for 18 hours at a time, you need more sets of insoles than you do in civilian life. (At the high end: Superfeet, which are genuinely fantastic for tired and painful feet; at the lower-end, but still fairly high-quality: something from the Dr. Scholl's line.) Also extremely useful: foot powder, athlete's foot medicine, and serious anti-perspirant/deodorant. Febreze spray , which absorbs the sweet-smelling aromas of well-ripened combat boots in enclosed spaces, is priceless. People don't seem to need baby-wipes as much as they used to back in 2003, but these probably won't go to waste. (Unscented ones are best.) Chap-Stik, small tubes of Vaseline and unscented hand lotion are always useful. A good quality fingernail/toenail clipper kit would probably come in handy, too, especially if it includes a small cuticle scissors. (I realize I am getting perilously close to suggesting a manicure kit here, but it's amazing how many hangnails you get on a deployment.)
Socks and underwear, in quantity. It's always good to have lots of socks and underwear, both because it isn't always easy to get to the laundry and because socks and underwear get some fairly hard use in Iraq and Afghanistan. A six-pack of cotton or wool work socks--in olive-drab, black or khaki/coyote brown--will probably be appreciated. So would a three-pack of boxer briefs, in any color but white. The current state of the art in military underwear technology (yes, you read that right) comes from Under Armour, but it's kind of pricey and it may not be permitted for outside-the-wire operations unless you choose the fire-retardant varieties, which are even pricier. For socks, Thorlo and Smartwool are the state of the art, but they too are somewhat pricey. Stick with 100% cotton Hanes for socks and underwear, though, and you can't go wrong. (Official military issue boot socks are available for purchase here.) A couple of commenters have other suggestions on socks, so check out the comments thread to this post, too.
Magazines/Subscriptions to magazines. No magazine ever goes to waste, with the exception of the AARP magazine and Woman's Day. Whatever it is, it will be passed from hand to hand until it makes it way through an entire platoon, at which point it will be put into a larger stack of magazines and read again and again until it falls apart. Magazines are a good way to invest your care package dollar, perhaps providing more enjoyment per dollar spent than any product besides tobacco. It is not too hard for soldiers or Marines to get hold of "lad magazines" like Maxim or FHM, so focus your efforts on other magazines like Time or Rolling Stone which are somewhat harder to find. A subscription to a comic book or to Army Times/Marine Corps Times will definitely go to good use. So would a subscription to Outside or Men's Health.

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