Handled with CARE

For soldiers spending the holidays far from home, the kindness of strangers is often a saving grace.
Craig-ceely

Imagine the young Americans — soldiers and Marines, mostly — spending this Christmas away from home, in Iraq or Afghanistan. I’ve never been to either place, but I think I know exactly how things are over there. You see, when I was their age I was a Marine, and I was doing the same thing myself.

For me, the 1983 Christmas season meant Beirut, Lebanon, President Reagan having decided that the place was “vital” to America’s national interest. Right. Anyway, I was there as a member of a counterintelligence team, which had, among other benefits, the privilege of mobility (we had to drive around in order to talk with sources).

We lived at the Beirut International Airport, but unlike the infantry guys, we weren’t stuck there all day, day after day. Ultimately, what that meant in terms of vital national interests was that we had more access to Pepsi and chocolate.

The airport operations weren’t impressive, what with only four flights a day, but the mail avalanche certainly was. We paid nothing for outgoing first class mail, and we took advantage of that privilege. I wrote to my parents, of course, and to college buddies, but I also corresponded with novelist John D. MacDonald, U. S. Senator Lawton Chiles of Florida, William F. Buckley, Jr., and others. I even wrote to the Tampa Bay Bucs, suggesting that they designate a redheaded cheerleader to write to me (puritanical bastards never responded to that one...).

I’ve spoken with clients of mine who tell me that when they were in Iraq in 2003, small DVD players were allowed to be shipped free as well. Of course, we didn’t have that technology in 1983, but I’m glad to hear that they’re enjoying the same privileges I had.

Personal mail was delivered to us at the unit, but there was another source of mail: “Hey Joe” mail. Anything at all anonymous fell into the “Hey Joe” category, mail or otherwise, because the Lebanese street vendors called all of us “Joe,” and would try to get our attention by calling, “Hey, Joe!” Where that came from is anybody’s guess — I always assumed that it came from G.I. Joe.

Of course, Marines hate being addressed as “G.I.” to any degree, because we associate that with the army, but I digress...

Hey Joe mail was mail addressed to “Any Marine” or “Any Sailor.” The same thing is happening these days, but it surprised me at the time: radio and television stations, car dealerships, chambers of commerce, or whatever would organize campaigns designed to get people to write to us, since we were stuck in hideously dangerous Beirut instead of enjoying Christmas at home with friends and family. I was surprised, though, because, having grown up during the latter years of the Vietnam war, I didn’t realize just how supportive most of America can be when it comes to the welfare of its young military men.

And boy, did people respond: by the thousands, in my observation. Our mail was backed up all the way to New York, and mail delivery via helicopter from the U.S.S. Guam to the Marines on the ground at the airport took place twice a day, every day. Yes, every day: Sunday was a mail day. People sent letters, cards, and packages, and they sent a lot of each.

Anyway, the Hey Joe mail was delivered to the chaplain, and there was so much of it that the airport authorities gave him an extra office just to store, temporarily, that mail. We would take a Jeep and trailer, drive to the chaplain’s office, and fill both Jeep and trailer with mail.

If you’ve sent that kind of package — we called them CARE packages, after the relief organization — to Iraq or Afghanistan — or if you sent something to us in Lebanon back in 1983 — then trust me, it was appreciated, whether you ever received a thank-you letter or not. I wrote quite a few such thank-you notes, and so did every Marine I knew.

Those packages were something else. People sent us all manner of necessary items, such as razors, razor blades, soap, shaving cream, toothpaste, envelopes, pads of writing paper, pens — and chocolate. We appreciated all of it — our PX had been closed because of incoming mortar and sniper fire. But damn, we were excited by the chocolate. You name the brand, we got it in the mail: Hershey, Nestle’s, Cadbury. And home-made stuff, too: cookies and brownies and cakes and more. We loved it all.

We didn’t eat the fruitcake, although we got plenty of that, too. Store bought, home-made, we got both, and ate none of it. But we continued to devour the chocolate.

Quite a few of those letters and packages included photographs of young women. We were young Marines, remember, so…well, these photos were highly prized as well, as you can imagine. Especially those containing return addresses and phone numbers. There were no e-mail addresses in those days. I couldn’t believe some of the things women would write to anonymous strangers, but there it was. I imagine that the guys in southwest Asia are enjoying the same enlightenment. I hope so.

The chocolate consumption really got out of hand. I had never eaten so much chocolate in my life, and haven’t since. Chocolate with breakfast — or for breakfast. Chocolate with lunch — or instead of lunch. And throughout the day. Chocolate, without limit. If you have ever fantasized about being on a chocolate diet, I can assure you that it’s been done — the chocolate diet has been tested by active, virile, muscular young men: the men of the U.S. Marine Corps.

But the chocolate diet comes at a price, and that price, was, to me, an unexpected side effect: one evening, while tearing through a mountain of Hey Joe mail as tall as any of us stood, we all did the usual hoarding of soap, razors, shampoo, and so forth, and I heard someone laugh scornfully and say, “What is that, chocolate? Fuck that.”

“Ahh,” I thought, “so I’m not the only one.” I realized that I hadn’t eaten any chocolate for days, and felt absolutely no desire for any more.

Perhaps the guys in Iraq aren’t suffering from an over-indulgence of chocolate. I don’t know. I hope not. And hey, I hope the same for those in Afghanistan. My Christmas season this year certainly includes chocolate.

But I’m sure they appreciate the toiletry items.

I don’t recall what we did for that Christmas of 1983, but I remember my Christmas Eve dinner quite well: After standing duty in the rain, and challenging a general officer to produce his I.D. card, my holiday feast consisted of one bag of cold MRE beans and a few cups of coffee. I think at least one of them was warm.

There was no chocolate.


Craig Ceely is an incongruity management consultant in El Paso, Texas. His blog is The Anger of Compassion.

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