A parcel slowly moves along a conveyor belt, stopping briefly inside an X-ray scanner while CFB Esquimalt postal clerk Cpl. Sean Caloren takes a closer look at the contents of the care package.
He squints at orange and blue-green shapes that appear on the X-ray screen.
“That looks like a cookie tin,” he says.
He presses a button and the parcel, destined for a crewmember aboard ****HMCS Vancouver which is spending the holidays patrolling the Mediterranean Sea, continues along the belt until postal clerk Cpl. Maureen McGarrigle scoops it up.
She admires the brown paper packaging covered with foil heart stickers and colourful marker and crayon drawings. One message written on the package stands out: “We ♥ you.”
McGarrigle turns the package over.
“More artwork. It’s all over,” she says smiling. “I would keep the whole package.”
Even in this high-tech age of satellite telephones and email, clerks with the Canadian Forces Postal Service, which celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2011, agree that snail mail is as popular as ever, especially during the holidays.
“It’s a good morale booster,” says Warrant Officer Luc Gunville, manager of the fleet mail office at CFB Esquimalt’s dockyard.
About 10 military postal clerks work out of two post offices at the base, shipping thousands of packages and letters between Canadian bases and stations and to members deployed around the world.
Christmas and New Year’s are keeping military postal staff hopping. Last year was busier with thousands of troops serving in Afghanistan. An estimated 10,000 to 12,000 kilograms of parcels and letters were sent out from CFB Esquimalt over the holidays.
But this holiday season the outflow of packages and cards passing through the base post office to ****HMCS Vancouver has been non-stop. The vessel left CFB Esquimalt in July and is not expected home until February.
When ships reach scheduled ports, military traffic technicians meet them with bags of goodies from home.
Capt. Robb Allen, a Sea King helicopter pilot serving aboard *****Vancouver, says the care packages his wife Kerri McDonnell sends once a month have helped him get through his longest deployment.
Allen has received supplies such as deodorant, a book on childcare he promised he would read, chocolate bars and photos of their three-year-old daughter River and one-and-a-half-year-old son Paxton.
Email and telephone calls help them connect, but time on the computer is limited and Robb is only permitted 15 minutes on the phone every three days. The parcels make all the difference.
“It’s a touch from home,” he says in a recent telephone call. “One of the worst things about being out here is being away from things that are familiar.”
****Vancouver has so far received 306 bags of mail, weighing 4,702 kilograms. Another 78 bags will be waiting for them at their next two port visits. Personnel, meanwhile, have sent out at least 44 bags of personal mail, much of it souvenirs for loved ones keeping the home fires burning.
“Work stops when (the ship’s company) sees the mail bags being carried onboard or when they hear my name being piped to the flight deck. They know what it means: ‘mail call!’” Sgt. Renè Gagnè, the vessel’s senior meteorological technician, unit security supervisor and mail officer, says in a recent email.
As well as receiving official correspondence and packages from families, different organizations and retired personnel have sent over newspapers, magazines and movies, and well-wishes have come in from schoolchildren and military cadets.
“Everyone turns into little boys and girls when the mail is here and if the (crew isn’t) busy storing groceries or (removing) garbage, they would all be at the door waiting or casually walking into the (ship’s) sorting place,” Gagnè says. “I’ve even had to gently chase (Capt. Robb Allan, who helps sort mail) out so we can finish with the sorting. Those guys, including the captain, just want to grab their packages and run!”
At home, postal clerks sometimes receive thank-you cards from deployed crew members, but many say their reward comes from seeing members’ faces light up at the sight of mail from home.
“You see grown men with tears in their eyes because they got that letter from their child or their wife or mom and dad,” says Master Warrant Officer Debra Keegan, who heads the postal service’s western detachment, based at CFB Esquimalt.
“It’s fantastic. It’s a great feeling.”