FORT MEADE, Md. – The U.S. Postal Service’s Atlanta-based Mail Recovery Center processes nearly 100 million pieces of lost mail a year.
As service members learn more about the center’s efforts to return belongings to their owners, success stories such as that of one veteran sailor’s experience in retrieving his mail will, perhaps, become more widespread.
Navy Petty Officer 1st Class James Stilipec, a mass communications specialist who serves as an American Forces Radio and Television Service radio liaison at the Defense Media Activity here, shared his story of discovering the Mail Recovery Center and how the committed professionals there assisted him in finding a box he had mailed while he was serving in Afghanistan.
“It was a fantastic experience for me after what I went through,” he said. “I had literally just given up on it. I made one more stab at contacting Kabul, and they said they hadn’t seen it. Nobody from my unit had seen it, and they had moved on to Qatar.”
Stilipec, initially deployed to Kandahar, Afghanistan, before transferring to Kabul and eventually redeploying home, said he had virtually given up hope of seeing his belongings after a frustrating and fruitless search.
“I mailed it from Kandahar to Kabul in late October [or] early November ,” he said. “Then I went to Kabul, and my other boxes all showed up in four or five days -- maybe a week. So I called back to Kandahar, and they said, ‘Oh it came back.’ I think I had the wrong ZIP code on it or something like that, because the ZIP codes are really close together and [I have] bad handwriting.”
After providing his address again, Stilipec said, he waited and it was getting close to Christmas with no sign of his box. Then it was time to redeploy.
“I got back to the [United States] around Jan. 3 or 4,” he said. “So I’m home and I tried reaching back in late January, and I think I tried again in February.
“It was late March that I tried to reach back to Kandahar for the last time,” he continued. “I actually talked to the guy again who had spoken to me the first time.”
After making those calls, the veteran sailor said, he was just ready to give up when he received an email from the Mail Recovery Center. The sender wrote that she had a package that might belong to him and asked him to contact her.
“It was almost like it was going to be an April Fool’s joke or something,” Stilipec said. Because the email had no distinctive markings or information on it, he added, he was a little suspicious at first.
Stilipec said he found the Mail Recovery Center online and confirmed it did exist, although he noticed the email had provided a different phone number. “Neither number worked,” he said. “I tried calling both of these numbers and it wouldn’t connect, so now I’m really suspicious. I went, ‘OK, this is kind of weird.’ The next day, I did a little more research online. My wife and I are like, ‘It has to be it. What else could it possibly be?’”
Replying to the center’s email, Stilipec said, he asked for a description of the box’s contents, and he got an answer saying the box contained a Rubik’s Cube and a digital camera.
“I said, ‘That’s my stuff,’” he added. “I was just so thrilled.”
It was then that the North Pole, Alaska, native learned tips from the Mail Recovery Center staff member for preventing mail and packages from being lost from the MRC staff.
“She told me about … the little things that the military could to do to try and ensure that their stuff doesn’t get lost in the mail, like putting a better tag on it [and] putting contact or location information inside,” he said. “What they’ve got to do is crack these things open and try to figure out some information or where the information is from.”
Fortunately, Stilipec noted, he included his personal email address on his customs form, which the Mail Recovery Center used to get in touch with him.
“It was just thrilling to get the stuff back,” he said. “They repackaged it, so there’s this really nice box sitting on my porch when I got home. I brought it inside and cracked it open. There’s this box that has been to heck and back. I mean, it was so torn up.”
Nothing was missing, and nothing was broken, Stilipec said, and everything was in great condition.
Following his experience, Stilipec offered his own advice to assist other service members in avoiding the same situation.
“Make sure you write clearly on the exterior of the box,” he said. “Use a ballpoint pen so it gets through all those multiple copies. But have another address inside the box. My wife used to do that. I would get boxes in Afghanistan, and I’d be like, ‘Why did she put the address in here again?’ Now I know why.”
In addition, he said, make sure to include a good return address and have an awareness of where the box is being sent in case it does get sent back.
“Realize the military postal system is an extension of the U.S. postal system,” Stilipec said. People should be sure to include some identifying information with the package, he added, and should do the same if putting items in storage.
Stilipec expressed his gratitude to the Mail Recovery Center staff for their efforts to find him and return his personal belongings.
“Thank you from the bottom of my heart,” he said. “This was my first digital SLR camera, which I purchased in Iceland. And my Rubik’s Cube -- it was my sister’s, She gave it to me. I’ve carted that thing all over the world throughout my career. I re-did the stickers on it one year. I’ve put some heart and soul into that Rubik’s Cube. I was so happy to get it back. They were some nice people.”
Stilipec said the center’s staff was “thrilled” to find him and get his items back to him.
“It’s just great to know that there’s these people dedicated to trying to get the mail where it needs to be,” he said. “They’re still trying to do their job, and they still care. They’ll do what they can to get the mail where it needs to be.”