For those of you who don’t know, we take this day to honor the men and women who are currently serving in the military. If you know someone who serves, send a little appreciation his or her way. If you are this person, then thank you for doing what you do.
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In honor of Armed Forces Day, I wanted to take a little time to talk about a morale-boosting practice that is sure to brighten a deployed service member's day. Coming up with good care packages is a way to send a little love and comfort from home. Care packages require time, money, and attention to detail. If you are not sure how the process works, then you are in the right spot. I’ll give you what I have learned from research, picking the brains of other military spouses, and experience. I am writing from the perspective of a Navy significant other, but these tips and tricks are universally applicable.
Tips for saving money and time:
- Buy in bulk. If you have access to the commissary, Sam’s, or Costco, then get individually portioned items in bulk. You’ll save money in the long run, and you can plan out several boxes at once, which will save time.
- Check discount stores for good deals. I have had success at 99 Cents Only stores and Grocery Outlet in California. The Dollar Store and Big Lots will also have unique snacks and comfort items at affordable prices. I stock up on packing tape from discount stores.
- I find a lot of brand name food items at these discount places. Check the dates on these things. If you see that an item is going to expire within a month or two of purchase, don’t bother buying it. Your person’s care package could be stuck in transit for a long time.
- Sign up for the Military Care Kit with the United States Postal Service. The kit has free flat-rate boxes, some packing tape (You’ll need more.), and all the forms you'd need to ship to APO/FPO addresses. Yes, you can get most of these materials for free by walking into your post office, but I like the convenience of having everything I need show up to my door. The number to get the kit is 800-610-8734 . When you get on the line, choose the first option: Priority Mail supplies. When you reach an agent, ask for the Military Care Kit. You still have to cover the cost of shipping itself, but the USPS gives a $2 discount on flat rate boxes going to APO/FPO addresses. Thanks, post office!
- Do yourself and everyone else at the post office a favor by having your customs form (PS 2976-A) filled out in advance. There is an inventory component that it easier to do at home after you have just packed the box than in line at the counter. The service member's address is the only part that gets confusing. The forms aren’t designed for APO/FPO addresses, so you may want to confirm with the postmaster before you fill in their address. I also always let the postmaster stick the label and customs form onto the box. This ensures that it is done the right way every time.
What do I send?
The first time I put a box together, I consulted the mighty interweb for ideas. I am just throwing my hat into the ring on this topic, but there are tons of resources, and I would advise you to look at a bunch of them to get inspired. Diamonds on Deck 76 has a great video on the topic. The Military Wife and Mom blog also had some helpful ideas that I used when I was trying to figure out what to put in my boxes. Here are a few favorites that I have tested:
- Beef jerky. If I could send a box with nothing but beef jerky in it, then Nick would probably be happy.
- Clif Bars and protein bars. I have heard that sometimes the work days are so busy that our guys and gals don’t have time to sit and eat, or they have a watch that conflicts with meal schedules. It is helpful to have something that they can grab on the go.
- Wild Garden makes individually packaged shelf-stable hummus and cracker snack packs if your service member enjoys that sort of thing. It is tempting to send lots of cookies and candy, but I try to send healthy snacks too.
- Starbucks instant coffee packs. Nick is a big fan of iced white mochas at home. While I can’t send him one of those, I have sent him the mocha and vanilla latte packets. He seems to like these. If your service member likes Gatorade or lemonade, you can also get powdered versions of these. Sometimes their water tastes weird, so this can be a nice treat.
- Baby wipes. Sometimes you get filthy on the ship and in the field. Sometimes you don’t have the luxury of showering.
- Socks, underwear, t-shirts. A few months into the deployment, all that brand new stuff that they bought is going to be wrecked from constant wear and tear. You can never go wrong with socks.
- Reading material. Every once in a while, a person might snag some downtime, and they might like to look at a magazine or read a book.
- Your service member may be in a position where they have access to a computer or DVD player. A movie can be a nice distraction from stress.
- Insoles. Have you ever had to stand watch? Well, I haven’t but I have taught and waitressed in the past. After being on my feet all day, they hurt. Insoles don’t take up too much space in a box, but they can make those heavy boots a little bit more comfortable.
- Letters, cards, pictures. These are probably some of the least expensive things that you can put in a care package, but they provide the greatest morale boost. Handwritten letters, drawings and cards from the kids, and photos of fun memories are great things to include.
Things to Avoid
- Review the USPS shipping regulations. Things like lithium ion batteries, aerosols, perishables, and explosive or flammable material are prohibited.
- Keep it PG. Pretend for a second that your service member has to open the box in front of their CO. Are they going to be embarrassed by what is in there? Are you going to be able to show your face at command functions after you send this box? If you wouldn't show it to your grandmother, then don't put it in the box. Unless your grandmother is a perv... In that case, you shouldn't use your grandmother as the metric.
- Alcohol. This will get them in trouble. That’s all there is to it.
- Glass. I have heard about the sorry state that glass items can end up in by the time they arrive. This is why I don’t do the cake in a jar thing. I have heard of people having success with this, but I have this horrible (or really great?) imagination that makes me see rotten moldy cake with mason jar daggers embedded in it smeared all over the inside of the box after a shipping mishap. Ain’t nobody got time for that.
- Perishables. As much as I would love to send my guy his favorite cookies, there is no guarantee that the package is going to arrive in time for them to be any good. I have read success stories, but I haven’t tried it. Nick’s first box took about a month and a half to get to him. That is a long time for a perishable item to sit in a box. I don’t know what sorts of temperature extremes the box is going to be exposed to, and the last thing I want to do is send something that he can’t use.
- Bulky items. Most of the time, our service members don’t have a lot of personal space. Unless they specifically ask for something big, don’t send it. It is just going to get in the way.
- Liquids. I have sent liquids before, and they arrived without issue. I have it on good authority that liquids in packages oftentimes make a huge mess, though. Unless they ask for it, don’t send them liquids. If he/ she can’t live without that hairspray or Tobasco sauce, double bag it.
- Get some gallon-sized Ziploc bags. These can be the cheapo ones you can find at dollar stores. Put all your items into bags before you put them in the box. This not only prevents things in your service member's box from leaking onto everything, but it also protects his or her stuff from sea-water, unidentifiable liquids, or other people’s leaking packages. Bonus: they can reuse the bags for other things.
- Stick a piece of paper with your service member's address on the inside of the package. There is a chance that the box could make it all the way to its destination, but it could arrive in bad shape. I also write Nick’s name on several places on the outside of the box in case the label is ruined in the process of getting onto the ship.
- Packing tape like a boss. Do not be afraid of the tape. The tape is your friend. Make sure that box is secure for its journey around the world.
- If you are sending chemicals and food in the same box, use caution. Laundry detergent and some soaps can have a strong scent. A Ziploc bag is not necessarily a vapor barrier. I would advise making a separate box if you are planning on sending something like that. Have you ever had crackers that taste like soap? I have because I made this mistake. I would not wish it on anyone.
Some military spouses go to great lengths to decorate the inside and/ or outside of the boxes. You can find lots of examples on Pinterest. They are lovely. If that is you, then my hat is off to you, my friend. That just isn’t me. The fact is, my guy doesn’t have space for that box. It is going in the trash. I use the time and money I would have spent decorating the outside of the box to write letters and buy him things that he likes or needs. I do put some packages together around a theme to keep things fun. Sure, I may use ribbon, die-cut shapes, or stickers to spruce up the outside, but it takes me five minutes tops to do it. I have never heard Nick complain. Then again, he never really complains…
Now I turn it over to you. Did I miss anything? Does anyone want to share any tried and true suggestions? What have you sent? What have you received that brightened your day? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.