More than 2,000 troops and a legion of contractors are responsible for the military's overseas mail system, which is part of the U.S. Postal Service. Overseas-bound mail travels like any other mail to military distribution hubs in Jersey City, N.J., and Los Angeles. From there, mail travels on commercial and military aircraft and commercial sealift vessels to nearly 2,000 military post offices in more than 85 countries, including Navy and Coast Guard ships.
In the long run, sending anything pricey overseas untracked takes faith, but you can do a few things to help it on the way. Some tricks for getting your gift through the gauntlet intact:
• Free boxes from USPS. Order free military "Care Kits" at 800-610-8734. Each kit includes two "America Supports You" Flat Rate boxes (same size as the large Priority Mail boxes); four medium Priority Mail boxes; six Priority Mail labels; one roll of Priority Mail tape; and six customs forms with envelopes.
• Military discount on biggest flat-rate box. While most people pay $14.95 to ship the largest USPS Flat Rate boxes, anyone shipping to or from an APO/FPO address should only pay $12.95 at the counter. The price is even better if you pay online: $12.20.
• Repackage high-end items. Laptops and other expensive electronics are the No. 1 category of items that go missing, so the most important thing to do is to repackage it in a box that hides the fact that you have something pricey inside. Make it look homemade with heart stickers and "Cookies — handle with care!" written on the outside.
• Don't be so literal. All packages shipped to and from APO/FPOs need a customs form. Put some other stuff in the box with your gift — some paper and some pens, for example — so you can mask high-value items with a more generic description such as "office supplies."
• Consider reshippers. For online vendors who won't ship to APO/FPO addresses, either start shopping now so you can have the item shipped to you (then reshipped APO/FPO); or go to the professionals: companies such as ShipItAPO and APO Box will forward your gift for a fee.