How do you shop for a soldier?
Military personnel are a tricky bunch to shop for, because they usually think of others before they think of themselves. Chances are they won't ask you directly for something very nice, and even when they receive something large, it may feel awkward to them to receive it. Luckily, there are a few simple guidelines that can help anyone find an appropriate gift.
It is good to remember that a service member doesn't have to be on a combat deployment to be far away from home and family. Training and remote duty stations can make a person feel isolated as well, even if the place they are deployed is fairly nice in its own right.
There are a few universal things that usually go over well with people in the armed forces. There are many opportunities to combine their service with something personal to them in a meaningful way. Most importantly may be just to let them know you are thinking about them and miss them.
Research their military unit or rank
As strongly as you may feel about a football team, a military member feels that same brotherhood many times over within their unit. One of the most common questions when two service members meet is to ask what unit they were with. This is fairly easily done by asking them! A little internet search can show what that unit logo or emblem looks like, and you can put that symbol on any item to instantly make it more meaningful to them.
Units have long histories, and you aren't expected to learn it all. Typically adding their unit logo to an item will be enough to make any gift a very personal one. You can also add their rank or have their name added to the item for extra effect. Be absolutely sure to get the rank right! It is fine if they later go to a higher rank, they will remember the time when they received the gift as the rank that was printed on it. What will not go over well is putting a rank on that they did not earn, or not recognizing their current rank by putting on a lower one. Military rank is a huge point of pride, and it is something every soldier would want to be accurate more than any other aspect.
So what do I get a soldier for Christmas?
Typically, start with anything you might have gotten them if they were not in the military. Military service is a huge aspect of their life, but it is not their entire life! They still have hobbies from before they enlisted that they care about just as much now as they did when they were younger.
It also helps not to go overboard. Symbols of their service are perfectly fine, but they do not want US ARMY on every single item they own. Soldiers do like to dress down and not stand out on many occasions. This also lets them know that you don't base their entire value as a person simply on the fact that they are in the military. Low key goes a long way!
Small items are great for emblems. Challenge coins are a perfect example and are often easy to find with designs already made for all kinds of units, or at least their branch of service.
If they are overseas, think more practical, and a little smaller. They have to carry everything they own when they move! It is also good to get things they can share. A stack of old magazines can mean just as much to a soldier as any other gift, and a big part of that is that they can share them when they are done. A nice wallet or a watch is a great gift normally, but think how useful it would be in their current situation. If it is not very practical, save it for their next Christmas that they are back home instead. A deployed soldier will get far more use out of a cheap but durable Timex than they would fancy gold Rolex. Applying that principle to any purchase will prevent them from feeling terrible if they accidentally break it.
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Useful Items for Deployed Soldiers
- Personal Hygiene Items
- Puzzle Books
- Phone Cards
- New Socks
- Books (the lighter the better)
- DVDs of movies or shows
- Smaller Board Games
Many of these things will be available through major organizations such as the USO, so don't go too crazy on these personal items unless they specifically ask. If in doubt, get items that can be shared, like magazines or books. Once the soldier is done reading them, usually they get added to a public pile somewhere for others to enjoy.
Being deployed is boring!
The most overlooked aspect of overseas service, is often boredom! This may not sound like an issue when going to a war zone, but the actual fighting is typically very short time frames, if that person sees combat at all. The time between, waiting and waiting, takes a lot of energy out of a person. Think of things that they might enjoy playing with, like small puzzles, or if they like to carve figures, a small knife they can do some woodwork with. They may only have poor materials to work with, but just doing those things can really relieve stress.
Soldiering is 99% pure boredom and 1% pure terror.
— Unknown Civil War Infantryman
Soldiers celebrate Christmas as much as anyone at home.
Being overseas will only change a little bit of the Christmas process you are used to. The biggest hurdle is just not being able to see your loved ones. Traditions do not stop when someone is gone, and you can find many miniature Christmas trees in tents even in combat zones. Anything that makes a person feel like they are living a normal life makes the time go by faster when they have to be away.
Essentially you will shop for them the same way you do at home, but with minor adjustments. Focus on smaller items that will not weigh them down when they travel. Food and clothing are not too hard to get, but snacks or a better blanket may be hard to come by. If all else fails, ask them what they wish they had over there! It is most often the little things that make the biggest difference.
Celebrating Christmas in a Combat Zone
How do I send mail overseas to soldiers?
The simple way is to use flat rate post office boxes. That means you pay the same amount regardless of the weight, up to a certain cap. These can fit quite a bit inside, and the weight limit should never be a problem. If you are mailing over 50 pounds in a box, it would be a hassle on the receiving end to transport and store for the individual. They may even have to walk a long distance to a post office to get it if it is heavy, and then have to carry it back to their individual area.
Military addresses will look funny, because they identify a unit, not a location. The postal service will be able to route the package to the appropriate place. The reason for this is so that anyone viewing the package will not have any knowledge of where that unit is located. It provides an extra level of security to keep the movements of the military groups discreet. Even if you know they are in Iraq for example, there can be dozens or more different bases they may be stationed at. For the gift giver, all you need to do is enter their APO or FPO address, and the rest will be sorted through the postal system.
Do not be discouraged by slow responses, as it may take several weeks for mail to be delivered. This is normal in hard to reach locations, where supply lines may only run on certain days. In some cases, mail has to take its final leg on a convoy to the final base. This relies heavily on the route, and the schedules. Mail is very important, but it has to be balanced with essentials, like supply runs to stock food or ammunition.