NEAR KARBALA, Iraq – The magic words first came on the battalion's radio network: "Mail is ready for pickup."
"Is that mail to go out, or mail coming in?" asked an incredulous 1st Lt. Eric Hooper of A Company, 3rd Battalion, 7th Infantry Regiment.
"Why don't you go over and find out," answered Capt. Chris Carter, the company commander, from Watkinsville, Ga.
Soon the lieutenant's Humvee pulled up, bringing mail from home.
Overstuffed letters, carefully taped boxes, all with U.S. Postal Service markings.
The surprise delivery, brought from Kuwait by cargo truck, sparked excitement around the unit, and a few happy tears.
Spc. Luke Edwards of Raleigh, N.C., inhaled deeply the perfumed scent of an envelope holding a letter from his wife. Then he ripped into it with an ear-to-ear grin.
"She joined a gym behind my mom's work, she got a better job," said Edwards, 22, as he voraciously read the letter. "Nothing could be better right now. This is the closest thing to going home."
In the desert, miles from any village or city, anything other than green or tan stands out — especially a pink love letter.
Spc. Shaun Urwiler, 26, received letters from both his fiancee and his parents in Tampa, Fla., filled with snapshots from home. His fiancee, Emily McFarland, sent him photos of his cocker spaniel, Sparky, and a new armoire she'd bought for their future home.
"I didn't expect to get mail for a couple of months," Urwiler said, disappointed that he couldn't write back right now because mail hasn't yet begun to be shipped to the rear. "I keep a diary, so I can tell them about it when I get home."
There were also packages of snacks and letter-writing materials sent to "Any Soldier" from supporters back home — everything made more precious because it was unexpected.
"You look around and you're in the middle of Iraq," said Sgt. Paul Ingram of Athens, Ohio. "You don't expect to get mail."
Carter received several back issues of Sport Illustrated. He offered the other troops a chance to read them first, and they leaped from the lowered ramps on the back of their Bradley fighting vehicles to get the first whiff of the pristine glossy paper.
Several soldiers had held out hope for shipments of cigarettes, cigars or chewing tobacco, but were disappointed. Their withdrawal pains seemed to worsen. Many resolved to quit tobacco permanently, but were soon seen bumming cigarettes or a pinch from the more fortunate.
Then came the next question: "When do you think we'll get mail again?"