Inundated by parcels at the British headquarters base in Helmand last December, Regimental Sergeant-Major Don Hayes did wonder what on earth he was going to do with hundreds of Santa suits. His team, knee deep in well-meant Christmas parcels from home, joked that it might confuse the Taliban if they sent out an entire company of troops in the scarlet outfits, but decided it probably would not be considered appropriate kit for combat.
And RSM Hayes debated whether the burly Royal Marines in Afghan-istan's frontline bases would really want the gifts of brand-new bras and pants, Tampons, eyeliner, lipstick, perfume and cuddly toys they had been sent.
"We had everything from elephants to hippos," he said. "The smallest were keyring size but the largest was a teddy bear that had been squeezed into a box and was 2ft high and 1ft across. I know some of our guys can be soft but they don't tend to want cuddly toys. And I am afraid make-up is useless unless it comes in brown or green [camouflage colours]."
Soldiers and Marines on Helmand's front line have been overwhelmed over the past few years with the number of parcels sent by strangers. It is a dramatic and appreciated contrast to the early days of Iraq when they felt ignored.
"The heartfelt support is absolutely fantastic," said RSM Hayes, of the UK Landing Force Command Support Group. "The change is tremendous but it has escalated to a scale you can't envisage. There is only so much shower gel you can use."
Every effort is made to get personal mail out to troops in the remote bases but last Christmas so many unsolicited parcels arrived that packages from friends and family were lost in the mountains of mail and delayed for weeks. Some of the gifts were inspired – wind-up radios or towels that pack into tiny pockets – many well-meant offerings were inappropriate for the harsh environment: chocolate that turned to liquid in the blazing summer sun, hundreds of fans sent during the freezing winter, fancy bath-salts for men who wash with solar showers, coffee for non-existent percolators and microwave meals for troops who cook over open camp-fires.
A handful of women do serve in the forward bases but the number of parcels aimed at females far outweighed the need for them. In Helmand's lethal territory, where roadside bombs make every resupply a dangerous mission, essentials take priority. A couple of the Santa suits, Christmas puddings and treats were sneaked in to the supplies as a morale booster for the men of 3 Commando Brigade on the front last year but to set up extra resupplies would have risked lives.
Instead, the military has joined forces with the charity, SSAFA, to set up an Operational Welfare Fund which, unlike some commercial organisations that offer to send packages to soldiers, makes no profit.
Vice-Admiral Peter Wilkinson said: "This fund enables commanders on the ground to bid for those items which they judge will have the most impact in enhancing the morale of their personnel."
RSM Hayes added: "The support is greatly appreciated but if you still want to send something, send a letter and donate to the fund."
*Donations to the troops in Helmand can be made via www.bmycharity.com/V2/welfarefundReuse content