KANDAHAR, Afghanistan – Astride a decked-out bicycle, complete with playing cards that rattle in his spokes, Sgt. Jacques Ouellette might be one of the most popular soldiers at the Canadian outreach compound in the heart of Kandahar city.
Ouellette is the postmaster of Camp Nathan Smith, overseeing the thousands of kilograms of mail that flow – courtesy of Canada Post – through the base, which is home to the 400 soldiers and 60 civilians who comprise Canada’s provincial reconstruction team.
“It doesn’t matter how old you are – you receive a piece of mail, it’s like Christmas, it could be July or it could be December,” Ouellette said.
“A piece of mail in theatre, it’s Christmas every time.”
On average, close to 2,500 kilograms of letters and parcels arrive from Canada each month – much of it in the form of care packages from loved ones back home. Naturally, holidays are the busiest times of year, Ouellette said.
The troops and civilians on the ground do their part, too – their letters and souvenirs home result in an estimated 1,000 kilograms of mail that travel in the other direction, much of it documenting the critical aid and reconstruction efforts that are part of Canada’s Afghan mission.
But there’s more to Ouellette’s popularity than just the simple joy of mail from home. It’s how he delivers it: atop a funky red bicycle, complete with homemade noisemakers, fluttering strips of white garbage bags and a Maple Leaf flapping in the wind.
A one-man postal outfit, Ouellette delivers the mail by pedalling around the sand streets of the compound under the blazing sun, his shiny new bell ringing like the siren-call of an ice-cream truck.
The decorative inspiration came from the brightly coloured transport trucks – “jingle trucks,” as they’re known to the soldiers, so named for the noisy metal curtains of trim that adorn their bumpers – that ply the roads of Afghanistan.
“I saw the trucks with all the bling-bling stuff they have . . . so I made it Afghan-style,” Ouellette said of his bike, which he picked up from someone who no longer needed it.
“It gives a good laugh to everybody when I go by.”
A Canada Post sign he made on a printer covers a metal basket on the front of the bike, lending the two-wheeled vehicle an air of authenticity. Local Afghans who work on the base are especially appreciative of his efforts, he said.
“They start waving their hands, they smile, so I use the bell like this” – he gives it a lusty ring – “and they keep on smiling.”
Given its far-flung location in one of the most dangerous places in the world, the base post office gets incoming mail only once a week, and sporadically at that. But whenever it shows, Ouellette – a native Quebecer who now makes his home in Victoria – wastes no time making his deliveries.
As he jumps back aboard his prized bike and pedals off to make his rounds, it’s clear Ouellette takes a lot of pride in his work.
“Pretty cool, hey?” he shouts, with a hearty wave.