Before I start, I should say that I do not intend to offend anyone. Quite the opposite, in fact: I wish to inform people, to prevent them from being offended later down the road. With that, I would like to present some ideas for what soldiers like to see in care packages, and what invariably lands in the "community box" within seconds after opening the package, never to be considered for use by that, or any other, soldier. Again, I don't want to offend anyone with this, but instead to inform those people that send our care packages, which we truly appreciate in every way, how to avoid wasting money on things that would go to waste.
My ideas will be presented in the most logical format I can figure. I'll start with food, then hygiene items, and finally miscellaneous items. So, first, food.
Candy: Soldiers DO enjoy candy now and again. I must urge you not to send too much, and certain types are more appropriate than others. For example, I have seen untold amounts of chocolate in care packages. While the gesture is appreciated, I must point out that Iraq is a desert. Both Iraq and Afghanistan get quite cold in the winter, but it's not very appropriate for summer. Also, believe it or not, hard candies melt in the summer too. Not only does this make the candy unconsumable, it also makes a pretty large mess throughout the box that you sent. Chewing gum is usually appropriate, as long as the soldier enjoys it. If he doesn't, then it will also land in the community box, but I guarantee that some other soldier WILL dig it out and use it.
Cookies: Yep, we love them. If you're sending homemade, then throwing in a slice of white bread with the container of cookies will help keep them fresh and soft longer. If they're store-bought, that's not required. If you send them, we will eat them. I promise. I received 6 cases of girl scout cookies in the mail a week ago. I kept one box of thin mints, and put the rest out in the community box. They were gone within 2 days.
Beef Jerkey: it's amazing. It will get eaten. Period. Some soldiers have flavor preferences, but it will ALL get eaten. If you want YOUR soldier to eat it, you should probably ask him/her what flavors he likes/dislikes, so you know what to get him/her.
Canned Nuts, Corn Nuts, Sunflower Seeds: all good options; some soldiers are less of fans than others, but this is another group of items that don't sit in the community box for long
Fruit: Canned or dried, fruit is a great option. Fresh... not so much. Fruit juices are also good.
Coffee: Soldiers LOVE coffee. If you happen to find one that doesn't, the coffee won't last long in the community box. A lot of soldiers even have coffee grinders over here, so they can grind Whole Bean coffee. Welcome to the age of Amazon. It's an amazing age. (I should point out that Maxwell House is readily available to all soldiers for free... but some soldiers have slightly more refined tastes)
Vienna sausages and other such meats: My best advice for this is ask before you send. There aren't a whole lot of soldiers who truly love them. They exist, and in fact my roommate has them sent regularly. But he's an oddity.
Fruit & Grain Bars: we have them here. The army provides. We appreciate it, but unless a specific flavor/brand is requested, it's probably not necessary.
Pop Tarts: Refer to granola bars.
Drink Mixes (Crystal Light and similar): Refer to Granola Bars.
Fruit Snacks: great for late fall to early spring. Melt in summer.
Chips: Consider that you are sending these items through US Postal, and that they fall into Military hands for about 2/3 of the trip. Chips usually arrive as crumbs.
Soda: The army does provide soda, but it's bottled locally (Coke and Pepsi products are bottled in Saudi Arabia). As such, it doesn't taste quite the same. If your soldier requests it, send sparingly. We don't really need it anyways (coming from a medic who gave up soda 5 days a week).
This is a special subject, as many soldiers have EXTREME preferences to what they can use, while others just care that they can bathe and shave. Use your own discretion, and when in doubt, ask your soldier. I should point out that if your soldier is on a base served by a military store, he/she can buy these items at their own leisure.
Toothbrushes: yeah, we have those. Occasionally sending one is ok, but please not in every package. they will end up getting used for weapon cleaning. Not that that's entirely bad, I'm just sure that's not why you bought them.
Toothpaste: ask the soldier before you buy. There are a few brands that sit in the community box for months, while a few others get grabbed the day they land there. I believe the least popular brand (that occupies the community box for months) is Aim. no bueno. Ask your soldier.
Razors: Most soldiers refuse to come anywhere near Bic or most other disposable brands. Check what kind they use before sending.
Shave cream: We're always in short supply. Send generously. If one soldier is particularly blessed, he can always throw it into a community box, and a less-fortunate soldier will grab it within 3 minutes.
shampoo/conditioner: I don't use these items myself. Not sure how many other male soldiers do, but there's always plenty in the community box. Females are an obvious different story. We just don't have any females in my unit. Fragrance-free is usually a safe bet for the guys.
soap/body wash: again, fragrance-free, or at least don't get us stuff from Bath and Body Works. A lot of soldiers use Axe, but most use a specific scent, and refuse to use any other. Check first. If nothing else, it will land in the community box. Axe goes quickly; bar soap... not so much.
And this brings me to miscellaneous items...
Clothing: we can always use white or green socks. Pretty much all other clothing items are not allowed to be worn around here. I should mention that knitted scarves and hats, while not worn here, are usually appreciated and cherished long after the deployment is over.
books: most bases over here have some kind of volunteer library. If your soldier doesn't like the particular type of book you sent, or just doesn't read much at all, it will get used by many other soldiers. Great way to cheer up a lot of soldiers on the long-term.
games: playing cards are usually in excess over here. Checkers, chess, and other board games also get sent quite a bit, and only a handful of them actually get played. Don't let that stop you from sending more if the soldier requests. Just make sure it's "if the soldier requests"
Game books: Sudoku is popular. So are crosswords and word finds. "logic puzzles:" not so much. Just try not to send more than the average job-holding person could use by the time your next batch arrives. We do have a job to do...
Alcohol, pornographic materials, and other "culturally sensitive" items: prohibited
Religious literature: provided for free from the Chaplains, but some soldiers have special requests... like "leather bound" ...or "Red Letter." Only upon request please.
Keep in mind, this is only a guide, from one soldier's point of view. Believe it or not, we have a growing number of "high-maintenance" soldiers in the army, so they may have more special requests than others. When in doubt, ask your soldier what he wants or needs. I'm sure he has a few more ideas for you, or at least he'll corroborate my list... or perhaps make it sound as if I have no idea what I'm talking about.
Sorry if any statements in here offended anyone, I'm just trying to save you the money and heartache of having your thoughtful gifts go to waste.