The List

The World’s Best Post Offices

The much-maligned U.S. Postal Service stacks up surprisingly well in international rankings.

Neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor gloom of night may stay the American mail carrier, but pretty soon, the weekend will. On Feb. 6, the United States Postal Service made the long-anticipated move of ending Saturday mail delivery. With demand for snail mail and paper billing falling and the payments of employee benefits piling up, the venerable USPS is anxiously looking for ways to cut costs, having twice defaulted on its required payments to the federal government.

But how do America's mail carriers stack up internationally? In late 2011, Oxford Strategic Consulting, a British firm, released a report ranking the postal services of the G-20 countries based on three metrics: "provision of access to vital services," "operational resource efficiency," and "performance and public trust." Guess who came in first? That's right: the good old U.S. of A.

1.     The United States Postal Service

Efficiency may not be the first word that comes to mind when Americans think of the USPS, but U.S. mail carriers are better at using their limited resources than any of their counterparts, according to OSC's study. In one year, America's mailmen and women delivered 268,894 letters and 2,633 parcels per carrier -- more than any other country -- to 151 million addresses. All told, the USPS accounts for 40 percent of the world's mail volume (yes, that figure counts your Victoria's Secret catalogues). And despite complaints about customer service, when researchers in a different study tested 159 countries' post offices on how fast an average letter sent to a fake address would be returned, the United States also came in first.

The Oxford authors acknowledge that the situation is in flux due to the rapidly declining demand for the post office's services. The United States already lags behind other countries in 12th place on "provision of access" -- which measures the number of citizens per post office -- and would likely worsen if the USPS follows through on its retrenchment plans.

The biggest obstacle to a more efficient post office may be the U.S. Congress, which has failed to approve reform efforts such as setting up retail outlets in post offices, raising prices, shuttering less-used offices, and ending six-day delivery. (As part of its new cost-saving measures, the USPS has managed to circumvent Congress by keeping only parcel service on Saturdays so that, technically, there's still some service six days a week.)

And in case you American declinists were wondering, China ranks last on the survey.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

2.     Japan Post

Japan's post office scores highest on public trust as measured by surveys conducted by the World Economic Forum and second on efficiency. And unlike most countries, it has actually increased the number of post offices in recent years. It's also much more than a post office. Japan Post also provides banking and insurance services and is the world's largest financial institution, with assets of $3.3 trillion -- more than the GDP of France.

Despite its popularity with customers, the fate of Japan Post has been one of the most contentious issues in Japanese politics over the last decade. Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi pushed through a bill ordering the privatization of Japan Post in 2005 as the centerpiece of a broad economic reform agenda, despite fierce opposition that nearly brought down his government. The plan was scaled back after the opposition Democratic Party took over in 2009, but the hope is still to eventually spin the financial services division off into a private bank that can subsidize the cost of mail delivery.

Japan Post took a major blow in the 2011 tsunami, with as many as 330 post offices destroyed or suffering major damages.


3.     Korea Post

Ranking in the top five in all three of the study's metrics, Korea Post stands out for the transparency of its customer service: It lists all customer complaints individually on its website for the public to see. Employees receive bonuses tied to customer service, and consumer surveys rank it as one of the country's most popular institutions.

In recent years, Korea Post has been following Japan into the financial services market, providing savings accounts, insurance products, and credit cards aimed at low-income customers. In some remote areas, post offices even provide services like train and airline bookings as well.


4.     Australia Post

With large and sparsely populated rural areas to cover in the country's vast interior, Australia's national postal service faces economic dilemmas similar to those the USPS faces in covering the Mountain West and Great Plains, and its scores on all three measures have fallen in recent years.

But Australia Post has been a pioneer in finding innovative ways to raise revenue and maintain services in remote regions. These include allowing privately owned post offices in small towns that operate like franchises, with owners purchasing a license to provide official postal services.

These retail outlets also sell other items, including souvenirs, books, office supplies, and coffee and tea -- making them more like general stores that provide postal services than traditional post offices. Australia Post has also partnered with banks to provide financial services at rural locations.

Thanks to these initiatives, Australia Post raked in a profit of more than U.S. $290 million in 2011/2012.


5.     Canada Post

With only 1,516 citizens per post office -- compared with 8,409 and more than 24,000 in China -- Canada ranks highest in the world for access to postal services. But like its neighbor to the south, Canada has been hit by rising costs and decreased demands for its services. 

The government launched a $2 billion modernization plan in 2010, which will include updating equipment and buying more vehicles. Unions have objected to new rules requiring letter carriers to carry two bundles instead of one, and have also expressed concerns that the investment in new technology is a prelude to large-scale layoffs. (Canada Post denies this, but does plan to reduce its workforce through attrition.)

Canada Post has also set up a free online billing service called ePost, which allows customers to pay bills online and manage financial documents through the postal service's website. The U.S. Government Accountability Office has suggested that the USPS set up a similar service, but Congress has yet to take up the idea.

Denis S. Hurd/Flickr

6.     Deutsche Post (Germany)

If the Tea Party had its way, the future of the USPS might look a lot like Germany, which has the only fully privatized post office in the G-20. Though it is still required by law to deliver nationwide six days a week, Deutsche Post has jettisoned almost all of its infrastructure since it was privatized in 1995, eliminating 100,000 positions and all but 24 of its physical buildings. German post offices are now, for the most part, within other business like banks, grocery stores, and -- in some rural areas -- private homes.

Though it lags behind public competitors in efficiency -- its carriers deliver less than a fifth of the letters than their counterparts in the USPS -- Deutsche Post has been innovative in other areas such as E-Postbrief, which allows customers to sent e-mails that are delivered as physical mail. In 2002, Deutsche Post purchased international logistics company DHL, making it the world's largest courier service -- meaning that many Americans have actually already used the German post office without even realizing it.

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The List

Combat Roles

Women have been fighting and dying in America’s wars for years. Here are eight who were killed in action last year.

See images of the women who've been moving closer and closer to the front lines for years.

This week's decision by the U.S. Department of Defense to open up combat positions to women was certainly a historic day for the U.S. Armed Forces, but American women have actually been seeing combat for some time now. In wars without a defined front line, where anywhere can quickly become a combat zone, the difference between "combat" and "non-combat" roles often breaks down. One hundred fifty-two women have been killed in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Eight lost their lives last year. These are their stories.


Died: Oct. 13 in Kandahar

A native of St. Petersburg, Florida -- and daughter of the city's assistant police chief -- Gordon was nicknamed "Queen Bee" by her friends and graduated high school in 2006. She had expressed interest in a career in law and spent a year at the University of Florida before signing up for the Army. She worked as an intelligence analyst and spent a year on a base in Seattle before being sent to Afghanistan.

Gordon was killed by a suicide bomber who attacked a U.S. delegation delivering furniture to the remote Maruf district of Kandahar province. A former U.S. military officer and four Afghan intelligence personnel were also killed in the bombing.

Gordon, who turned 24 just days before her death, had been scheduled to return home last December. "If I would describe her, she had no fear. She wanted to make a difference. Because that's what military people do: make a difference in the lives of others," her cousin, the Rev. Evelyn Thompson, told the Tampa Bay Times.


Died: Oct. 3 in Helmand Province
Age: 31

Steedley first joined the Marines in 2001 and was serving on her first deployment to Afghanistan. Steedley was an air operations clerk serving with the 1st Marine Logistics Group. The Marine Corps has said only that she died "supporting combat operations" in Helmand, and the circumstances of her death are currently under investigation.

Steedley, originally from San Diego, lived in San Clemente with her husband of eight years, also a marine, and their four children. She had received numerous commendations including two Marine Corps Good Conduct Medals, three certificates of commendation, and numerous others.


Died: Oct. 1 in Khost
Age: 29

A member of the North Carolina Army National Guard, Johnson was on her second tour of duty after having deployed to Iraq in 2007. Johnson was killed along with two other members of the guard after a suicide bomber detonated his vest while they were on foot patrol in a market in the eastern city of Khost. She is survived by her wife, Tracy Dice, who also serves in the military.

Johnson, who married Dice in Washington D.C. in 2011, shortly after the repeal of the military's Don't Ask Don't Tell policy, is the first known married, lesbian service member killed in action, and some supporters were angered when initial press reports failed to mention Dice. Because of the federal Defense of Marriage Act, Dice is not recognized by the Department of Defense as Johnson's spouse and is not listed as a next of kin -- meaning she was not among those first informed of her wife's death and learned of it via the Internet -- and is not eligible for the grief counseling or honors typically afforded military spouses. It was only thanks to an intervention from Johnson's mother that Dice was allowed to accompany the casket from Dover Air Force Base in Delaware.

Dice is currently fighting a legal battle with the Department of Veterans' Affairs to be granted survivor's benefits as Johnson's widow. The U.S. Supreme Court is due to review the Defense of Marriage Act later this year.


Died: Sept. 5 in Logar Province
Age: 28

Though she listed San Antonio as her hometown when she enlisted, Ramirez grew up mostly in Nairobi, the daughter of a Kenyan mother and a Puerto Rican father. She joined the Army in 2003, shortly after moving to the United States, and initially worked as a water purification specialist before becoming a helicopter pilot in 2008. She was killed along with copilot and fellow Texan Jose Montenegro in a helicopter crash in Logar. The cause of the crash is still under investigation. She is survived by a husband, currently living in North Carolina, and her parents in Kenya.

Ramirez had escaped from a firefight in June and been awarded the Army's Air Medal. She had flown more than 20 missions and 650 hours on her tour of duty, which was scheduled to end in just days. "She selflessly risked everything, on a regular basis, in defense of her brothers and sisters in arms," her commander, Lt. Col. Landy Dunham, told the San Antonio Express-News.


Died: Aug. 27 in Kuwait City, Kuwait
Age: 42

A member of the Maine National Guard for eight years, Wing had previously served on active duty in the Army for 11 years, including deployments to Haiti and Bosnia. This was her third deployment to the Middle East as a member of the guard. The cause of her death, which was not related to combat, is currently under investigation.

Wing was a Black Hawk crew chief for the Bangor-based 126th Aviation Medevac unit, known as the "Black Bears," which works to airlift soldiers out of combat. In addition to serving in the guard, Wing had a second job fixing and maintaining helicopters at the Army Aviation Support Facility. With two decades of experience in repairing military helicopters, colleagues described her as a "subject matter expert" and the unit's go-to person for maintenance questions.

Shortly before her fourth deployment in 2005, she told the Bangor Daily News, "It doesn't matter how many times you've been deployed, once or 100 times, it's all the same. You don't know what you're getting into."


Died: Aug. 24 in Bagram
Age: 20

Horne had hoped to become a doctor after getting out of the Army and just a few weeks before her death, had called her mother to say she was planning to reenlist because "the Army would pay for her schooling." In the Army, Horne had worked as a human resource specialist, working to maintain soldiers' records for the elite 101st Airborne Division. The cause of her death has not been released.

In her hometown of Greenwood, Miss., Horne was remembered as ambitious and a perfectionist. "Everything she wanted to do, she wanted to do it perfect," her high school principal told the AP.


Died: July 17 in Kandahar
Age: 26

Fitts, of Houston, Texas, first joined the Army in 2009 as a chemical operations specialist. In Afghanistan, she volunteered to serve on a Female Engagement Team supporting the 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team. The FETs are special units of female troops assigned to engage with local women who might be wary of male soldiers. Fitts studied Pashto in order to better communicate with locals.

"They have been the literal face of America to a host of Afghan women and children," Lt. Col. Timothy Gilhool, one her commanding officers, said. "Krystal was unafraid. Her presence made the difference." She had received numerous commendations, including the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart. She was killed by indirect fire when her base came under attack.

On the day of her death, Fitts posted a photo of a soldier's helmet with a bullet hole through it on her Facebook page, with the caption, "Remember so many have given of their lives that we have the privilege and the duty to make the most of ours. Let us do our best to live worthy of this freedom they fought and gave their all for us to enjoy."


Died: July 8 in Maidan Shahr
Age: 21

Alecksen was killed along with five other members of her military police company when the truck they were riding in ran over an IED in a restive city near Kabul -- one of the deadliest days in months for U.S. forces in Afghanistan. A native of the small town of Eatonton, Ga., Alecksen joined the Army in 2010 and was soon transferred to Ft. Bliss in El Paso, Texas, taking along the husband she had met back home. She then shipped out for a nine-month deployment to Afghanistan.

Alecksen had decided to become a military police officer after asking a retired general for advice after services at her church. He told her that MPs were assigned protect soldiers and their families. Family members credited long shifts spent working in her father's garage for the toughness and stoicism that served her well in the Army.

"If there was something she didn't like, you never heard it from her," her grandfather told the Army Times. "If there was something she did like, she might say something but not dwell on it."

Flickr/The U.S. Army