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Duluth Army mom finally gets U.S. Postal Service apology for ‘deceased’ stamp

In this 2006 file photo, Joan Najbar, of Duluth, Minn., holds the letter she sent her son Samuel Eininger in Iraq that was returned marked “deceased.” Bob King / Forum News Service file photo

By John Myers

Duluth News-Tribune

DULUTH, Minn. – A Duluth woman whose letter mailed to her Army son in Iraq came back to her stamped “DECEASED” when the soldier wasn’t dead has received a formal apology from the U.S. Post Office, more than six years after the incident.

Joan Najbar received the return letter in October 2006. The formal apology from the U.S. Postal Service arrived last week.

The apology was written by a Twin Cities-based district manager and came through U.S. Sen. Al Franken’s office.

“It’s over now. I can put this to rest. I got a sincere apology and a promise that they will work to keep this from happening again,” Najbar said. “We’ll never know who did this. I don’t even care anymore. I just don’t want it to happen again.”

Najbar in January said she tried “one, last-ditch effort” to resolve the situation by asking Franken’s office to intervene. On Saturday, she received a letter from Franken that included a letter from Anthony Williams, a Postal Service district manager for customer service and sales in Minneapolis.

“Please extend our sincere apologies to Miss Najbar,” Williams wrote to Franken. Williams also said the Postal Service “will try to ensure” that a similar situation never happens again.

A Postal Inspector’s office investigation at the time failed to track down who might have stamped the letter or why. The investigation was dropped, but Najbar said the Postal Service never even said they were sorry.

“That they didn’t have a way to prevent this is a slap to all veterans,” she said. “We’re still at war. You’d hope they would have a system in place to prevent something like this. But apparently they still do not.”

Frustrated at the lack of a resolution, Najbar filed a federal lawsuit against the United States in 2009, claiming she experienced emotional distress and lost income after the stamping incident. But U.S. District Judge Patrick Schiltz dismissed the case in 2010, saying federal law doesn’t give him the legal authority to decide the controversy raised in Najbar’s complaint.

Najbar, a vocal antiwar protestor during the Iraq War, said she mailed the letter Sept. 29, 2006, to her son, Sam Eininger, who was stationed in Baghdad with his Army National Guard unit. But she said the letter came back unopened days later with only a Duluth postmark and the word “DECEASED” stamped on the front in red.

Had Najbar not talked to her son on the phone the day before and maintained regular email conversations, the letter might have been more upsetting, she said. Instead, she said it made her angry, and she has worked for years to get some answers.

Najbar said she suspects the culprit may have been someone who didn’t share her views.

After talking to military officials, she said it became clear the letter never got into the military mail system.

Officials from the U.S. Department of Defense and the Minnesota National Guard said no one is authorized to stamp a letter “DECEASED” and return it to the sender. If a soldier has died, all incoming mail is collected and returned as part of the soldier’s belongings to the next of kin, not to the sender by return mail. A Department of Defense spokesman at the time said the military mail system doesn’t have “DECEASED” stamps. Postal officials also say they, too, would never mark a letter “DECEASED.”

Najbar said she dropped the letter in a Duluth mailbox. It is the only letter or package that did not make it through to her son, who served in an infantry unit patrolling Baghdad.

Najbar at the time dismissed any notion that she stamped the letter herself to draw attention to the war.

Her son survived the war and now lives in the Twin Cities, she noted.

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