Do’s & Don’ts of Holiday Shopping for Service Members

By Katie Lange
DoD News, Defense Media Activity

By this point in the holiday season, I would hope that most people would have gifts for their loved ones wrapped under the tree or out in the mail already. But let’s be real – there will always be procrastinators, and that’s why we always have the last-minute holiday rush.

If you’re not sure what to get a friend or family member who’s in the military, here are some great suggestions that are relatively inexpensive and really useful.

Classic choices:

A pocket knife.
A pocket knife is essential for everyday military life, whether you’re opening boxes, cutting ropes, using it as a utensil or MacGyvering your way out of a sticky situation.

A nice sports watch.
Pick one that’s waterproof, shockproof and durable. G-Shock, Timex, Citizen Eco Drive, Seiko, Bertucci and Momentum are all known to have good military-style watches for less than $100.

Army Spc. Brian Thompson puts on his protective eyewear before a quick reaction force mission. Army photo by Sgt. 1st Class Clinton Wood

Army Spc. Brian Thompson puts on his protective eyewear before a quick reaction force mission. Army photo by Sgt. 1st Class Clinton Wood

Good tactical-style sunglasses.
Service members working in the field are required to have ballistic lenses that protect from small projectiles and fragments. Each service branch has an authorized protective eyewear list (APEL) where you can find approved brands and styles, including those from Oakley, Smith Optics, ESS and Wiley X.

A waterproof, shockproof smartphone case.
As we all know, phones are easily breakable, especially if you have to work and train out in the elements. So buying a case that protects your cherished phone is pretty essential. There are lots out there that are waterproof, seal out dirt and dust and can survive drops from several feet.

Wireless head/earphones.
At some point, we’ve all had our headphones or earbuds knocked off our heads after snagging the annoying wires that attach them to our phones or iPods. But the world of wireless headphones is changing that. Bluetooth-connected headphones are the future (especially now that the iPhone 7 doesn’t even have a headphone jack). Plus, wireless is just easier to deal with when working out.

Courtesy photo

Courtesy photo

Gift cards.
The gift card never goes out of style. Who doesn’t like getting $50 toward their favorite restaurant or store?

If they’re deployed or will soon be deploying:

A lightweight personal cooking stove.
These are basically thermoses with propane tanks, stands and (sometimes) auto-igniters. They boil water quickly, which is useful whether you’re making coffee, prepping an MRE or just need some warm water to shave with. The propane tanks that go with them are usually inexpensive and last for several months. Some good brands to check out include JetBoil and MSR WindBurner, and they’re usually under $100.

Courtesy photo

Courtesy photo

A video streaming subscription.
Video streaming services can be an entertainment-providing lifesaver for service members on a ship or in a remote location who don’t have much to do during their down time. Even though services like Amazon Prime, Hulu and Netflix are pretty inexpensive, having that monthly payment covered for the next year is always a nice gift.

Other lightweight entertainment.
Playing cards, dominos or magazines that pertain to a service member’s interests (like working out or sports) are always a welcome choice.

Photo courtesy of

Photo courtesy of

A USB-cable-powered fan.
A lot of service members get deployed to warm climates, so keeping cool is important. USB-powered fans are a great, affordable choice for a gift. They can be plugged into a laptop, portable charger or other device to charge instead of needing a wall plug, and many of them are also battery-powered.

The service member who tipped me off to this gift said there was a pretty big line of people who wanted to take it when he was finished with it!

Believe it or not, some of the best care packages you can send include Ramen noodles, dehydrated meals (like ones you’d buy to go camping) and beef jerky (only the GOOD beef jerky, I’ve been informed). And though your service member might have a sweet tooth, don’t send chocolate – it’ll likely melt (although Tootsie Rolls will survive, so they’re a good replacement).

Courtesy photo

Courtesy photo

Individual packets of hot sauces.
It sounds silly, but according to several service members I talked to, they’re a lifesaver when it comes to spicing up MREs. You can buy them in bulk on Amazon or just about anywhere online for between $5 and $20.

For service members deployed to warm climates, you can never send enough foot powder, deodorant and baby powder to help with unwanted odors and chafing. Battery-operated electric razors are also useful, as are body washes and fingernail and toenail clippers. The basics are always useful.

Service members miss their family and friends when they’re away, so sending them some newer photos is always a great idea. Also, get them laminated if you can. They’ll hold up better!


A lot of service members would be happy with the items mentioned above. Something they wouldn’t be thrilled to get, though? Service branch-affiliated gear.

Army Sgt. Maj. Daniel Dailey speaks with soldiers of U.S. Army Central after joining them on an esprit de corps run on Camp Arifjan, Kuwait. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Jared Crain

Army Sgt. Maj. Daniel Dailey speaks with soldiers of U.S. Army Central after joining them on an esprit de corps run on Camp Arifjan, Kuwait. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Jared Crain

While you might feel cool wearing something that says “Navy” or “Marine,” service members from every branch already have tons of that garb that they have to wear all the time. So getting them yet another piece of clothing, accessory or blanket that reminds them of what they do day-in and day-out is just going to be a let-down.

Similarly, if they’re deployed to the Middle East (or anywhere else where there’s a lot of sand), don’t get them anything beige. Between the location and their uniform, they see enough of that color. Try something a little more vibrant!

Hopefully these choices give you a little better idea of what you can buy for your favorite service members. Now stop procrastinating and get it done!

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