Watching Him Walk Away—Deployment Day

“For 10 deployments, I never stayed until the very last moment. I thought it would be too hard…you know, watching him walk away. But this time I did and I realized my instincts had been right all along. For me, I’d rather be the one walking away than the one that gets walked away from. For me, it was just too hard.”  This is what Ashley* told me after her husband Brendon* deployed to somewhere in the Middle East a few weeks ago.

U.S. troops deploying

Brendon leaving (photo credit: his wife, Ashley)

The other reason this deployment is different is because it will be Brendon’s last. He will retire soon after he returns. Like many troops, Brendon has also been gone from home many times for various training exercises and classes. This makes Ashley anything but a newbie in the Good-Bye Department. Like many spouses, she tries to help support those who are facing their first separation. And, as Ashley begins her last time going through this, she shared some observations with me hoping it may help others.

They need to know you’ll be okay

Every relationship is different. But at Brendon’s deployment, I saw two ladies on their knees sobbing. And I’m not judging, but it’s hard for me to see how totally breaking down is helping the person who is deploying. I think your spouse needs to know that you’ll be okay. Again, everyone is different so, maybe that’s what works for them.

But I know for sure what doesn’t work—getting mad at the person deploying for not spending enough time with you before they leave. Things get very busy before they go. It’s not easy for Brendon to see and do everything he wants. Feelings can be hurt. But calling someone deploying as they board a bus to yell at them? Trust me. Not helpful.

I have a friend who found out on very short notice that her husband was leaving. They’re high school sweethearts and this would be their first real separation. She asked me if she should take a few days off from work. I said ‘no’ because you being home alone is going to be worse than you being at work.”

The first 3 weeks are the hardest

The “firsts” are tough. Like first time walking in the door—with the silence. Going to bed and nobody’s there. It’s hard to sleep for the first few weeks. I don’t hear him breathing, I don’t hear him snoring. It’s funny to miss the snoring. Ashley laughs when she tells me that every time he leaves she wishes she would’ve recorded the snoring.

I asked Ashley what she found most helpful in this situation. “I think it’s finding a new routine that works for you. I need to add something new. If I just keep doing the same things we always did, I miss him even more.”

I asked her if this explained the new puppies she just got. She laughed again and said, “Exactly!”

Go to the support programs

Ashley attends the monthly get-togethers for spouses and kids who have a parent away on deployment or extended TDY (temporary duty.) She strongly recommends that every spouse find out what programs are available to them and to take part. “It breaks the normal routine and everyone around you is going through the same exact thing you’re going through. Makes people feel that they’re not in it alone.”

I asked Ashley if I could have Brendon’s address so I could send him warm wishes or a care package. She said that would be great. I’m hoping it will also be one more thing that helps them not feel alone.

*names changed for privacy

© Gina left the mall, 2014

Fired Over Therapy Dog Request?

A disabled Veteran named Michael says that is exactly what happened when he asked his bosses if therapy dogs were allowed at work.

Michael served with my adopted soldier in the Army until he suffered a traumatic brain injury (TBI) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and was medically retired. Later, Michael was fortunate to find a job he greatly enjoyed in Texas at an energy-related company. He was upfront with his employers about his condition and what medications he was taking.

According to his wife, “Everyone wanted to keep Mike on their team because he was a hard worker and fast learner. He made top scores in his classes he took and LOVED his job. Our little family of 4 was settling in the civilian world.”

Things seemed to be going well. Then Michael’s therapist suggested he would benefit in social situations even more if he had a therapy dog. Michael asked his bosses if it were possible to bring a therapy dog to work with him. He did not have a therapy dog, but wanted to know if they were open to it.

Monday: Michael makes the inquiry. Says his higher-ups seemed intrigued—might be cool to have a dog around.

Thursday: One boss suggests that Michael quit. The impression Michael got was that management felt if he needed a service dog, he couldn’t be trusted at his job.

Friday: Michael was told to take a personal day and please bring in the truck so it can be refitted because we’re transferring you to another division.

Friday at 5:30pm:  Fired

Now if this Texas company had concerns that any employee were unfit for their job, those concerns should be addressed. However, when the week began, the reviews of Michael’s work were all positive.

Michael’s wife was understandably upset and reached out to my adopted soldier’s wife, Mrs. K. Then Mrs. K called me asking for advice about next steps. This problem is not in my normal realm of care package ideas and letters, but I tried to think of what I could do to help.

My first thoughts

My first thoughts were a jumble of: hire an attorney, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) may have some insights or know people who faced similar situations, maybe Team Allen knows a thing or two about disabled vet rights. Oh, and maybe they could reach out to leaders in the therapy dog community. Along with any local media or veteran groups in his area that can be an advocate for him.

Okay, that’s not exactly true. My first thoughts were really:

1. Wow.

2. Maybe this is why some troops don’t go for counseling after suffering traumas while serving—they’re worried about perception.

Now what?

Michael has hired a lawyer. Since law is not my area of expertise, I will turn to what I do know—the power and kindness of strangers. If you have any encouraging words or brilliant ideas for Michael and his family, you can leave them in the comments or email me here: gina@ginaleftthemall.com and I will forward. Michael and his wife have two little girls ages 3 and 5 and a whole new challenge in front of them right now.  At the very least, I hope to show them that they are not facing it alone.

dog collar

SEMI-UPDATE: The legal process is in motion and, for legal reasons, the details will not appear here. But when things resolve, I hope to report good news. Meanwhile, I wanted to share this note from Michael’s wife:

Michael was very humbled by the blog and all the comments. We have felt an outpouring of love and feel so grateful to have so many people care. 

© Gina left the mall, 2014

Get Your Words In The Right Hands

Lynn is a young woman who had a “mall experience” around the same time that I had mine. That put her on an amazing path and led to a terrific project you may want to be part of. She sent me this note:

Gina! Hello…I feel like we’re kindred spirits. I left the mall too…just around 2009…It so happens that I used to write back and forth with a Marine there who had a tagline that read, “The Marines are at war. America is at the mall.” That was the first time I heard any derivation of that saying and it disturbed me greatly. It was the beginning of my inspiration for my new endeavor Words For Warriors Project. In a nutshell, I’m collecting letters of encouragement/support (from people with and without a military background) to our veterans. I’ve had the first lot published in a book… and I’m distributing them free of charge through our VA hospitals/clinics and veterans organizations. The feedback has been tremendously positive and I’m in the process of planning a second edition (to be published in August)

A few words from me

I really like that these books are finding their way right to the places where they are needed most, in the hands of our troops, both deployed and at home. It’s such a simple and lovely way our servicemen and women to feel the warmth and care from such a large cross-section of people. Lynn asked me if I’d like to contribute. Hmm…let’s see….um, YEAH! This is the note I sent:

To our men and women that serve,

I see your sacrifice everywhere—on a nice day by the water when everyone is out with friends and family, or while putting my daughter to bed with wishes for sweet dreams and kisses to help make them come true. These are two of countless everyday moments that you sacrifice with your loved ones.  And because you do this, I get to have those moments in peace and security.

Thank you.

Thank you for all that you give up at home. Thank you for enduring long days away filled with danger or boredom, stifling heat or bitter cold, camel spiders and other wildlife, and mostly for facing whatever the day brings with courage.

Please tell your family that I thank them as well. The missing, worrying, dealing with appliances and vehicles that like to gang up and break down the moment you leave, and sending care from 7,000 miles away is not for the faint of heart.

What you and your family do for the rest of us is not taken for granted. It is honored and cherished. Hopefully the words Lynn collects will help ensure that you never doubt this.

Sincerely,                                                                                      

Gina S.                                                                                        

p.s. my daughter thanks you too.

 A few words from you

To make a submission, email Lynn at: words4warriors1@gmail.com. She posts all submissions on her blog and selects some for the book. If possible, she asks for you to include a photo. To learn more about contributing, see other letters, or get project updates, click here.

Where do the words from your heart belong? Wherever they can make a difference.

© Gina left the mall, 2014

Update: If you submit a letter, don’t forget to add how you want to be identified. People usually do first name, last initial, and a descriptor such as occupation, hobby, or something they love. You can see examples on the Words For Warriors Project home page (just scroll down).

 

“Your daddy died in the war too?”

This is what a little boy named Elijah said the first time he met another child in the same situation that he was in. His mom said it was the first time he felt safe. The meeting happened courtesy of Snowball Express. This charity serves the children of our fallen heroes by bringing them together for special events.

 “This year was our first Snowball Express and while we were there, we marked our 5th month anniversary of losing my husband. It isn’t easy to put into words what Snowball Express meant to my 8-year-old daughter and me but I will try. I guess the easiest way to explain it is to simply state that it was the first time since losing my husband that I went 5 days in a row without crying. Sure, there were a few moments of filling up with tears. However, those were tears of gratitude and pride…”—Jennifer

Bittersweet

On Memorial Day I especially think about the men and women who have died that were friends of troops I’ve come to know. I think about the stories and pictures they’ve shared with me and how much they love and miss their friends. One picture that always makes me smile is the one of my soldier in a kilt drinking beer with his buddy. His friend is smiling so wide, a crazy “cheese” smile that couldn’t possibly be any bigger, I find myself doing the same whenever I look at it. I never met this young man but I cried when he died in Afghanistan. I cried for my soldier and this soldier’s family. And I did the small but heartfelt things we do to support each other when the worst comes to pass.

This holiday weekend I think about how every holiday has become bittersweet for one of my soldiers—the joy of being with his family tempered with the sorrow that his buddy is not doing the same. “I wish we could still just sit around the fire, sharing a beer and few laughs.”

Today, we come together as a nation to remember all those that have served and fallen. As it should be. But there are many days in the year where the losses are felt just as keenly. That’s where organizations like Snowball Express come in. They create ways to put our feelings of gratitude into action.

If you visit Snowball Express you can learn more about what they do, what these events have meant to the families, how to volunteer to be part of it or make a donation.

Happy Memorial Day

A military child at a Snowball Express event

A military child at a Snowball Express event (photo credit- Snowball Express)

© Gina left the mall, 2014

Coffee Can’t Cure Everything

When someone asks me about sending troops coffee, care packages, or letters, I share ideas that have worked or went horribly awry and should be avoided at all costs. Either way, I’m helping. When I’m asked to support troops in areas I’m not so familiar with, I do my best to refer the person to organizations, blogs, or anyone I think may help with forward motion. However, sometimes I get a question that’s just beyond my caffeinated or handwritten powers.

Catch-22

A young woman reached out to me. Her friend is in the reserves and their unit is being treated unfairly. Note that I do not identify the branch of service. Also note that “treated unfairly” is an incredible understatement and purposefully vague. Why? Because revealing details would be the opposite of help. (A) The troops love their unit and don’t want to publicly trash it (B) higher-ups would not take kindly to this and (C) “repercussions” are a reality on some level and why go there and make things worse?

So my first suggestion of, “write to a congressman” went out the window once the ABC’s were explained to me. Undaunted, I asked her, “who speaks for the reserves?” I wondered if there were some high-level person that was an advocate for these men and women. Maybe we could write to this person privately. She could not find anyone. Next thought: maybe fellow troops could advise. Let’s write a letter to Stars & Stripes describing the problem (without identifying the unit) and ask how current reservists or vets would handle the issue.

But describing details would help identify the unit plus make the young woman feel that she was betraying her friend’s confidences. I pointed out the conundrum:

How can anyone help if you don’t tell them what’s wrong? Even if we assume good faith, like it’s a bureaucratic red tape issue and not something purposefully or willfully wrong, there’s no way to find a solution without stating the problem. You can’t reach out to the Dept of Defense and say, “Something, somewhere, is amiss. Please look into it. That is all.” With no information, you’re not even giving someone the chance to resolve the issue.

A smaller cure

When I initially spoke to the young woman her voice was trembling because she was so upset. As I came to understand the situation, I became hurt and angry on behalf of these troops as well. So when I ran out of ideas, I apologized. I felt bad that I could not think of one viable way to fix things.

She surprised me by saying I did help. Because I tried, I cared, and I gave her the opportunity to vent, she felt a little better. I’m sure in a much bigger way, she gave the same kind of help to her friend.

So while coffee or the other small gestures are not a cure, they can do one thing—assure someone in a tough spot that they are not alone. Sometimes all you can do is help someone get through one moment to the next. Sometimes, that’s everything.

coffee cup with bandaid

© Gina left the mall, 2014

The Perfect Excuse

The other day I received an important request:  I’m doing those ‘open when’ cards for a friend who is deploying. I have one for open when you are sick and I want to put a funny please excuse soldier today “mom” style sick note in there… But I’m not a mom and I’ve never written one before. Please help.

Of course I am happy to use my powers for good! If you are currently deployed or love someone who is and you need a mom-note, feel free to fill in the blanks on this one.

Dear Sir or Ma’am,

Please excuse _____________________ from _______________ today as he or she has a stomachache.  Although _____________ is not my child, I am a mom and therefore imbued with the unalienable, unquestionable, and formidable power to write this note.

If you have any doubts, I invite you to consult your own mother who will not only guide you through this “teachable moment,” but ensure that you do so without a smirk on your face, running with scissors, or worse—running with scissors while smirking.

If ___________is feeling better, he or she will be in tomorrow.

Sincerely,

Gina

excuse note

More excuses lead to 3 soldiers

In a rash moment of non-clarity, I decided to give up chocolate for Lent. I have come to realize that I love chocolate very much and that this was a mistake. So I devised a brilliant plan to excuse myself from this situation and I posted it on Facebook. In all honesty, I was kidding. But I got some very thoughtful responses, caring prayers, a little guilt, and three new soldiers to write to. This was my brilliant plan:

Attn fellow Catholics: I gave up chocolate for Lent and I regret it. So, if you “forgot” to give up something for Lent and are feeling guilty, I am now willing to sublet my sacrifice. It’s a win-win-win. YOU get a discount on time served/suffering till Easter. I get to resume a daily habit that’s up there with breathing air as a mandatory activity for me, and God still gets to balance the books on a promise kept. If you’re interested in being a team on our mutual salvation, let me know.

What I learned is that a few of my friends have given up “giving something up” and instead do kind deeds. One person even recommended writing to soldiers. I told her that I couldn’t count something I already do as Lenten activity, but I would be happy to write to any soldiers she needed help with. She sent me three.

So now I have the perfect excuse to start buying chocolate again—to send to these troops in Afghanistan.

© Gina left the mall, 2014

Orders To Nowhere

The Army will be getting smaller, down to its pre-WWII levels. The Air Force is looking for volunteers for early retirement. Every branch is making cuts. That means more troops will be transitioning back to civilian life. They’ll have, as Mike Grice puts it, “orders to nowhere.” Are they prepared? Are we?

Mike Grice retired from the Marines (although, “once a Marine, always a Marine”) and he took notes along the way. Whether a servicemember chooses to leave or is forced to because of budget cuts, they will face a big transition. And Mike’s notes can come in handy.

I first found Mike when he was sharing his journey dealing with the VA in his blog, Orders to Nowhere. When I reached out to him to help me with a soldier, he was generous with his advice. Recently, I learned a great deal more about his return to civilian life because he pulled all his notes together in the book, Orders To Nowhere. From getting out, figuring out what’s next, to dealing with the VA, it’s insightful, specific, honest, and from chapter 3 onward, there’s a recap and checklist of lessons learned. It’s more than his memories and experiences; it’s a guide that gives needed clarity to an often confusing and complex process.

Whether in his blog or book, I feel Mike’s writings are one way he continues to serve. (Lately his blog has been a great resource for transition news from various sources.)

Lieutenant Colonel Michael D. Grice USMC (Retired)

After an amazing career he loved, after four combat deployments in five years among other things, Mike woke up one day and knew it was time. It was time for him to leave his military life and start a new chapter—one that no longer required his family to make the sacrifices they had been making.

He assumed retiring would be simple and that nine months was plenty of time to transition. He was wrong. I must admit I laughed when he reviewed his official checklist of things to do. The first item was—get the official checklist. Less funny, the second item began with, “12-24 months before separation…” Mike had just started the process and he was already behind. 

Things I assumed would be easy, like getting your medical records in order, were not. As you can imagine, 0 doctors recommend carrying 100 lb. of gear on your back for extended periods of time, breathing in burning garbage, getting shot at, etc., as a health regimen. There are many things our troops do that cause wear and tear on their body and/or psyche. All of this must be meticulously updated and confirmed if the VA is going to provide any healthcare for these injuries after a servicemember leaves. However, it can take months to get appointments (wow!) and, since our troops move a lot, it can take time to track down certain documents. Oh, and don’t assume all records have been digitized for quick emailing.

Things I assumed were obvious when it came to resumes, interviews, networking, and that sort of thing, apparently are not obvious. That makes sense. If you’ve never done it, why would you know how? A military career has different norms, rules, and types of documents. Mike points out that when people ask a servicemember what they intend to do next, “get a real job” is a popular answer. But it’s not the right answer if the person you’re speaking with could be a potential contact in your new career. A better response is the “thirty-second sound bite” that has real goals and substance.

I like the honesty Mike has throughout his book. Including wisdom from another vet who endured a tough transition, John Ruehlin. John created a course with his lessons learned and one is, “First and foremost nobody in the private sector really cares what you did in the military. They care about what you can do for them in the business world.” This does not mean that what you learned and accomplished in the military doesn’t matter. However, you do need to frame it in a way that’s meaningful to the private sector.

Mike’s notes 

Mike went from being an officer leading Marines in combat to just another guy in khakis at a transition meeting who had no clue how to proceed. In his book, he’s upfront about what he did right, what he did the hard way, and the moments that were bittersweet. He also admits that if he knew then what he knows now, he would’ve been even better able to serve and mentor those he had the honor of commanding as they returned to civilian life.

The volunteer work I have done is focused on those who are deployed. But as troops I’ve met begin to transition out, this is an area I want to learn more about. If you or someone you know is considering leaving the military, I think getting Mike’s notes are a great first step. Even before you get your official checklist.

You can find Mike's book at Amazon.com

You can find Mike’s book at Amazon.com

© Gina left the mall, 2014