Coffee That Stays Warm for Four Years

He wrote, “I have no idea how we met.” Turns out that Alex* was looking through old emails and found some of ours. So he wanted to wish me a Happy Thanksgiving. I admit, I wasn’t sure either. So I did some digging and found out that I had sent him a cup of coffee when he was deployed through Cup of Joe in November. That would be November 2011.

I’ve “met” a lot of wonderful people through this program and even become good friends with a few. In fact, one of them has helped me tremendously and generously with this blog. He’s one of my go-to people for understanding and writing about PTSD. There are others I have bothered for help in different areas. All of them have been very giving with their time because they know I want to make sure what I share rings true.

So I thought that serving more of this special coffee would be a great way to pre-game today’s holiday meal.

What I wrote

Dear Servicemember,

Today is Thanksgiving and you are definitely on the list of people my family is grateful for. Thank you for all you do! Today is also my daughter Sofia’s 11th birthday. Because it always falls near or on the holiday, there’s always birthday cake. So when she was little she’d get confused and wish anyone she met a, “Happy Thanksgiving Day To You” to the tune of the Birthday song. When she was 3, we took her to the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. She asked if it was all for her birthday. Her Grandpa said, “Yes!” Lol, I said “Great. Now her parties are all downhill from here.” Well, I hope this coffee and note helps make your day a bit brighter. That, and knowing you are never forgotten.

Sincerely, Gina

How to serve

If you’d like to serve some of this amazing coffee yourself, go to Cup of Joe. I’ve spoken of them often, but the short version is: for $2 you can send a cup of coffee with a personal note to a deployed servicemember and there’s an option to be pen pals if you both want to. You can send as many as you want, or simply one.

Deployed troops enjoying Cup of Joe

Deployed troops enjoying Cup of Joe (photo credit: Green Beans Coffee, COJ)

And from my family to yours, we wish you a very Happy Thanksgiving!

*name changed for privacy

© Gina left the mall, 2015

It’s A Boy!

That’s right. Last week I adopted a servicemember and I got an Airman. This week my daughter Sofia sent him a fun “letter.” She wrote him a message—spread out over 19 postcards! We’re calling it a Postcard Scramble. As you’ll see, it’s pretty easy.

Postcard Scramble

  1. Write your message on a piece of paper. This way you know how many postcards you need.
  2. Write one word of your message on each postcard.
  3. Above each word, identify where it falls within the message. So “Dear” was 1 of 19. His name was 2 of 19 and so on.
  4. Address and add postage—35¢ for postcards.
  5. We shuffled them and mailed in batches of 4 or 5 over a few days because we’re hoping to make more than one mail call.

Here they are after she finished writing (and before I added his info). On two of the cards she put more than one word because, “they are important.”  Can you solve the scramble?

Postcard Scramble idea for deployed servicemember

Sofia’s Message

Dear Drew*

My mom adopted you so that kinda makes you my big brother :) Thank you for your service. <3 Sofia

Originally she didn’t want to add the number system (1 of 19 etc) but, there’s a fine line between fun and annoying. Plus I wanted to make sure the right message came across: that we care that he’s out there and that we are grateful for all he’s doing.

*name changed for privacy

© Gina left the mall, 2015

Beyond the Holiday

I was at church recently and the priest said a community kitchen was looking for volunteers to serve, “not at the holidays.” Apparently they had ALL the volunteers they needed around Thanksgiving and Christmas. In fact, they had to turn people away. But the problem was that people were hungry all year round.

That “year round” idea was on my mind as I thought about Veterans Day. There are some great celebrations, big and small, to honor those that have served and are serving now. That’s a good thing. But when the music fades and the sun sets, they still need our support. Especially when they are far from home.

What to do?

I always say, “do what you can.” No matter how you show kindness or give of yourself, sincere effort in any measure is always appreciated. For me, this year brought some challenges to people I love so… I’ve done smaller things. A cup of coffee here, a postcard there. Nothing wrong with that. However, after a while, I took it for granted that I couldn’t do more. But then I remembered that terrific friends and amazing readers have offered to help. Why is it so hard for me to say yes? If you ask my mom she will tell you— with love—that I can be thick. Hmmm…

So I’ve decided it’s time to adopt a deployed servicemember again. That’s a commitment of one letter a week and one care package a month for the duration of the deployment. And I’ve decided that if I need help, I will ask. When you adopt, you can choose male or female and the branch of service (Army, Air Force etc). But I have my own special system for choosing. It’s whoever is next. Whoever has been waiting the longest is the person I want. I will let you know next time if it’s a boy or a girl :).

So while I’m starting this up again on Veterans Day, I’ll be doing it long after the holiday. And speaking of post-holiday, I’ll also take my daughter down to that community kitchen on some random weekend to lend a hand. After all, kindness is never out of season.

letters to the troops

© Gina left the mall, 2015

Deploying Snowballs To The Fight

What do you do when you have a troop in the desert that misses winter? You send him snowballs! Of course, a soggy box of real snowballs (a.k.a. water) does not have a high fun factor. Plus neither the U.S. Postal Service nor the Dept. of Defense takes kindly to boxes leaking liquids.

However, I solved this shipping/climate challenge with Hostess® sno balls®. I figured it was a delicious way to give him a taste of winter. These treats became the main ingredient in my snow-themed care package for Brendon*.

Winter-themed care package with "snowballs" and more.

Winter-themed care package with “snowballs” and more.

This mini winter wonderland included:

Hostess sno balls – a bunch of 2-packs and two boxes of sno balls underneath

“Christmas snow” instead of bubble wrap

7ft strings of paper snowflakes

Snowman mug

Bacon-flavored instant cocoa. Yes, they make this. I also included other flavors.

Cocoa toppers- little sugar snowmen with candy cane straws that you garnish your cocoa with. What warrior doesn’t need this?

Snowman cookie- if you’re a longtime reader, you know I don’t bake. But if you need a deployment-friendly recipe, Wendy at The Monday Box has smiling cookie snowman stacks she says are easy but take some time to put together. Or search her blog with the words “military care package”.

As close to Alaska as I can get

I am in touch with Brendon’s wife Ashley and I asked her if she thought he’d like the decorations or if he’d think it was silly. She said, he’d love it. When I mentioned the sno balls she laughed because that’s one of his favorites. Double-yay!

Then I asked her if she had any other ideas I could add in. She mentioned she heard that someone from their home state of Alaska once sent over a small vial with some melted Alaskan snow. I decided to stick with sno balls and not try this because:

1. I don’t know anyone in Alaska.

2. There is no snow on the ground by me right now (Manhattan) and even if there were…

3. pure New York City snow just doesn’t have the same ring to it.

The forecast ahead

According to the Farmer’s Almanac, the weather forecast this winter is essentially: DOOM. Some areas of the country have already had a sampling of this. So, it may be hard to see at this chilly moment how someone could be wistful for the powdery nemesis of commuters and school principals everywhere.

But home is home. Whether it’s palm trees, city streets, or Santa’s neighborhood. And no amount of distance can keep the people, sounds, sights, and tastes of home far from our hearts. So I’m sending him a snow day filled with warmth and good wishes. Hopefully I sent enough sno balls that he can share. I wouldn’t want a fight to break out.

*names changed for privacy.

© Gina left the mall, 2014

Your Child Can Help A Military Child With :15 to :30 Of Joy

Sometimes all a kid really wants for Christmas is to have mom or dad home. At least that can be the case for thousands of military children who have a parent that is deployed. While the folks at The 9/12 Generation Project can’t grant that wish, they have come up with a way for students to help show support for military children called Operation Sending Hope.

Operation Sending Hope invites kids grades 6 through 12 to create 15-30 second video messages for military boys and girls who will be without a parent during the holidays. A total of $1000 in grants will be given to the sponsoring schools or organizations of the students with the “best” videos. I’d hate to have to decide that contest. Kids are already maximum cuteness. Add a kind act on top of that and I melt every time.

There are actually two rounds of submissions. Round 2 is still open:

Sponsor fee: NONE

Deadline: midnight, December 17, 2015.

Who is The 9/12 Generation Project?

On 9/11, we saw the worst of humanity. But on that day and the difficult days that followed, we also saw tremendous acts of courage and kindness. People came together from all over to help and The New York Says Thank You Foundation was created to give back. It’s goal is, “to build hope and provide healing to people around the world as a way to continually ‘pay it forward’ for the humanity, kindness, and volunteer spirit New Yorkers – and all Americans –experienced on 9/12.”

The 9/12 Generation Project is the service-learning program of the New York Says Thank You Foundation. They are the educational experts that hope to inspire students to take action. They create programs, “focused on community revitalization, disaster relief, and the arts” to let students see the impact they can make.

Where will these videos appear?

These videos will appear on the 9/12 site, social media, and The Military Child Education Coalition will be helping get the videos out to military children.

Operation Sending Hope? Joy?

I know the 9/12 folks named their program “Operation Sending Hope” but I also think there will be a lot of joy in this operation. In the doing, the sharing, the giving and the receiving….so that’s why I put some joy in the title of this post. Of course, the people at 9/12 are professional educators and me—I’m the one who did the class project for my adopted soldier that had a few mishaps, but I digress…

No matter what you call this program, it’s a wonderful way to make civilian kids more aware of what kids just like them go through when mom or dad serves in the military. It’s empowering for any child to see that their words and actions make a difference. And it’s comforting for any child to know that they have not been forgotten.

I know there’s not a ton of time but, if you’d like your child to participate, you can click here. In the season of thanks and giving, this seems like 15 to 30 seconds well spent.

Operation Sending Hope from 9/12 Generation

Photo credit: 9/12 Generation Project

© Gina left the mall, 2014

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: 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