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

Thinking About Hooters

One of my soldiers is a big fan of Hooters—the restaurant famous for its waitstaff of beautiful women in short shorts and low-cut tank tops. I went there once. It was many years ago on a business trip at my first job. I was part of a junior team and our boss took us there for lunch. He really enjoyed the atmosphere and that made this work lunch a little awkward. Hooters didn’t cross my mind much after that. But when it did, that’s the one word that popped in my head—awkward.

Then one day, I started getting lots of suggestions from Facebook that I become friendly with Hooters. I thought that was random and odd until I found out that the soldier I mentioned was connecting with every Hooters restaurant he found. Since he and I are Facebook friends, his likes came my way. Mystery solved! Then I didn’t think about Hooters again, or his love of it, until two years later in Prague.

Prague style

Prague is a jewel of a city and the capital of the Czech Republic. The architecture is so beautiful and in such good condition, it looks fake—like the Disney production team came in and set up Europe-Town. I was there for work and, as I walked along the cobblestone streets, I felt lucky that I got to see this part of the world. Below are a few pics I took and why, amongst these historic buildings, Hooters leapt to mind.

Prague1

Prague2

Prague3

Prague4When I saw this poster I immediately texted my soldier who was a fan. He wrote back right away that he wanted me to go there and, if possible, please pick up a t-shirt. If I were standing in front of the restaurant, I would have. But I didn’t have a lot of free time to go find this place. Plus I have no sense of direction. My personal-GPS fails are epic. So the t-shirt wasn’t happening and that was the end of it. Until two and a half years later when Hooters crossed my mind again. Which brings us to last week.

Carrying-on

I was traveling (apparently I never think of Hooters at home) and had the chance to visit the USO with an Airman at the Raleigh Durham Airport in North Carolina. (FYI-the USO is staffed with some of the nicest people you’ll ever meet.) As I was leaving, I noticed a 2014 Hooters Girls calendar with a thank-you note attached to it.

The note on the calendar.

The note on the calendar.

I thought of how much my soldier would love it!! Then a sweet, grandfatherly, USO volunteer noticed me noticing and asked me if I wanted it for a servicemember. I said yes and I asked him if he had a bag I could put it in. He did not.

I stood there. On one hand, I had my awkward Hooters moment and no real desire to walk through the airport with this not-subtle oversized calendar. On the other hand, I knew that my soldier would be very, very happy to receive this. I decided happiness trumped awkwardness and carried the calendar on the plane with me.

I guess I’m due to run into Hooters again, mentally or otherwise, in another two years. What will I think of first? The lunch? My soldier? I have no idea. But I am certain that at this moment, I’m grateful that Hooters helped me make my soldier smile.

© Gina left the mall, 2014

Coming Home Early

Exciting news!!! My soldier’s deployment is being cut short AND he will be home in time for the birth of his child! YAY!!!!! Of course, before we all get too comfortable, he’s already been informed he’ll be deploying again this year. But for now, we’ve hit his mail-stop date and all kinds of joy are just around the corner.

This is the same soldier, Sergeant (Sgt.) K, that many of you helped me support with my snail-tweet project (one postcard a day, every day.) Thank you for all the messages you left here for me to send. Thanks also to everyone who sent me postcards from their home state to use.

He did get most of them. And he loved them. That’s the big win. If I ever do this again, there are a few small things I would change. And many things I wouldn’t.

Snail review

1. Getting postcards ahead of time and having snail-tweets from other people is a huge help.

2. Writing to the same person every day made me more aware of the passage of time. And gave me an even greater appreciation for what Sgt. K’s family goes through.

3. Deciding after you start snail-tweeting to create a craft project and photograph each one (both sides) in different locales with different backgrounds adds a layer of complexity that is not necessary at all.

4. If you travel, bring more than the exact number of postcards that you need in case something goes wrong. Like you are ambushed by a sneak rainstorm while visiting your mom in Florida a few months ago.

The ambush

It was a beautiful sunny day. See?

(I blurred out the last names and address for privacy.)

(I blurred out the last names and address for privacy.)

Do not trust this shade of perfection-blue. It may turn on you. Innocently, I wrote out that day’s postcard. Then, adhering to my Mom’s outgoing mail system, I used a wooden clothespin to attach it to her mailbox. The mailbox is protected by an awning that extends five feet. I put it on and went out with Mom to run an errand.

In my absence, it rained hard for 10 minutes. Sideways. The postcard was soaked. Gingerly, I peeled it free and then attempted to return this near-pulp object back to a solid state with a blow-dryer. After I was done, I still wasn’t sure the structural integrity would hold so, I put it in an envelope. Back it went to the mailbox with the clothespin but this time I kept a steady eye on the skies.

Trying to save snail tweet #31

Trying to save snail tweet #31

Luckily, it survived all the way to Afghanistan. This is part of Sgt. K’s office wall.

Some of the snail tweets that made it to Afghanistan. #31 is among them.

Some of the snail tweets that made it to Afghanistan. #31 is among them.

Since this picture was taken, more 4×6 doses of morale-boosting care have arrived and been added to the wall. Soon Sgt. K will take them down and start concentrating on a much better decorating project: the finishing touches on the nursery for his new baby.

© Gina left the mall, 2014