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

I Supper Love You

“I supper love you too,” Sofia whispered and smiled as she ran towards the school doors to start her day. This moment with my daughter made me think of one my soldiers and an amazing letter I received from his family.

Supper and separation

Sofia had meant to write, “super” a few years ago in her note to me, but I’m glad she didn’t. This error has turned into a special saying for us. Of course, in high-profile, high-stake situations like the 500-ft radius around her elementary school, she says it quietly so the other kids won’t hear. This occurs right after she drops my hand a block early so no one sees because she is, “too big to hold hands” and only does so to indulge me.

I-supper-love-you

The note I came home to one day

At this “supper” moment however, my heart ached because I was pre-missing her. My daughter is with me most of the time but she had an upcoming trip with her dad (my Ex). Let me be clear—I am in no way comparing this separation to the separation of deployment. But when I feel the tugs on my heart, I can’t help but think of our military families and all that they sacrifice. My next thought is one of gratitude for all the time I do have with her and safety I enjoy with her.

While I was in this frame of mind, I received a letter from a military family. The dad is a soldier and has been missing home very much. For some reason, it has been even harder this deployment to be away from the children and this has led him to make a big decision. When his current enlistment is up, he’s going to leave the Army so he can spend more time with his kids. His wife shared this news and added something wonderful:

In support of his decision and because of the amazing gift he has given me by allowing me to stay home with our kids all these years, I have started my own home-based business. I am working my butt off so I can take over as the primary income and my husband can enjoy time at home with our crazy kids like I have.

I laughed in happiness for them and also thinking of the occasional transitional challenge of going from warrior-leading-men-in-combat to stay-at-home dad, “ordering” small children around. I know he will do great. But I will be very disappointed if there are not some funny stories along the way.

When I read how his wife wanted to give him the same gift he gave her, I wanted to cheer them on and cry at the same time. He’s endured and achieved a great deal in his Army career. I’m proud of him and happy that he’s recognized when he has done enough and that he’s brave enough to take on a completely different kind of platoon. I can’t wait for his days to be filled with “supper” love moments and more.

© Gina left the mall, 2014

It Sounded Good

One day I decided to send my adopted soldier a toy. So I asked a few guys at work what childhood item they would love to have right now. Video games were out because I wasn’t sure what systems (if any) my soldier had access to. Or how reliable things like electricity were. No, I wanted to go old school, low-tech, and it had to fit in a flat-rate box.

Out of the suggestions given, I picked one I never heard of. Why? Because I thought the name sounded good. It sounded nostalgic. Like something invented in the 50s that Opie Taylor might use in Mayberry down by the fishing hole. To me, the name also had a hint of romance about space exploration. The toy I picked was the wrist-rocket slingshot.

I had never seen one before but it was easy to find online. I also ordered the “accessories” which in this case were extra rubber bands and small metal balls. After all, how fun is a toy without the parts? I imagined my soldier opening this box and being flooded with happy childhood memories. I pictured him going to the “backyard” of his remote brick hut in the mountains of Afghanistan to play with his buddies. Or maybe he’d bring it as a welcome diversion when he went to the even more remote outpost he’d work at for weeks at a time.

Combat Outpost in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan

Not Mayberry.

Sweet shots

After my soldier came home, I got the 411 on various packages I had sent. I wanted to figure out which ones were the best ideas. The wrist-rocket came up.

ME:  Did you like it? Did you guys use it?

HIM: Oh yeah it was great! What was really funny is some other guys got Frisbees the same day and they were playing outside. Then I walked out wearing my wrist-rocket slingshot, they were pissed and jealous…lol.  So I shot them with the marshmallow hearts that Sofia sent. (Sofia is my daughter)

ME:  Why didn’t you use the little metal balls?

HIM:  You mean the ammo? Because I didn’t want to kill someone. 

It didn’t dawn on me that the accessories were ammo. When I mentioned this to another solider I was pen pals with, he told me he had received a wrist-rocket slingshot as well. A church sorority group made up of very lovely 70-year-old women had adopted him. They sent him care packages with beef jerky, soup, shower shoes (flip-flops) and hygiene items. Then one day he got the slingshot. “I think someone’s grandson had a hand in that package…lol.” He did not use the ammo either. He used Jolly Rancher candy as projectiles. Then he would “help” the other soldiers during marksmanship practice by shooting their legs. “Hey, you have to be able to handle distractions. I was being a distraction.”

In the end…

I asked my adopted soldier if he brought it home and he said no. It seems he was concerned about it being confiscated because the wrist-rocket slingshot is not a toy and is considered to be a weapon. So in one smooth move I managed to bum out the Frisbee players (thus un-doing the happy impact that some fellow supporter had tried to create) and send an instrument of danger. Nice.

Not every plan I have works out exactly like I intend it to. Sometimes they work out better (the Phoenix Coyote episode and hopefully the Chaplain) Or I learn something valuable in the process, like when I’m in over my head (Killer Snowflakes).

But most of my mishaps also come with something pretty nice—a smile. Even if the laugh is at my expense, it still counts! My soldier got a kick out of my lack of wrist-rocket knowledge. Also, after the initial marshmallow assault, he shared it with the other guys so they all had fun. And that sounds very good indeed.

© Gina left the mall, 2014

I Hope The Chaplain Likes To Party

I didn’t mean to send a New Year’s Party in a box to an Army Chaplain, but that’s what happened.

New Year's Party care package

New Year’s Party care package. The “beer bottles” are noisemakers.

I had just shipped the box when I learned that the soldier it was meant for got sent home for a health problem (don’t worry, he’ll be okay). So how do I know it’s headed for the Chaplain? Because when you fill out the customs form, you have options if the package is undeliverable. They are: 1.Treat as abandoned, 2. Return to sender, and 3. Redirect to address below. I always check the third box and write: Chaplain.

Mishap Upside

When I thought about it, I realized that if I knew the soldier’s info the day before, I would not have made the box. The whole reason I wanted to do a New Year’s care package is because I missed the Christmas shipping deadline for him (Dec 3rd). However, if anyone knows of a service member who needs a morale boost, it’s the Chaplain.

The truth is—the holidays are not happy for everyone. There is loneliness. Why else would a woman go on Craigslist to try to rent a mom and dad for a few hours for the holidays? There are life stresses; all kinds of pain, and none of those challenges are made better when you add a few thousand miles and gunfire. On top of that, events may occur in combat zones that can break your heart.

What if the Chaplain knows service members who feel forgotten? Or have no one at home to assure them they are loved? Perhaps an impromptu “party” hosted by a stranger is a way to add some joy to the New Year. Along with the Beer Nuts, noisemakers, poppers, and decorations, the box also contains superhero pop-rocks candy, popcorn, glowstick bracelets, chocolates, and other treats. Technically, none of these items have any curative powers. But perhaps the care they were sent with has a little.

Or maybe, hopefully, thankfully, miraculously, everyone is healthy in body and spirit while they are missing a loving home. A party is a good idea then too. I think when a Chaplain hands you a beer bottle noisemaker, you have to smile.

Right now

If right now you or someone you know is feeling hopeless or in crisis, there are places to find help for both service members and civilians.

Veterans Crisis Hotline and Military Crisis HotlineThey also have phone numbers on their site if you’re stationed in Europe or Korea. Call 1-800-273-8255 and service members press 1. Vets can also text “838255″ for support. For civilians, it’s the main number 1-800-273-TALK (8255.) These programs are both part of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. I found this information linked to an US Army Suicide Prevention site, Wounded Warriors, and IAVA (Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America) as well.

Recently, I read these words by someone who overcame dark thoughts and feelings: be gentle to yourself. I liked that idea. We should all reserve a little kindness for ourselves.

2014

For 2014, I wish you all wonderful adventures, joy, and the hope that any mishaps have an upside. After all, things don’t always go according to plan. Maybe sometimes, that’s a good thing. Happy New Year!

© Gina left the mall, 2013