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: 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