Saying, “I do” to Someone in the Military

I married my best friend Scott who is in the Air Force. After we got engaged he jokingly said, “Hey, with all your volunteer work, you know what you signed up for.” He was both right and wrong. Before, I was one step removed. As it turns out, that’s a pretty big step. So I’m sharing some things I knew and some that took me by surprise.

If you’re wondering why I haven’t mentioned him before it’s because he’s a bit on the shy side.

husband-and-wife

This is us.

Redefining togetherness

I met my first adopted soldier and his wife after he returned from Afghanistan. Back then I thought deployments were the only times military couples were separated. Until she said, “We married right after high school and I figured out that between his deployments, training, various schools, and TDYs (temporary duty) we’ve spent 50% of the past 10 years apart.”

There’s also been a great deal of travel for most couples I know. Everyone seems to have a mix of beautiful places they’ve loved along with less thrilling locales. One of which I’m told held the promise of, “three years of bad hair” due to swamp-like humidity.

Most folks I’ve met have moved together, but not all of them and not all the time. Sometimes the spouse and kids stay in one place because of school or they have roots in the area and then the servicemember moves from base to base and comes home to visit. We would be in the latter category. So right now our wild fantasy is living in the same zip code full-time.

You had plans?

Again my thoughts go back to my first adopted soldier. The Army told him he could deploy two weeks after his unit so he could be there for this birth of his first child. Then the Army changed those plans and he wound up meeting baby Kyle on leave a few months later.

Yet somehow it still took me by surprise when Scott informed me that he might have to deploy before the wedding (you know, and miss it.). Then he almost had to go TDY (and miss the wedding). Then he said that he’d been asked, “Does Gina want to get married in Germany?” and my bridal stress rose higher.

HUSBAND: We’re lucky. Not every unit would even ask or try to work around our wedding. They would just send me.

ME: I’m planning this wedding from out-of-state and we’ve got people coming from far away with NON-REFUNDABLE plane tickets so, “lucky” does not describe my primary feeling right now.

HUSBAND: Yes, dear. I love you.

After that he decided not to tell me every time a potential change came up. I decided not to tell our guests unless I knew for sure we’d have to postpone. Finally, all things were set and I knew we’d have two weeks together after the wedding before he deployed. Then that changed to one week.

Can you hear me now?

Scott figured that since we were used to traveling to see each other, I was sort of prepared for being apart during deployment. What surprised me was how separated I still felt. I blame emojis—and texting in general. I never realized until he was gone and not easily reachable how often we reached out to each other.

HUSBAND: You’re lucky. Back in the day, there was no facetime and we could only call home once a week. But you and I get to talk a few minutes each day! And this is a shorter tour, it’s not like it’s a year.

ME: Okay, when I say I’m feeling sad and I miss you, I kinda don’t want to hear how lucky I am. I just want to know that you miss me too.

HUSBAND: Yes, dear. I miss you too.

Kindness

I’ve sent a lot of care packages. What could possibly surprise me here? I have always been grateful for any help folks gave me for, “my” troops. And I’ve often spoken about how much our troops appreciate any little thing—a cup of coffee, a postcard. But now I was even more deeply moved by all of this. Now I understood. Each act of kindness felt like a hug. It meant a great deal to me that people remembered my husband and his unit. It made me feel like I was not in this alone.

Heartbreak – part 1

Ten days before my husband was supposed to come home I got a call about my mother, Lalin. Beautiful and gracious—my first best friend, mentor and hero—Mom had had a catastrophic hemorrhage on the left side of her brain. I rushed to be by her side. And it was instantly clear to me that the tubes keeping her alive did not even remotely resemble the life force that she was.

Soon, doctors declared that there were no signs of brain activity. Lalin had triumphed over adversity many times, but she would not win this battle.

We were asked about organ donation. The thing about mom is that she was the single most giving and selfless person I have ever met. She would always tell me, “Do for others, do for others.” She was so proud and happy any time I followed this mantra. So even though we never discussed it before, I knew she would have wanted this.

It took two days to find a donor match. Those were two hard days. Finally, we escorted Lalin to the operating room. My brother and I held her hand on either side of the gurney surrounded by an entourage of doctors. You know how in old movies when royalty walks down the stairs and someone holds their hand on either side? That’s what it felt like to me. My mom was 4’10” and about 100lbs and so tiny in that big hospital bed, but such a large presence. We said our final goodbyes and the doctors looked at me for the signal to proceed and I announced, “Okay Mom, now you go change some lives just like you changed ours.”

Three hours later, the transplant coordinator called to tell me that Lalin had just saved the life a 56yr old woman.

momme

One of my favorite pictures of my mom and me.

Heartbreak – part 2

This is when I needed and wanted my husband most—and he was not here. It took me all day to even get him the news. I was hysterical by the time he reached me. We prayed for a miracle as I made arrangements for my daughter Sofia’s care and got myself a plane ticket to get to Mom.

Nine days before Scott was coming home we knew there would be no miracle. His commander asked him if he wanted Emergency Leave. You would think we’d jump at that, but there are things we paused to consider.

Lalin had made it clear many times that she did not want us to, “sit around being sad.” She wanted to be cremated and did not want a funeral. So even as we waited for the organ match, I knew we’d be doing memorial events for mom, which would not happen immediately.

I also knew that with one unit leaving and one coming in, this was an important time for Scott to be there. Could his unit do without him? Yes. But it was not ideal. Could we wait nine days so he could take care of his people there? My husband was torn. He wanted to be home for me and he loved my mom. But he also wanted to be there for his guys. He said he would do whatever I wanted. Then I heard Lalin’s mantra in my head, “do for others.”

We decided to wait and let him finish his tour. I admit that I underestimated just how long those days and nights would be. There were calls where I couldn’t even manage words. I just sobbed as he said reassuring and loving things. It was hard on him too because he felt helpless. And when he got off the plane and I ran into his arms, I felt like I had found home after being lost.

cominghome

Homecoming.

Strength

It’s easy to be impressed by the military spouses I’ve become friends with. I’ve seen one drive to the new state they’re moving to, do all the house hunting, then buy, and start to paint and repair the home, all while her husband was deployed. I’ve seen them support children through special moments, tough times, and the everydayness that is most of life, without their, “other half.” I’ve seen them start, delay, and restart education and careers because the reality is— they too serve and sacrifice. I’ve seen friendships withstand the rigors of time and distance because they are more than friends. With their shared experiences, they are more like family.

Gratitude

The Chaplain who married us called to check on me as I waited my husband’s return. Others in his unit and well as our civilian family and friends have been supportive in countless ways. And even though I haven’t been a military spouse for long, my experience thus far has made me even more deeply appreciative to everyone before me and after me who has chosen this path as they walk down the aisle.

wedding

Saying, “I do.”

© Gina left the mall, 2017

An Army of Kids Brings Joy to the Troops

One deployed joint forces squadron got a whole lot of love from three groups of kids across three states. I can’t thank them enough for all their support. Everything was gratefully and very joyfully received! Here’s a little about each project:

Stars of Hope

Thanks to the kids at Weston Middle School who created 100 beautiful stars!

Thanks to the kids at Weston Middle School who created 100 beautiful stars!

The kids at Weston Middle School in Connecticut took on this community service art project with Stars of Hope. The 100 hand-painted stars they created were a hit and I received this email from one of the troops,

“In the first 10 minutes after they arrived, they were already being hung up! There were so many of them hanging up, I hit my head on a few of them trying to walk into one of the offices! Lol” 

Stars of Hope is a charity that initially began as a disaster-relief program to spread hope and healing in areas impacted by natural and man-made disasters. But these stars shine wherever needed—like over our men and women bravely serving far from home at the holidays. Thank you to all the Weston Middle Schoolers who gave their time and talent!

Santa’s Elves

I wish I had a picture that truly captured everything that the Religious Education kids at St. Philip Neri Catholic Church in Fort Mill, South Carolina did for this project. They created and collected cards, stockings and all manner of Christmas joy—14 flat-rate boxes of it!

Christmas care packages from St. Philip Neri Catholic Church

This is a work in progress—they kept going!

A lot of heart and work went into this and it showed. This is from one of the troops:

Thank you for Thank you for St. Philip Neri Holiday Humor

I had lots of help here in New York for project #3. Now, these are not standard holiday images. But the skull & crossbones visual is part of the unit patch for some of these troops. And of course, their aircraft is pulling Santa’s sleigh! My friend Martin helped me with the art and my daughter was on sticker duty.

Then I roped in a bunch of fabulous kids ages 4 to 12 to make cards. Some of the kids hand-made their entire cards (looking at you Hunter and Joshua!) and the rest were personalized with special drawings or messages. But all of them did a great job. Also thanks to my friend Anna for chipping in to help get the wooden ornaments and candy.

ornements

 

ornaments2

These are the backs. All the fronts had the image of the plane pulling Santa.

ornements 3

Matteo is four years old and when his mom described the image I laughed. Then I asked her to include a description in each card.

Matteo is four years old and when his mom described the image I laughed. Then I asked her to include a description in each card.

After they arrived, I received the following note,

“Gina, thank you so much! We received the ornaments and have handed them out. They turned out wonderfully; the team is really excited about them….thank you for spreading the love and the joys of the season.” 

It takes a (holiday) village

Thanks to a small army of volunteers, there is a squadron in the desert who is certain that they are remembered and appreciated. I can’t think of a more perfect gift for the season.

© Gina left the mall, 2016

A Treat from the Troops

This sweet thank you is from some of the troops that received our Operation Treat project—where six kids helped me make 100 treat bags for a deployed joint forces unit. I wish you could’ve seen the smile on my daughter Sofia’s face when she watched it. It was followed by a long, “awwwwwww.” I sent it to the other parents and I’m sharing with you too. Happy Halloween!

© Gina left the mall, 2016

Operation Treat

It’s Halloween in the desert! 100 deployed Airmen and Soldiers just went “trick or treating” thanks to my family and friends helping with a group care package. Everyone who participated really had a great time. It was mostly smooth sailing with, of course, the occasional lesson learned along the way. Here’s how it went:

Generous people. Bulk candy. 

Thanks to the group effort we were able get 80 pounds of candy! This included 27 pounds of m&m’s with 17 pounds of them personalized. The rest of the candy we bought in bulk from Amazon. Since we were mailing these before “chocolate season” (November to April) we made sure the rest of the candy was NOT chocolate—just in case the m&m’s melted, something would get there intact. I’m happy to report that everything arrived in a solid state.

personalized m&m's for halloween care package for deployed troops

This is what we had made for them.

bags of personalized m&m's

27 pounds of m&m’s and untold amounts of willpower to resist “sampling” any.

bulk candy mixed and stored in plastic bins for halloween project

As each bulk candy came in, we mixed it with the rest and stored in these bins until we were ready.

The lesson on this part was: if you’re going to have 80 pounds of candy in the house and you live with a child, remember to have candy on hand your kid CAN eat. We ran out of chocolate and Starburst (important food groups!) and I kept forgetting to get more because we were surrounded by sweets. My daughter Sofia got great at “quality control”….peering through the plastic and declaring, “that one looks damaged. We can’t send it. Can I have it?”

Toys and decorations

Toys have always been a care package hit. Since this unit has both Air Force and Army, we got bat gliders and skeleton paratroopers to represent each. We also bought temporary tattoos because nothing says fearless warrior like washable ink.

And, since Halloween serving platters are not standard issue supplies for troops, we made our own by decorating the inside flaps of the boxes with orange and black duct tape. We also added purple tissue paper that you’ll see at the end.

halloween theme temporary tattoos and orange and black tape to decorate boxes

I really hope these temporary tattoos get used 🙂

Skeleton paratroopers.

Skeleton paratroopers.

Bat gliders for halloween theme military care pacakge

Bat gliders

flat-rate box decorated with duct tape for halloween care package

The kids made each box different, some solid, some patterns.

The assembly line & safety first

The boys started with the bulk bins and used measuring cups to scoop up the candy and fill the main treat bag. They also added the skeleton paratroopers and tattoos. When they finished that, they started decorating boxes with duct tape.

The girls worked on the m&m’s and put them in treat bags that we had made special stickers for. When they finished that they started on the Halloween and thank you signs.

Since the m&m’s were unwrapped candy, I had them wear FDA approved food safety gloves. In fact, the entire project started with me announcing: We cannot risk crippling force strength by exporting hardcore New York City Public School germs. Yes they laughed—and then washed their hands.

The one thing I wish I did here was double-check supplies before we started. When I grabbed all the boxes from the Post Office, I didn’t realize there were some Express Mail mixed in with the Priority. Noticing at the last minute, I had to run out and get the right ones.

bulk candy for treat bags

mixing the personalized m&m's in a bowl

We mixed the different m&m’s in the big bowl. But needed a more shallow bowl to be able to scoop.

personalized treat bag

This smaller treat bag went inside the bigger one. But it still thought it was boss. We had these stickers made. The skull and crossbones image is part of one of the unit patches for this joint forces team.

numerous treat bags

Progress…

treat bags in bins

more progress…

treats in bins

and more…

halloween decorations and thank you signs for military care package

They did a nice job with the signs 🙂

Pizza picnic

Since treat production took up most of my small apartment, I put a plastic picnic tablecloth on my daughter’s bedroom floor and served pizza and beverages there. There were no complaints from the workforce.

Say yes to help

Everything about this project was easy—until you times it by 100. Having help made all the difference, from the generous donations to production day with six great kids. One Mom volunteered to stay as long as I needed. I gratefully said yes and she brought a bottle of wine too. I should’ve asked her from the beginning but that’s my personal lesson to learn (over and over, apparently).

When it was getting late I decided that I would tie up the treat bags and pack them myself. Just then the doorbell rang. The mom and big brother of one the girls had come to pick her up. I had never met them before and within one minute they were both on the floor tying up bags—they said they were inspired by what we were doing and happily stayed an extra hour.

And earlier when another mom dropped off her daughter, she took one look around and came back with a small shopping cart to help us get everything to the Post Office. NYC is a walking kind of town and the Post Office is eight blocks away. Four of the kids came back the next morning to be the shipping team.

11 care packages to carry to Post Office

11 flat-rate boxes

The end results

We all had so much fun. The kids felt good doing good. And Sofia made me laugh for weeks as candy and supplies took over our home. She would look at all the candy she couldn’t have, then look at the reams of bubble wrap she couldn’t pop and then give me a “really?” look with a straight line for a smile and hold it until I cracked up.

Of course the real end result is how happy it made the troops we sent it to. The m&m’s were especially loved and multiple bat gliders and skeletons have already been launched. So both home and away, Operation Treat was a success!

treat bag and bat glider for halloween care package

What each troop got.

treat bags packed in decorated box

We added bubble wrap to fill any gaps so the bags wouldn’t move in shipping. We didn’t want to be candy crushed 🙂

© Gina left the mall, 2016

A Sporty Guess And A Romantic Clue

I don’t know much about the two female troops I adopted (one Air Force, one Army). But I know one likes college football and the other likes romance novels. With these pieces of intel as my north stars, I set out to make their first care packages.

Everything I know about college football

  1. If I turn on a Florida Gator game or walk into a room where their game is on TV and I am not wearing my “chomp chomp” Florida Gator t-shirt, they will lose. This is not hard science but it may as well be because my fiancé believes this to be true.
  2. I’ve been to one college football game in my life and it was The Ohio State University versus some team that also wears red and white uniforms so the entire stadium looked like one fan base. My two favorite parts of the game were a) a small mammal ran across the length of the field to deafening cheers and b) the band did that script Ohio thing and it was pretty amazing.

So, with that extensive background to draw upon, I bought some sporty magazines along with healthy snacks. But I wanted something that captured the spirit of fun too. Since I have no idea what this Airman’s base is like or how much space she has, I got tiny table games because who doesn’t have room for that? Then Sofia picked out a sports sound effects machine. I can guarantee that every button works because she insisted on “testing” them multiple times. To enjoy the sound of some other child testing it, click here.

sports

Kissing is ewww

Sofia was helping me shop for these care packages so she was with me as I perused the romance section of the bookstore. Looking at the cover art of couple after couple locked in tortured embraces on the verge of epic kisses, she gave her critical review: ewwww. Now do I think kissing is yucky? No. Am I okay with her thinking it’s yucky? Sure.

I don’t read romance novels but this Soldier told me a writer she liked so with that clue, this would be easy. Except that the only titles the bookstore had avail were either e-books or very old so maybe she read them already. Sofia examined the blurbs on the books to help me decide. “Mom, this one is more Romeo and Juliet and this has more adventure and I think I’ll read this one and this one and…” What?!? What happened to ewww?! Not liking this sudden turn of events, I quickly got a reco from the salesclerk and left. Then I added candy to this care package—but nothing chocolate (remember, don’t send chocolate between April and November to hot climates).

A sure thing

When you shop for someone you don’t know, there is a lot of guesswork. But what you can 100% bet on is that whatever you choose will be appreciated. Because what is really being received by our troops, is the certainty that the people they serve and sacrifice for have not forgotten them.

© Gina left the mall, 2016

I Adopted Some Moms

Deployed moms. One in the Army, one in the Air Force. Usually, I take whoever is next, but this time was different. This time I went looking for the moms. I won’t tell them why. I’ll just send letters, care packages and be upbeat. But I figured I could tell you.

Pre-missing my own mom

Last year my mom had a stroke. Turns out she has a chronic brain bleed and a small aneurysm over the area of her brain that controls speech and memory. Apparently there is no treatment, cure, or expected progression. She could be fine or get worse. She could have more strokes. Or not. No one knows.

She’s doing better now but we live in different states and over the phone, I can hear what’s missing. I hear the blank spaces for words she can’t find and events she can’t recall. I feel like I am losing her very very slowly. And joining a club I don’t want to belong to (I have friends with parents who have Alzheimer’s and other challenges).

Sometimes I fear that the space between us will one day be more than miles. It will be a gulf that all the love in the world can’t cross. And she won’t know us. Then some days I just feel incredibly grateful for where she’s at now.

This pain of current and possible separation makes me want to DO something. But what can I control? I can try to lessen the ache of separation for some other mother and child.

Pre-missing my daughter

I get that this will sound silly. But my daughter is going to sleep-away camp for the first time for three weeks this summer and I’m not ready. SHE’S ready. But not me. This will be the first time we’ll be apart this long. I never went to camp as a kid so this is a foreign idea to me.

Also, I’ve been a single mom since she was five. Yes she sees her dad, but she’s with me most of the time. We’re a team. Although one member of the team could clean up more but, she’s my super girl. I dread her empty room. And I can’t imagine not getting the daily details of whatever good, annoying or LOL things happened. She jokes that she’ll have some of her stuffed animals have “sleepovers” in my room while she’s gone to help me. I laugh but part of me is considering it.

So what can I do about this? I can remember to have perspective. Yes it’s okay to miss Sofia. But I need to remember that other moms are separated from their kids for much longer and for much more serious reasons. Maybe a good way to keep that top of mind is to ease their time apart.

Mom on the brain

Strength is a beautiful, wonderful thing. But lately there have been days when I don’t feel so strong. When I wish someone would scoop me up and “mom” me a little. Make me a grilled cheese sandwich, bring me a soft blanket, snuggle on the couch and tell me everything’s going to be okay.

So how can I feel better? I think giving to others makes us more joyful and stronger inside. Taking action—the act of caring—is its own reward. And, since I’ve had “mom” on the brain and in the heart, I figured adopting these troops who are moms would be a good step to take. For them and me.

My daughter's handprints when she was two years old.

My daughter’s handprints when she was two years old.

© Gina left the mall, 2016

4 Lovely Surprises

The package in my mailbox had a return address in the Middle East. It was from Drew*, my adopted Airman. I wasn’t expecting to hear from him. Well, no volunteer expects anything. You do it to be supportive as our troops do a difficult, dangerous job for long hours far from home. Some troops wish to connect and have access to do so, others do not. Whatever they want is fine. And up to then, Drew had not been in contact.

However there—squeezed in amongst the relentless Christmas catalogs that kept coming while we were away at Grandma’s for the holidays—was Drew’s mail. Lovely surprise #1.

Inside the package was a beautiful letter thanking me and my daughter Sofia for our support. We were really touched. Especially when we learned how much he loved the postcards. Sofia had sent him 19  (with one word each) and they were all scenes of New York City.  It turns out that Drew is also from New York Ctiy! We had no idea we were sending him little pieces of his hometown. Lovely surprise #2.

“I hope you find a place for this in your home”

Yes Drew, there is a place in our home for your kind gift. And a place in our hearts for you, your family and all that you do.

Souvenir art from deployed troop

He said it was a small token of his appreciation. But there was nothing small about the smile it gave us.

Surprise #4

I don’t know if Drew will get the letter I sent on New Year’s. Or the one I am sending to thank him for this. Why? He is going home sooner than I expected. And that’s the best surprise of all.

*name changed for privacy

© Gina left the mall, 2016