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

Afghanistan To Manhattan

My adopted soldier “K” got home from Afghanistan and one week later he, his wife and 1-year-old son were on their way to visit me in NYC. It would be their first time in the Big Apple.  Before they arrived, I seriously considered learning to cook. My food strategy up to that point had always been: date men who can cook. But then I remembered that pretty much every restaurant delivers so, I was saved.

As we planned the trip, both their friends and mine had concerns. My favorite was a half-kidding query from his wife’s Mom:

WIFE’S MOM:  You’re visiting this lady in New York City? A stranger? Are you sure that’s safe? What if she murders you in your sleep and steals my grandchild?

WIFE:  Mom, Gina asked me how much baby-proofing I want. She got outlet covers and wants to know about furniture bumpers.  I think we’re okay.

FYI, her Mom and I are friends now.

Crowd Control

Before K came home, I had no idea that troops had to “transition” back from deployment. I thought, you get off the plane….hugs, tears, hurray and we’re good. Nope. There are a whole lot of things they need to get used to again. From simple things like color to feeling at ease in crowds. They’ve just spent a long time in a heightened state of alert where crowds often mean danger.  When K’s wife mentioned this, I was a little worried.  I have over 8 million neighbors.

MySoldierInAfghanistan

From here….

New York City skyline

to here.

So going to the Statue of Liberty (long crowded lines) was scrapped in favor of a harbor cruise around Liberty Island. We’d skip Times Square. Dinners with my friends would be small groups. And we’d take a break from the city and spend 2 days in a suburb near the beach. I also enlisted many wonderful friends to help me carry out this plan. Some of them were the same people who had helped me with postcards and packages.

Meeting K & family at the airport

My adopted soldier + son at LGA

K & his son at LGA

This part is hard to describe. I was “with” them during one of the most difficult times of their lives, yet we were strangers. I had worried for both of them. I had cried when he lost friends and prayed for the families. After all that, we were about to say “hello.”

I saw a family approach and my first thought was shock. K had lost 50 pounds during his deployment (hiking in the mountains in 120 degree heat with 100 pounds of gear will do that to you.) But the baby and wife looked just like their pictures so…it had to be them.

I felt like crying but I felt shy too. After some polite hugs we headed back to my place. We went up to the roof of my apartment building, had a few beers and snacks and started to relax. After dinner, we stayed up till 1:00 a.m. talking.

Three faves

We did site-seeing and had great meals with awesome people. I can’t thank my friends enough for creating such a warm welcome. There were a lot of terrific moments but I’ll share three of my favorites:

1. My friend AB and his lovely wife Sarah hosted a b-b-que for them (among many other kind things they did.)  K was playing “monkey in the middle” with some of the kids. This stood out to me because the previous week was Kyle’s 1st birthday. K had spent most of it in the house alone. He wasn’t ready yet to be around so many people. Yet here he was, relaxed and engaged with the group. He was just another Dad in the backyard having fun, but I felt it was a big step in his real journey home.

2.  The nightly late-night talks. Besides sharing family stories, I got the details, good and bad, on different events when he was deployed. And I learned things like the toy I sent him once was technically a weapon. In my defense, “wrist rocket sling shot” sounded to me like something Opie Taylor would play with in Mayberry. At some point, we talked about 9/11. I told him about my day here and he told me that was the day he decided to join the Army.

3. USS Intrepid Museum. The random event that put me on this path occurred on this ship. So from being inspired to taking action to being there with them…I felt like I had come full circle. That I had truly honored the service of the WWII Vet that put this all in motion.

Big hugs

At the end of this amazing visit, I said good-bye to his wife with a big hug and a promise to visit them so they could “repay the kindness.” Then she started to strap baby Kyle into the car seat. K and I stood there a moment in silence. Then I said simply, “welcome home.” K replied warmly, “thank you for everything you have done for me and my family.” He gave me a big hug and when I looked in his eyes I understood that all the silly letters and crazy projects truly meant a great deal to him. And I realized in that moment that my family had just grown by three people.

Epilogue

Yes I have visited them. And last week I found out he will be deploying again. We’re hoping to get together before he leaves.

© Gina left the mall, 2013

When My Adopted Soldier And I Decided To Meet

They tell you contact usually ends when deployment ends. But I already had a few unusual things happen with my adopted soldier “K” so…why should this be any different? We started making plans for him, his wife and infant child to visit me in NYC. Both their friends and family and mine said, “What???” After all, we were strangers.

(At this point, I would like to suggest a detour for my readers with a loved one who is currently deployed. Perhaps the post where golf balls helped increase safety or how this all started. Why? Because parts of the following sections may be hard to read. And I’m a big fan of reducing stress.)

Most of the time

Most of the time our correspondence was light. I sent him a lot of funny stories about my daughter Sofia. But the events unfolding around him were anything but light. K was the first troop I ever got to know and he had one of the more difficult deployments of all the troops I’ve come to know. 10 days after I adopted him, they had a casualty. His unit had only been there a few weeks and this was not the first one. Then a nearby base was overrun and many lives lost. And so on. He would state these events simply, never going into detail.

At home, when I mentioned an attack, most people hadn’t heard of it. That felt very isolating. I felt like I was caring about somebody in a parallel universe. But I understood that people weren’t aware because I used to be one of them.

The worse things got, the more I wanted to do something to help protect him. I know that sounds crazy because he is a highly trained, very capable soldier and I am afraid of spiders. But I’m also a Mom so that protect-gene is hard to turn off.

Maybe I could do this

K told me that getting mail was like Christmas morning for them. I know that mail = better morale. Better morale can reduce stress, depression and anxiety. I thought, hey…If I could keep his morale up, maybe I could help him get home in better shape. Then I found out the Army has a soldier’s creed. So I made a “volunteer creed.”  I never told K because I wrote it for myself. I feel a little vulnerable sharing it but, I think it captures how I had come to feel.

I am my soldier’s soldier. My mission is to make sure he hears his name at every mail call for the duration of his deployment. To make him feel that the hard, dangerous job he does, the long stressful hours for days on end…is appreciated. To brighten his day if only for a few moments with a taste of home. To pray for his safe return. And to do this with no effort, thanks or consideration required on his part.  And no complaints or wavering on my part. I am my soldier’s soldier.  And I will never fail him.

He was in a remote base and mail arrived by convoy every two weeks. When you adopt, you send one care package a month and one letter a week. I doubled that to increase my chances of hitting both deliveries. Once he got a box much quicker than I expected. He explained that the convoys kept getting attacked so they started doing helicopter drops. Now mail came every 2-3 days.

ME:  That’s great!

ME ON THE INSIDE:  Uh oh.

How the heck was I going to make all those mail calls? Of course, it’s not like anyone knew that was my goal. A more sane person might just say forget it. Clearly, I am not that person. I decided to rely on the kindness of strangers.

Enlisting strangers

I started carrying around postcards. Especially when I travelled for work. If I were delayed at an airport I’d sit at the bar. After chatting with the bartender for a few minutes, I’d ask if he could do me a favor and say “hi” to my adopted soldier. Or if I were getting my nails done, I ask the girls around me.  After the initial surprise (you can adopt a soldier?) the answer was always yes. They felt good doing it. After they wrote a message, I’d address it (you keep addresses private) and drop in whatever mailbox in whatever town I was in.

His wife

Usually contact is with your soldier. But the Taliban kept shooting out their internet. So for the second half of his deployment, I had much more contact with his wife. That’s how I came to see the everyday impact on the family. She would share a “first” that baby Kyle did and I would realize, wow…another thing he missed and that she did solo.

One day she wrote that I might not hear from K for a while. And she wanted to let me know what was going on. His best friend, a fellow soldier deployed with him, had shot himself. The military calls this a Non-Combat Death. I don’t think this is an accurate description because I believe combat has a great deal to do with Army suicides.

I found out this soldier left behind a 3-yr-old son. I wrote a letter to the family.

K

I didn’t hear from him for a while but I got updates from his wife. Then he went on a mission for a few weeks where he had zero contact home. By the time he returned, he found a pile of mail on his bunk. There were packages from his wife and my daughter, plus a stack of mail from me and my army of strangers. Including a copy of the letter I sent his friend’s family. He appreciated it all. But the letter meant so very much to him. Maybe it’s why that day, we decided to meet in real life.

Visiting a total stranger sounded unusual to others. But the truth was, by that point, we didn’t feel like strangers at all.

New York City skyline

Where we planned to meet.

© Gina left the mall, 2013

Deploying Puppy Power

A puppy helped me lift morale for my adopted soldier “K.” It started with an email. Afghanistan is 9.5 hours ahead of New York so I was usually asleep when his messages came. But this one arrived while I rode the train to Long Island to visit my cousin Laura. In it, K talked about how much he missed his puppy. This “puppy” was a 100-pound Italian Mastiff named Angus.  It was clear from the way he wrote that K was Dog People.

Dog People

You know them. You might even be one. I think dogs are awesome but Dog People have a special connection. And now that I knew K did, what kind of care package could I come up with? Sometimes I liked to go beyond beef jerky and canned ravioli. I was still wondering exactly what and how when Laura picked me up at the train station.

LAURA:  I’m thinking of drawing again. I haven’t sketched anything in ten years but I’m thinking of doing portraits of dogs.

ME:  What????

Laura is Dog People too. I informed her that her first portrait would be my adopted soldier’s dog.

LAURA: What????  You adopted someone? How old is he? How does that work? How did you meet him?

ME: He signed up. I signed up. I send one letter a week and one care package a month. It impacts morale. Mail call is like Christmas morning for them. No, we never met. But he’s awesome. I’ll get pictures from his wife. It’ll be great.

Laura did not think it would be great. Only because she didn’t think her drawing would be good enough. I explained that the thought, time and effort would meet that threshold and then some. He was in a remote base with limited internet access and few entertainment options. It would be a really nice surprise to “bring” Angus to him this way, to bring some warm fuzzy puppy love here:

Combat Outpost in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan

K’s Combat Outpost in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan

Picture this

K’s wife sent me a bunch of pictures and Laura chose one where K and Angus were connecting. Laura’s teenaged children had never seen her draw before and said, “Wow Mom!” I was excited too. For privacy/security, I had to blur part of the image. But I hope you can still get a sense of it.

My adopted soldier and his 100-pound "puppy"

Angus and K

Sketch of my soldier and his 100-pound "puppy"

Angus and K. Again.

I put it in a glass frame because it’s not like there’s a store nearby where he can pick one up. Then I worried, what if it shatters? Mail goes through a lot to get to his base. I didn’t want to be the volunteer that actually harms troop strength! So I bought a large roll of bubble wrap and used all of it. You could bounce this thing when I was done.

Real power

K loved it and couldn’t believe someone would take the time and trouble to do this for him. Especially someone he had never met. His wife loved it. Her parents loved that my family (well, really just Laura) did this for him. K’s battle buddies got to see that strangers care. Laura got to re-debut her artistic side in a meaningful way.

This was not the first or last mail call I asked for help with. At times I would simply ask someone to fill out a postcard. But no matter what, the results were always the same. K was moved and it helped him during a very difficult time. Those helping me were moved too. It feels good to do good. To know that you’ve made a difference for someone. That’s a real power we all have. One that we can “deploy” at any time.

Dog treat

Love is a powerful thing. On fours legs as well as two. Here are a few dogs welcoming soldiers home. Enjoy!

© Gina left the mall, 2012

Baby Monkey. Good Roommate?

There are pros and cons to living with a baby monkey. Most of them revolve around the inescapable facts of 1. baby and 2. monkey. This is something my adopted soldier, Staff Sergeant K and his platoon found out when they rescued and adopted one in Afghanistan.

Meet Joe the monkey

Joe. Baby monkey rescued and adopted by soldiers.

Joe

One of K’s men was on patrol when a villager threw a rock at a baby monkey. The rock struck its nose and injured him. After seeing this, the soldier bought the monkey and brought it back to their forward operating base so they could care for him.

injured baby monkey rescued by soldiers

You can see Joe’s injury here and why the soldiers rescued him.

They named him Joe and decided to adopt him. So that would be 24 soldiers, 1 monkey, no problem, right? Well, like many forms of life with the word “baby” in front of it,  Joe did not like to be alone. Or to sleep at night. Joe made this known to his human friends with the time-tested tactic of throwing tantrums. K told me that they had a meeting to work out the logistics. That made me smile. I pictured the normal agenda, sharing intel, upcoming missions and then…monkey-sitting duties.

Why I like Joe

It was good for Joe to get out of an abusive situation. But I think Joe was also good for the soldiers. I base this on my years of no psychological training. (This would be similar to my years of no medical school in A Healthy Cigar)

K and his men were in a remote area and they had many difficult days. They had limited contact with loved ones and few amenities. That also means they few distractions from their situation (one reason why mail call is such a morale boost.)  But here is a little innocent monkey they can care for. I think pets help you take the focus off yourself at times. In a stressful situation, that can actually reduce your stress. I did a quick search just now and WebMD has  27 Ways Pets Can Improve Your Health. Of course, none of them are about combat, but I believe the same principles and blood-pressure lowering benefits apply.

Roomies

K’s wife wrote me, “Did you hear about the monkey?” She was home with a newborn and my daughter was 4 then. We both suspected that baby anything was going to be more work than they expected. We laughed about the learning curve. But even if Joe kept them up, he made them laugh too. Joe was fun and affectionate and good to be around. What more can you ask of a roommate?

© Gina left the mall, 2012

Combat Gumbo and The Sexy Lunch

Mountains near my adopted soldier's base in Afghanistan

combat outpost

my soldier’s combat outpost

Mario Batali is not hiding in these mountains. The Iron Chef does not deploy. So if you’re at a remote base like my adopted solider, you get creative if you want a break from Army issued MREs (meals ready to eat). That’s how I found out about a dish I call Combat Gumbo. As I supported more soldiers, I learned other tasty tidbits like how food and lots of “sex” can bring us one step closer to world peace. I now share this bounty with you.

MREs

This is food-to-go that has to withstand harsh conditions and have a long shelf life. The troops eating it need nutrition and energy. This is especially important if it’s 140 degrees out and you’re hiking in the mountains with 100 pounds of gear. My adopted soldier, Staff Sergeant K, lost 50 pounds during this deployment. And he did not start out overweight.

Taste-wise, I hear that you would never confuse an MRE with home cooking. However, the ingredients can often be used to add something new to your menu. Below are some MREs. If you’re first reaction is not “yum!” you will understand their culinary motivation. 

Army MRE cherry blueberry cobbler

cherry blueberry cobbler

Army MRE spaghetti

spaghetti with meat sauce

Gumbo

I once sent SSgt K a care package with 23 pounds of canned soup. (Yay for flat-rate boxes! One price no matter how much it weighs.) However, had I known he was going to use that soup as the base for a recipe, I wouldn’t have sent such a variety.  I can only imagine what they tasted like as he combined them in a large pot for shared meals.

“I would use the soup you sent me with saved up MRE rice packs and a chicken that we bought. I would also use V8 vegetable juice as a base and use goat, rice, and the seasonings that I saved from the MREs”.

He also tried this recipe with cow meat, potatoes and some other vegetables.

“The way we got all the ingredients was from a local Afghan kid with a donkey. We would pay him and then the next day he would show up with all the food and some chickens tied to the donkey.”      

I don’t have an image of the finished dish. Or the chicken-toting donkey. But here’s the prep. The black thing in SSgt K’s hand is a knife. Looking at this makes me want a grilled cheese sandwich…or pretty much any chicken-less dish. But when your options are severely limited and you’re tired of MREs, this is the beginning of a beautiful meal.

soldiers preparing "combat gumbo"

The Sexy Lunch

I met Colonel Mike through Cup of Joe (where you buy coffee for troops)  and I asked him about his favorite meal while deployed. This is what he shared:

“Two of the Afghan generals I work with threw a big farewell lunch for one of the majors who is leaving to go home soon. She had been here for a year and was very well liked and respected. After a big traditional lunch of lamb, rice, chicken and some of the best fruit I’ve ever tasted, it came time for the generals to say a few words and present some farewell gifts. My interpreter, Safi, was doing the translating. The generals stood up and gave some very nice speeches about how hard the major worked and how they all liked her. They kept wishing her very good success, that she has success when she gets home and that she has lots of success in her life. Safi has a little trouble with his “c” and “s” sounds so when it came time to translate what the generals had said, Safi said that they wished her very good sex, that she has sex when she gets home and has lots of sex in her life!  All the Americans started laughing but none of the Afghans could understand why we were all laughing so hard!!  They had a good laugh when it was explained to them!

This was one of those times when I could really appreciate the Afghans as a generous, kind people who are very social and warmhearted. I think we might have just made a very simple but powerful step forward just then while we were crowded in a small room sitting shoulder to shoulder enjoying a great meal and a great laugh!

US soldiers and Afghan soldiers sharing a meal together

The delicious care package

Mail reduces stress and improves morale for our deployed. I think a care package with food has it’s own special power. Think of how many memories occur around the table. Or how a favorite childhood snack can still make you smile. Food is simply one of the ways we show love and welcome new friends. It’s also how to give a total stranger, like your adopted soldier, a little taste of home.

© Gina left the mall, 2012

I Adopted A Heavily Armed Grown Man

My finger froze above the keyboard, as I was about to submit my name to adopt a soldier. This was 2009. Soldiers weren’t winning Dancing With The Stars in 2009.  Back then, the only time I heard about troops is when something bad happened. Either they were hurt or had P-T-S-something and hurt someone else.  So I hesitated. What was I getting myself into? If I’m mailing stuff, this guy is going to know where I live. I was having a “stranger danger” moment.

Then I remembered the tears in that sailor’s eyes when my daughter Sofia thanked him for being brave (A Sailor Wrecks My Indifference). And I thought about what I was signing up for. To send kindness and care to someone far from home who was risking their life to protect people like me. You know, strangers.

I hit send.

What is Adoption?

You commit to sending one letter a week and one care package a month for the duration of the Deployment. Mail is important. It affects morale.

It’s like Christmas Morning For Us  

I could write an entire post on just how much getting mail means. So many of my guys have told me it’s like Christmas morning. When I was doing research about adopting, I ran across these thank-you notes from two soldiers.

Soldier 1:  Although I can not truly speak for everyone, I am sure there are thousands of service members who feel the same way I do when I say beyond the cards, letters, and care packages you send to us, the most important and valuable thing you send is a sense of worth. What I mean by that is we realize we are not forgotten by people other than our immediate families. That it does make a difference in the world what we are doing, and that if there is at least one person out there who cares then the sacrifice that so many of us have and or will endure, it is worth it. Thank you very much.

Soldier 2:  The guys out here really appreciate what you’ve done for us and so do I…what you and your friends do makes a difference. Morale lifts and with it depression, anxiety, anger, frustration and loneliness to name but a few things. What you do allows us time to feel good about ourselves because someone we don’t even know cared enough about us to do something wonderful. It allows us to be able to do our jobs out here with a sense of clarity. It helps us all try harder to come home safely. I can never say this enough, THANK YOU ALL. 😉                                                                                                                        

Your Soldier Information from AAUSS Adopt A US Soldier 

This is what I got for hitting “send”.  (For privacy, I took out a few details and cropped the photo of his wife.)

My name is xxxx I’m 24 and from the great state of xxxx. I’ve been in the military for 6 years now and this is my 3rd combat deployment. I’m married to a beautiful girl named xxxx   She just gave birth to our first baby about 7 weeks ago. We had a baby boy Kyle. I still haven’t been home to see him but should be home for leave in a few months. Just got to Afghanistan in mid June and will be here until sometime in May.

my adopted soldier in Afghanistan

I looked at the beautiful but dangerous place he worked. I looked at the child he had yet to meet. I looked at his wife who was about to have all those “first” baby moments solo.  And I felt bad that I ever hesitated. This young family had a lot at risk. I think I can manage a letter and some beef jerky. I also decided to send him a What To Expect The First Year book and call it his new “field manual.” I would try to think of creative things to send. This would be fun! 10 days later I found out it would be something else as well. His email began, “We had a rough week…”

© Gina left the mall, 2012