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

A Sailor Wrecks My Indifference

Life-Changing Event wasn’t my plan that morning. We had no plans. But the USS Intrepid had a plane with shark teeth, my 4-year-old daughter was in a “shark phase” and that’s how we found ourselves on a flight deck.

Sofia (the 4-year-old) wanted to leave immediately because flight decks are hot. On August 16, 2009, a sweltering NYC day made it “super hot.” Instead, I took her to the air-conditioned lower deck.  One exhibit had a film playing about the ship. We had missed most of it, so I pulled her away. But with pre-K mega-strength, she dragged me back.

The Sailor

I stood there watching black and white footage of the ship being attacked. I sensed the man to my right moving closer. I turned towards him and he said, “I was there that day. I was there.” Then he turned back to the screen and stared intently. He was an elderly gentleman wearing ID badges that said Former Crew Member and Plank Owner.

When the film ended, he walked away to talk to a few people. At that point, I had no idea that walking up to someone in the military and personally thanking them was something people did. I didn’t know anyone in the military. I never ran into troops. But I said to Sofia, “do you see that man over there? He did something brave on this ship that helped protect us. I want you to go say thank you”

Pre-Wreck

Sofia started buzzing around the group trying to get this Sailor’s attention. He kept talking to the adults. I thought to myself that this was a mistake. Retract!! Retract!!

But after a few long minutes he finally said very loudly and with mock exasperation, “Yes, little girl…what can I do for you?” Just as loudly, Sofia replied, “Thank you for being brave on the boat! I like your boat!!!”

Everyone stopped talking. His eyes filled with tears. His wife became teary. So did the others with them. I walked over to see what was wrong and his wife said to me under her breath, “Thank you for her words. You have no idea how much they mean. This is the last time he can visit the ship. This is his last time here.”

Then It Hit Me

As we walked away I started thinking about my Mom. She’s from the Philippines and if it wasn’t for American G.I.s, she might not be here, then I wouldn’t be here and Sofia wouldn’t be here. And I don’t remember thanking a single one of those thousands of Soldiers, Sailors, Marines and Airmen.

So that night I went home, did some research, and adopted a U.S. Soldier who was deployed to the mountains of eastern Afghanistan. I never imagined where that first step would lead me.

My adopted soldier's Combat Outpost in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan

My adopted soldier’s combat outpost in the mountains of Afghanistan.

© Gina left the mall, 2012

To Be Honest, I Never Thought About The Troops

I wasn’t against the Military.  I just thought of it as another big government institution.  Granted, a heavily armed big government institution, but still…I had no personal connection. Back in 2009, I had only a vague sense of what “peace keeping” in Afghanistan or Iraq meant, either for the men and women doing it or for their families at home.

Then one random event led me to adopt a Soldier.  And everything changed. I made a difference for him and his family.  I saw how our lives were connected. That inspired me to do a little more.

Along the way, I’ve done that “little more” for over 800 Troops. This blog is about what I learned.  It will include the good, bad, funny and sometimes heartbreaking.  But it will always be honest.  And I have two hopes:

1.  This helps others who want to support the Troops.

2.  This gives people like me (well, the old me) who never really thought about the Troops, a reason to feel connected.  To care.  And to help close the divide between civilian and military.

That’s my Mission.  Thanks for giving me a chance to accomplish it.

Gina

© Gina left the mall, 2012