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).

 

I Hope The Chaplain Likes To Party

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

New Year's Party care package

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

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

Mishap Upside

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

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

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

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

Right now

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

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

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

2014

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

© Gina left the mall, 2013

The Season of Getting

If you’re lucky, this is the Season of Getting. I don’t mean getting big-ticket items like luxury cars. Although you are lucky if you’re friends with the couple in the Lexus commercial who spend untold hours making giant red bows for their auto-gifting.

What I’m talking about is the feeling you get when you do something nice for someone who can’t repay you or even thank you. Often what you receive in return is greater than what you give. That is the beautiful irony.

Four years ago I received a request that I still think about. Partly because it makes me appreciate what I have, and partly because of the way my daughter Sofia responded. I’ve mentioned some of this request once before, but it still warms my heart. I’m still “getting” something from this.

The request

My infantry company is deployed to a remote outpost in Afghanistan. We spend most of our time in a very remote outpost living and working with the Afghan National Army, living a very meager existence. We don’t have showers or running water. We live twenty men to a tent, and live out of the back of our armored vehicles, or from our rucksacks. We are very far from home. Anything you could provide my Soldiers would be greatly appreciated. Some of my men do not have families in the States who can support them. Our communication back home is infrequent and unreliable. Letters and packages are our lifeline, and the only way we know that we are not out there alone. Nobody wishes for the end of war more than those of us who fight in them, but we are determined to finish what was started, and honor those who have served and fallen before us by completing this mission the best way we know how. Your support is invaluable. Thank you.

Our response

We decided to send one box of hygiene items and one of snacks. But to me, the most valuable things in those care packages were seven pieces of pink construction paper. Each one was a letter from Sofia. Each one, “had to be different!” This is a fine plan until you consider that Sofia had only recently learned to write.

As she made a mistake, she would crumple the paper in frustration. She asked me to help. She told me what she wanted to say, I wrote it down, and she copied it. Then she drew a picture. It was usually a heart or a butterfly. Or butterflies with heart bodies. Or both. This was a long, slow process and she really worked hard. I still have the “dictation” she gave me:

1. You are the most greatest hero in the whole wide world. Love, Sofia

2. Thank you for saving the world. Love, Sofia

3. I miss all of you, every single Soldier. Love, Sofia

4. I hope that all of you do not get hurt. I love all of you for saving the world. Love, Sofia

5. Thank you for being brave. Love, Sofia

6. Thank you for protecting us from the bad guys. Love, Sofia

7. I super miss all of the Soldiers. Love, Sofia

After I mailed it all, I imagined these troops receiving it. Maybe a few of them even folded up the pink letter and carried it with them. I imagined that when they finally did get to call home, they got to tell their loved ones that many strangers cared and sent them mail. I imagined what it must feel like for a parent or spouse to know this. Or maybe we just gave one of these guys five good minutes when he needed it most.

No matter what the actual impact, just knowing the real possibilities and potential ripple effect lifts my spirit. Of course our goal was to lift theirs.

The perfect gift

I will never forget how much care and effort Sofia put into this. It will always be something special we did together. So, as the last-minute holiday shopping commences, I hope you too are getting something wonderful—the gift and reward of kindness. However you choose to do it, it will be perfect. And if you need a red bow, you can have one of mine. 

red bows

© Gina left the mall, 2013

Beer Nuts Save Christmas. Sort of.

I received this card from a Marine on Nov.15th. He wrote, “I know this is early but I wanted to make sure I was the first holiday card.” I laughed, thinking I had all the time in the world to get my Christmas care packages out. Of course, I was wrong.

X-mas card from Afghanistan

Christmas is December 3rd

First of all, the deadline the U.S. Post Office set for sending packages to certain deployed areas is December 3rd for delivery by Christmas. So I really had about two weeks to get my act together. No problem. As long as everything goes according to plan at work and home I should be okay.

What are the chances I’ll have to work late or that a birthday sleepover party for my daughter would take more time than I thought? Sure I was going away for Thanksgiving for the first time, which meant I was down to one week…but this is still doable.

I just have to come up with something creative, warm, sweet, and simple for 3 Soldiers and 1 Marine who are all currently in the Middle East. (All four are troops that I supported on their last tour.) Then pack the boxes and get them to the Post Office via public transpiration during that magic window of ‘before they close” and “still enough time to get home for the sitter.”

You know how some people are re-gifters? No judgment, but I’m not. It’s just not my (admittedly time-saving) habit. If you come up with a gift idea right away, all is well. As you may have guessed, I was drawing a blank. As a bonus, work and home did not cooperate. I realized that while I’d make the deadline for three troops, for one Soldier, I would not. I knew his family would make sure he’d have something to open. But I would miss Christmas for him and I felt terrible.

An option would be just to send it late. A better option would be to turn back time and begin sooner. Every year I promise myself to start earlier and I don’t. In fairness, every year I also promise myself to start a serious exercise regime after the New Year and that doesn’t happen either. So I should know better than to believe me.

Beer Nuts save the day

The one Soldier I failed was on my mind when I happened to be food shopping. Then suddenly a light bulb went off in my head. This light bulb was shaped like the package of Beer Nuts on the shelf in front of me. “BEER” as in alcohol which made me think of New Year’s Eve.

This Soldier is very sociable, a “life of the party” kind of guy. What if I sent him a New Year’s Eve Party in a box? Of course, I can’t send real alcohol. However, along with beer nuts, I can send “Happy 2014” eyeglasses, beads, party favors, chips, dip, glow sticks bracelets and lanterns. I could also send him coffee for the next morning that was Baily’s flavored and so on. You get the idea.

Yes I was too late for Christmas, but I’d be right on time to help him ring in a shiny New Year full of promise, hope, and fresh chances to do things better.

© Gina left the mall, 2013

The Sock Hunt

“Remember those socks you sent me four years ago?” This was the answer I got when I asked John, my deployed Marine, if he needed anything. It seems the ones I sent him last deployment had finally started wearing out and well, he loved them. Unfortunately, my memory of those socks is both good and bad at the same time.

What I DO remember:

I remember the ones he had were taking a beating. I remember me wandering into a random store and staring up at an entire wall of socks. When the salesman asked me what I was looking for, I told him the most comfortable and toughest socks he had for my Marine in the desert.

It turns out the salesman was ex-Israeli Army and had very strong opinions about this. Keeping your feet comfortable, dry, and healthy matters. He also served on a joint forces mission with some American troops. Since he knew Americans so well, he felt confident that what he selected was the best choice. He rang me up at the register in the back and gave me his employee discount as a way to thank John for his service. He had dark hair, dark eyes, and was wearing a gray sweater.

What I DON’T remember:

The brand or style of sock, the name of the store, or even what part of town the store was in. And by “town” I mean, “the island of Manhattan.”

I had asked John to send a picture but he hadn’t. Then I wrote again asking for a brand name and description.  I went online and didn’t see it.  Could it be that over the past (almost) half-decade, they changed their products?

Maybe if I could find the store, I could find the guy and he could find the sock or make another great recommendation. I tried to think of the places I went four years ago. I narrowed it down to: the East Side. If you divide Manhattan in half, that would be the piece on the right.

Manhattan Neighborhoods

Manhattan Neighborhoods (Photo credit: estimmel)

I picked different neighborhoods and googled the clothing stores. Then I went on google street maps to see if I could recognize the storefront. Nothing. But I wasn’t giving up. A friend once told me, “you know, sometimes you’re like a dog with a bone.” I can only assume that meant, “gee, you can be determined and I find that trait delightful.”

Go West!

I decided to expand my search to the West Side. The third store I street-mapped looked familiar. Very familiar. I ran there after work, excitedly burst into the store and….they’ve reduced their magical sock wall into a small area with four offerings. Apparently they’ve also made a few changes in the past (almost) half-decade.

So I decided to make a change too. I found what I thought were good options someplace else and got those. Will it be the exactly the same? No. But without change, how would we find new things to love?

© Gina left the mall, 2013

Calming Anger With Sugar

I found out that mail is being stolen where one of my soldiers is deployed. Boxes from Amazon are particularly vulnerable. As someone who puts a lot of thought and heart into making sure a servicemember hears his or her name at mail call, this makes me angry. And that makes me want to do something.

My first thought

My first thought wasn’t a very nice one. I thought about getting an Amazon box, putting in nothing but shredded paper and a sign that said what I thought of thieves. This sign would have words that I’ve told my daughter, “we don’t use in this house.” And by “we” I really mean just her.

However, there are a few flaws in my evil plan.1. What if the box gets through and my soldier opens it? 2. Do I really want to be someone who executes an evil plan? No I don’t. Or, to quote Uncle Si of Duck Dynasty, “Nah!”

My second thought

Plan B was: Write a letter to a government official alerting them to this problem so it can be fixed immediately.

There are several flaws in this plan. 1. Who in the wide world of government bureaucracy, civilian or military, would I write to? 2. Of all the things affecting troops that need to be, “fixed immediately” one immoral mail depot probably ranks pretty low. Is it even a depot? Where in the process is it breaking down? I don’t even know who to be upset with! 3. In the era of sequestration, who has the extra manpower to look into this?

What I wound up doing

I sent a postcard because the message can be read by anyone along the way. This is what I wrote:

I heard your mail service was the worst and that I had no chance to get a card or letter through. Hope to prove that ugly rumor false. 

I think, “proving someone wrong” has a certain appeal. Maybe it will appeal to the rogue mail handler(s.) I have no idea because this is hard for me to understand. I mean, if you know the impact mail has on morale, why would you want to deny someone this? For material gain? What they are really stealing is a touch of home, of comfort, and of love.

After I sent the postcard, I still felt bad. So I decided to do something about that as well. Since I was feeling so negative, I would try to do something positive. I was never good at math, but somehow this made sense to me. Now instead of angry boxes, I want to share with you something infinitely sweeter. It made me come up with another idea of how to deal with my shipping challenge.

Meet Wendy

The holidays are coming and homemade cookies are a special kind of love. So to spread that love, I want to tell you about Wendy. I’ve mentioned her once or twice before but never made a formal introduction. Wendy is a mom who loves to bake and sends cookies to her son at college. She called her care packages The Monday Box. Eventually she started a blog of the same name where she shares her recipes and stories about her family. I was thrilled to learn that after reading this blog, Wendy started including recipes that could withstand the rigors of shipping to deployed areas.

If you go on The Monday Box and put the word “desert” in the search box, you’ll get every recipe that she made desert-friendly for our troops. Below are a few samples.

Chocolate Peppermint Shortbread Cookies (photo credit, The Monday Box)

Chocolate Peppermint Shortbread Cookies (photo credit, The Monday Box)

Orange Creamsicle Bar (photo credit, The Monday Box)

Orange Creamsicle Bar (photo credit, The Monday Box)

Hugs & Kisses Brownies (photo credit, The Monday Box)

Hugs & Kisses Brownies (photo credit, The Monday Box)

As I read through Wendy’s blog for these samples, I felt the warmth she sends with every batch. As I calmed down, I knew…I don’t want to be in some long-distance fight with a mailroom. I’m just going to do the best I can and hope for the best.

Then I thought, maybe if those folks had felt more of the love that Wendy or I try to send, maybe they wouldn’t resort to what they’re doing. If I ever did send a box with a sign, maybe it should be information where they could sign up for support. With cookies, a note could say, “I baked this for my soldier, but if you need it so badly to steal it, then take it. Enjoy it and give it to your friends. But support my soldier because after all that he’s done and all that he’s been through, he deserves nothing less. Send him a dessert yourself to make up for the one you’re enjoying right now. That would be great.”

What if the desert were flooded with sugar? Enough “home-baked love” to have, to share, maybe even enough to warm a heart that needs it. That would be sweet.

© Gina left the mall, 2013

Tell My Soldier

I have a friend whose fiancé was deploying to somewhere near Syria. Then his orders were put on hold. Then they told him he was leaving in a few weeks. The other day that got changed to 24 hours and now he’s gone. I am trying to imagine putting my heart through the emotional gymnastics my friend just had to. Uncertainty is part of life for our military families.

Two months ago I told you about my “snail-tweeting” project for my very first soldier, Sergeant K, who was deploying again. I planned to mail him one tweet a day on a postcard, every single day for the duration of his deployment. His expected departure date has changed a few times. Luckily, his uncertainty led to more time at home. However, the latest update looks firm and I am ramping up now so I’m ready.

Sgt. K’s wife told me that mail delivery is supposed to be terrible where he is headed. I replied, “Challenge accepted!” I think one of the upsides to the snail-tweet project is the quantity. I figure the more mail I send, the more chances I have of getting through.

Your chance

If there’s anything you wish you could say to one of our troops, here’s your chance to tell my soldier. Leave your “snail-tweet” in the comments or email me and I’ll write it on a postcard with your name and mail it to him. It should be:

1. Short. Think one sentence or two short ones. Or even just a few words.

2. No politics please. I’d add, “be nice” but, if you’re doing this, you’re already pretty nice.

3. Include how I should sign your name. Something like, “Linda from California.” Or whatever fabulous alias you have.

If you’d rather email me, the address is: gina@ginaleftthemall.com

Meet Sgt. K

It’s not always easy to write to a stranger. So here are a few things about Sgt. K to help you get to know him.

-His favorite sport is hockey. His favorite team is the Phoenix Coyotes. Any attempt to make him a New York Ranger fan is futile (trust me on this.)

-He loves dogs.

-He missed the birth of his first child by two weeks because he was deployed. He was there when his second child was born. He and his wife are expecting again and he hopes to come home on leave for this birth.

-He’s funny.

-His wife is awesome.

-They’re one of those couples that are great to be around because they love and like one another. They were high school sweethearts and have been together ever since.

-After reading this blog, his mother-in-law was inspired to adopt a soldier.

-He loves cigars and canned ravioli. Not necessarily together.

-This soldier and his wife are the reason I was inspired to do more after I adopted him. Doing more led to everything I learned in the Ways To Make A Difference page and eventually starting this blog.

Beyond me

Below are the postcards I’ve picked up so far to send. I originally planned to do this myself and maybe ask for help once in a while. But then I thought about what it would feel like for him. What if he could see that the care went beyond me? I think that would be very special. In fact, I’m certain of it.

Postcards to "snail-tweet" my soldier

Ready to “snail-tweet.”

© Gina left the mall, 2013