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

7 Tips From Packing To Package

133° at 1300 hours (1:00 p.m. for us civilians) is precisely why you don’t send chocolate to Iraq and Afghanistan in the summer. It is one of seven tips that by themselves, would not be a very exciting post. However together, they comprise this absolutely thrilling list.

1. Chocolate Season is November to April

Early afternoon temperature in Iraq

A soldier sent me this picture from Iraq one summer afternoon.

2. Getting to know the Customs

The United States Postal Service Customs Form PS 2976-A comes with two pages of instructions (front and back.) Here are my highlights:

a. Most of its obvious, like your name.

b. Military addresses are mostly acronyms and numbers that identify division, unit, etc, and make little sense in English. I fill out the form the exact same way the address looks when I receive it. The areas I left empty don’t apply to me and probably won’t apply to you either. Some areas are for the Post Office to fill in.

USPS Customs Form example for shipping to APO/FPO

Form # can be found on bottom left.

c. There are only four lines to describe contents. If you need more lines, you have to fill out another form. FYI- The USPS does not want vague entries like: food.

d. I never fill out the weight and no one has asked me to. Maybe it’s because I always use flat-rate boxes. (It’s one price no matter how heavy it is.) The postal clerk fills it in.

e. If the box can’t be delivered for some reason, you have options for it to be returned, abandoned, or given to someone else. I check the last box and write in: Chaplain. This way at least someone who needs a morale boost will be sure to get it.

You get these forms at the Post Office. Or you can order them online at the USPS site. They also have online shipping options that I’ve never done. If you have, let me know if you like it.

3. Flat-out crazy with flat-rate boxes 

Besides putting the address on the outside of the box, I fully address the envelope with my letter on the inside as well. This way, if the top panel gets damaged, I have a second chance for it to get to the servicemember. Of course, since I trust nothing, I also put a piece of my clear packing tape over the address. This is to foil rain or a rogue coffee spill from smearing the address. I also tape up every box edge when I send to the desert so no sand gets in.

Again, with these boxes, you pay one shipping price no matter how much it weighs. You can get them for free at the post office or have them delivered to you.

4. Bubble-trouble

When I buy bubble-wrap I hide it. My daughter Sofia finds it and pops it. This reduces its effectiveness. So to save money (and aggravation) I recycle packing material from other things or that friends give me. I also use tissue paper from gifts we get. And I try pack items in a way that protect others. For example, if I’m shipping socks, I’ll strategically place them around things that need cushioning. Most things I ship are not fragile but I still don’t want the contents shifting around.

5. Bleach-flavored potato chips

If you pack food and hygiene items in the same box, you risk the food absorbing the strong cleaning scents and tasting like soap or perhaps a pine forest.

6. T is for Thank You

Holidays and seasons easily inspire care package ideas. Random days on the calendar can be big blank spaces that lay there inspiring nothing. Of course, you don’t need a theme at all. But it’s fun and can add a few extra smiles. So I figured I’d share my current random day idea.

I have a soldier named Thomas and I used his first initial to choose the contents. Every snack and toy begins with the letter “T.” Sofia signed the note, “love Sofia and Mommy (Gina).” I guess she added my name so he doesn’t mistakenly think it’s from his mom.

Initial-theme care package

There’s also a table-top football game (maybe the trophy will go to the winner.) The only things I had to pack carefully were the taxi cookie and the T lollipop.

If his name began with another letter, I’d just rewrite the line to reflect that. Even the thank-you line can be written differently. Examples: A –All our good wishes, B- Blessings, J- Just to say thank-you. For significant others of a K, you could add Kisses and hugs.

7. Never and Always

Some items that seem safe in everyday life can become dangerous if shaken or subjected to extreme temperature and pressure changes. The US Postal Service says never to send these items internationally:

  • Aerosols
  • Air bags
  • Alcoholic Beverages
  • Ammunition
  • Cigarettes
  • Dry Ice
  • Explosives
  • Fresh Fruits & Vegetables
  • Gasoline
  • Lithium batteries
  • Nail Polish
  • Perfumes containing alcohol
  • Poison
  • Pool Chemicals

I’m pretty sure most people don’t have a burning desire to ship air bags but, better safe than sorry. Also, for our troops in the Middle East you can add pork products to that list. However, no matter what items you put in the box, there is something you always send with every package. The care part. That’s what’s needed most and matters most. With or without chocolate.

© Gina left the mall, 2013

He Said, “Send Anything”

My first thought for Sergeant J’s care package was: PIRATES! This is because I learned that Talk Like A Pirate Day is coming. I figured eye patches, Pirate Booty popcorn, pirate cups, plates, and whatever else a deployed pirate might need. Then I checked the date and it’s on September 19th. Damn. My box wouldn’t make it to Afghanistan by then because mail delivery takes at least two weeks. My pirate idea was scuttled. Instead, I could do a theme I’ve done before or simply no theme. “Anything” is pretty open. Almost too open. So I kept thinking.

I looked up other strange holidays for inspiration and learned of National Bacon Day. Sounds fun, but it’s not an option because you never send pork products to the Middle East. I would also never send related items like bacon-scented soap and bacon-flavored dental floss (real products.) While they are technically not bacon, why walk around smelling like contraband? Toss in whiskey shampoo (also real) and you’ve got a recipe for trouble. Sadly, Bacon Day didn’t get me any closer to a care package idea.

It’s A Girl!

Then I found out that Sergeant J’s wife just gave birth to a baby girl! Wonderfully, they now have two little girls. Conveniently, it also made my job easier. I decided to send him a box of every pink candy I could find to celebrate the arrival of his sweet baby girl. I thought it would be fun for him to share with his buddies.

I put my daughter Sofia in charge of selection. She was literally “kid in a candy store” happy about this and went off-mission only slightly. When she discovered non-pink gummies shaped like Mario, fighter jets, and dinosaurs, she insisted that he had to have them. Then she continued her treasure hunt. We avoided anything chocolate because “chocolate season” is between November and April (other times of the year are too hot and it would melt.)

Doing this with Sofia was very special to me. I used to have her help me a lot. But one day she was writing a letter to a soldier and I looked over her shoulder. It said, “I wish I could trade places with you.” With tears in her eyes, she told me she was afraid he would get hurt and worried about all of them. I took the pen from her hand. Then I let her decide if and when she wanted to help. After a long break, she got involved again. Each time, it touches my heart.

After all the candy she picked out for Sergeant J, she found one small lollipop she wanted for herself. Of course I said yes.

Pink candy care package for soldier. It's a girl!

I put a list of contents. But good luck matching them all up.

Baby on the way, civilians on the case

Soldiers’ Angels has a group of volunteers that love to help deployed families celebrate their bundles of joy. It’s called Top Knot. I pulled the info below from the Soldiers’ Angels site and Top Knot also has a facebook page. I shared this with Sergeant J in case he and his family would like to sign up.

Top Knot is a nationwide network of service clubs and Angel individuals who sew, knit and shop to create gift baskets for infants and expectant mothers in military families. Deployments are difficult on the entire family unit, but even more so when that family is expecting or has an infant child. Our mission is to commend the women and children at home for their strength, to let them know we are proud of their sacrifices as well as their husbands’ and fathers’, and most importantly, to do what we can to support them during the emotionally challenging times of deployment.

Our dedicated volunteers knit, crochet, sew, quilt, and design blankets, booties, hats, onesies, bibs, and many more homemade gifts. We also assemble and deliver gift baskets full of goodies such as bottles, diapers, onesies, pacifiers, washcloths, grooming kits, and more. Additionally, we make sure to remember Dad by sending “It’s a Boy!” or “It’s a Girl!” bubblegum cigars to wherever he is stationed.

Anything goes

According to my holiday research, National Punctuation Day and Hug A Vegetarian Day are both right around the corner. If I knew that Sergeant J felt strongly about either commas or broccoli lovers, I would try to find a way to make those themes work. In the absence of such knowledge, I’m feeling good about the pink candy idea. Although, I know this soldier would appreciate anything.

© Gina left the mall, 2013

Free Mail

What do a soldier in Kandahar and a senator in Washington have in common? If you guessed Free Mail, you’re right. For politicians, it’s called franking privileges. The purpose is to let the folks back home know what they’ve been up to. For deployed troops it’s called, “Hey, It’s The Least We Can Do.” Well…that’s just what I call it. The official name may be different.

The best things in life are free

Free Mail from deployed troops

Getting Free Mail is a heartwarming surprise. The overwhelming amount of contact I have with troops is over email. Then there are many times where I don’t hear back (which is okay, I have no expectations.) But to open your mailbox and find something so thoughtful and from so far away? It’s like finding treasure. This past Friday I got a postcard from my Marine and it made my day. Well, since I’m still smiling now, it’s more than a day.

What technology can’t touch

A World War II vet told me how he’d have to wait months for any word from home. Skype beats that hands down. And if I had to handwrite this post to each of you individually, I’d have a carpal tunnel relapse for sure. But with all due respect to the internet, it is nice to hold an actual letter in your hands. When I get one, I’m excited and I wonder, is this a little bit of what mail call is like for our troops?

I’ve saved every letter service members have sent me. Many have told me they save all the mail they receive. Here is a small part of one soldier’s letter that I want to share with you for two reasons.

1. His handwriting is beautiful.

2. This is the only time I’ve EVER had to do research to respond. He wrote deeply and thoughtfully about freedom, American History, and quoted Thomas Paine. So I brushed up on a few things before I wrote back. The last time I covered this material was in junior high school.

This is the full Thomas Paine quote he included in his letter:

“These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives everything its value.”

Thomas Paine quote in soldier's letter

Reading that quote in a letter from a soldier in a combat zone gave those words an emotion and meaning that didn’t occur for me in junior high. I was very moved. Then very grateful that he gave me this moment. Amazing what you can get for free.

© Gina left the mall, 2013

Pillow Talk

Andrew* is trying to get pillows and sheets for the 90 soldiers in his platoon because they have none. I said I’d help. That led to some interesting “pillow talks” with a soldier, a child, and a passionate “debater.”

The soldier is Dylan* and we’ve been friends for a while. I know that when it comes to deployment, accommodations vary. So I asked him about his personal worst and best. (*Names changed for privacy.)

No mint on your pillow here

DYLAN: The worst was either Columbia or Afghanistan in ’01. Iraq in ’03 was bad too. There were NO accommodations. Sleep where you fall and dig. Eat what you can kill, catch, or carry. Latrines??? Nothing. The best you could hope for (I deleted the rest of this sentence. I wish I could also delete Dylan’s colorful “no latrine” description from my brain.)  Ammo and other supplies, had to have air dropped. This caused a whole new set of problems…we weren’t the only ones that could see the plane or chopper coming. Had some hellacious firefights over resupplies!!

Best… Iraq 09-10 (OIF7) when you and I met!! We had living quarters, chow hall, internet and phone shacks, a small PX, and a gym. Still got rocketed and mortared a lot, but still nice to not have to (another colorful description that can be summed up: latrines = good.)

Night-lights are mandatory

To be clear, I was not buying 90 sets of twin sheets and pillows. I was getting two. Andrew had written to Soldiers’ Angels and they put the request out to the group. (So far, volunteers have signed up for all the pillows and 37 sets of sheets.)

As I headed to the store, my daughter Sofia informed me that I had to send them a night-light too. “Mommy! You can’t make them sleep in the dark! The dark is scary!” Technically, she has a point. I imagine it can be scary out there in the dark. But if I told her the soldiers probably didn’t need this, I know she’d say, “but what if one does?” Seeing her concern and how she relates it to her own world and what makes her feel vulnerable, touched my heart. The nightlight was in.

My options were Sponge Bob floating in a bubble of water, mermaids, or princesses. I went with Sponge Bob because had the edgier look in his eyes. I also got coffee. After all, with all this newfound comfort, these soldiers may need help waking up.

Pillows, sheets, "mandatory" Sponge Bob  night-light and coffee

Pillows, sheets, that’s Sponge Bob sleeping on top, and coffee getting weighed at the UPS store. No way to smush that into my usual flat-rate box.

More than talk

Leslie at Soldiers’ Angels had shared Andrew’s request and was keeping track of the responses. So I let her know how many pillows and sheets I picked up. We got to chatting and I found out:

1. She is the wife of a disabled vet.

2. She does a lot of volunteer work at Soldiers’ Angels.

3. She got into a “debate” with a gentleman at Walmart and is now writing 4,000 letters to deployed troops to prove him wrong.

Number three took me by surprise. Leslie explained that she was wearing her Soldiers’ Angels t-shirt as she shopped in Walmart. A woman approached her and started asking questions. Leslie was happily answering when a gentleman chimed in, “They don’t want letters, all they want is stuff. Letters don’t make a difference.” Leslie asked him why he had that perception. He didn’t have an answer. He just kept repeating his assertion.

I know, as Leslie does, that a letter can make all the difference in the world. It can transport you and lift your spirits. A letter can be carried with you and offer irrefutable proof that you are cared for and not forgotten. Whether our troops sleep on a bunk or in the dirt, whether they have bedding or nothing, that’s knowledge that brings comfort.

The, “all they want is stuff” part bugged me. These are our young men and women in harm’s way. Not Veruca Salt from Willie Wonka (the girl who wants it all and sings, I want it now!) The number one item I’ve seen requested is: anything. Because any little thing is appreciated. They’re in a combat zone. They don’t have access to the every day things we take for granted. Chips, soap (for those in remote areas) a cup of coffee. These are touches of home that mean a great deal. And when there are specific needs or group requests like Andrew’s, I know exactly what the motivation is: they want to help support their fellow troops any way they can.

Leslie’s debate went in circles until she asked this gentleman what she could do to change his mind.

GENTLEMAN: Nothing!

LESLIE: You tell me how many letters you want me to write. I will write them and show you the response and I will change your mind.

GENTLEMAN: 2,000

LESLIE: I’ve hit 2,000 in one year before. So why don’t we make this interesting? Let’s say 4,000.

GENTLEMAN: I don’t think you can do it.

LESLIE: You’re on!

She has been doing it. To cheer her on or check the countdown, go to her facebook page: 4,000 Letters From Home. The deadline is December 31, 2013. I look forward to this gentleman starting the New Year with a new perspective.

Almost bedtime

The bedding care package is on its way to Afghanistan. I hope Sofia’s nightlight makes them smile. And since I enjoyed the talks the pillows started, I figured I’d let Andrew have the last word by sharing the last line of his request:

Anything will be cherished. Thank you.

© Gina left the mall, 2013

How To Write To A Soldier

Troops say mail call is like, “Christmas morning.” But what do you write if you’re strangers? Many people have asked so I’m sharing a few tips and a simple structure that work for me. If you’ve never written before or just want some ideas, feel free to use anything here.

Tips

Be positive and encouraging. Remember, troops have the stress of being far from home and who knows what else may be going on. This is not the time to vent. That’s what BFFs and the pint-sized ice cream container were invented for.

The polite company rule – avoid religion and politics, is always a good first letter idea. Another is to simply be conversational and genuine. If your spouse, child, or other loved one were deployed, how would you want someone to talk to them? 

And, of course, safety first. That would be OPSEC/PERSEC. It stands for Operational Security and Personal Security. Don’t share their address and other info.

As for specifics, I’ve divided your first letter into four easy pieces: Dear_____, intro paragraph, wonderful middle, and sincere close.

Dear ___________

I follow the lead of whatever’s in the request or information I receive. If troops use their first name, so do I. If they use rank and last name, that’s how I fill in the blank. In some cases, you don’t have a name but a branch of the military. If it’s Army, then I write, Dear Soldier.

All troops are not Soldiers. Army = Soldier, Air Force = Airman, Navy = Sailor (Navy construction battalion, it’s Seabee) Marine Corps = Marine. Coast Guard I have heard referred to as Coast Guardsman and those stationed on ships as Sailors. If you don’t happen to have a name or branch, you can write Dear Servicemember.

Intro Paragraph

I introduce myself and why I’m writing. I also include the name of the charity I got their information from. In some cases, they may not be expecting my letter. That happens when others submit a troop who they feel needs a morale boost.

Example: Hi, my name is Gina, I’m a Soldiers’ Angel from NYC and I’m writing to thank you for your service. I have an awesome little girl named Sofia who says to tell you, “hi.” 

If I know anything about them, such as where they’re from, I’ll talk about it in the next line or two. Then I start setting up whatever story I’m going to share.

The Wonderful Middle

Here I write about home. After all, home and all the wonderful things in it, is what they miss most. In my case, it’s often a funny story involving Sofia. But other great topics include sports you watch or play, something special about your hometown, your amazing pet, a recent movie, concert, an event with friends- even if it’s just sitting around the fire pit under the stars telling jokes, hobbies, …whatever you care about.

I think what’s also helpful is if you can write it visually. A Vietnam Vet told me that when he received letters that they would transport him, even if for a short time, away from the horrible place he was. So whatever story I’m writing, I try to paint a picture to help them take a break from their current locale. For example, you can see how the fire pit sounds more interesting than the other items in the list above because you can “see it.”

I also try to include a question or two to give them something to respond to if they reply. Of course, not everyone has the time or ability (regular internet connection or outgoing mail) to write back. If you’ve just worked eight 16-hr days in a row, you may want to spend your day off getting some rest, trying to connect with family, or just zoning out in your bunk with movies and games.

Sincere Close

I wrap up by acknowledging this servicemember’s role in the wonderful things we get to enjoy. Example: I know the reason Sofia has the freedom to ______(whatever I just shared) in peace and safety is because of the hard work you and your fellow troops do every day. Thank you for all you do. 

Sometimes I’ll ask them to thank their family on my family’s behalf. Because I know they are sacrificing too. If I know there’s been a specific morale issue, I may assure them they are not forgotten. If I know there’s been loss of life or injuries, I’ll want them to know we are keeping them in our prayers. Then I include my email address to make replying easier.

Write right

There’s more than one right way to do this. I think if you let courtesy and kindness be your guide, you’ll do great. Our deployed troops really do appreciate any little thing. Including a stranger taking the time to remember those who fight to defend their freedoms.

Update on a note Sofia sent that follows none of these tips…lol (although, this wasn’t her first letter to our Marine.) He deployed again and took her advice! Two of his Marines did a very good job and he told Sofia to imagine them in a combat zone with smiley face stickers on their uniforms. He said, “that should bring a smile to your face.” It most certainly did!

(name blurred for privacy)

© Gina left the mall, 2013

Snail-Tweeting My Soldier

The first soldier I ever wrote to is headed back to Afghanistan soon. So I’ve been thinking about doing something special for him. Technically, this is not necessary because he’d appreciate anything. And technically, this may not be easy. During his last deployment I got creative a few times (like the golf ball episode) and occasionally lucky (help from a hockey team.) After a while I jokingly told him, “It’s all downhill from here.” But I also know this:

1. Little things mean a lot when you’re far from home. Even the smallest kindness.

2. Continuity helps. Contact throughout the entire deployment has a greater morale impact than sporadic contact. Sporadic has a greater morale boost than no contact.

3. Do what you can. I learned this lesson the hard way after taking on projects for him that were too big and/or not asking for help when I needed it.

Obviously, these three things add up to the invention of Snail-Tweets. Or my version of it.

Snail-Tweeting

What if I could send him a tiny bit of support for every day that he is deployed? Hearing your name at mail call is a powerful thing. However, if I sent letters every day I’d run out of things to say pretty quickly. But what if I kept it to 140 characters or less? What if, instead of tweeting online, I did it on postcards?

As I started thinking about stockpiling interesting and fun postcards, point #3 -Do what you can, popped into my head. So this is where I ended up:

1. I will try to send him a snail-tweet every day. “Try” being the operative word in that sentence.

2. If I need help coming up with snail-tweets, I will ask for it. My daughter often has memorable lines. I bet my wonderful readers do too. It may even be more interesting if they’re not all from me. If I ask strangers, I could make their “handle” something descriptive like GuyAtHotDogStand.

3. I’ll number the cards so they’re easier to track. I’ve mailed things on the same day before and one will get there in two weeks and the other arrives months later or not at all. I know anything topical becomes historical when I put in a mailbox, but to me they’re moments. Being deployed, our troops miss so many everyday moments. It may be nice to get a few back.

Urban Dictionary has Snail-Tweet defined as, “a conventional postcard.” I think my version of it is less conventional.

The plan

So that’s my plan right now. Of course, like all plans related to the military, it is subject to change. Plus, you never know, there could be an outbreak of world peace. And those last 64 characters would be well worth giving up snail-tweeting for.

postcards

postcards (Photo credit: petit zozio)

© Gina left the mall, 2013