Back To The Desert

A Marine I met two years ago is deploying for the fourth time. But this is his first time doing so as a dad. Before, one of the things he missed most was color. Like the green of grass and trees. Of course, this time, he is already pre-missing his baby girl. So I tried to take that into account as I thought about what to send him. This is what I came up with:

Essential gear

1. I LOVE NY coffee mug- Nothing says, “I’m a friendly guy, please sit down and chat a while” like something that screams New York. I am laughing on the inside because I know this Marine can be a bit difficult when he wants to be. After he shared a few work-related stories, I jokingly asked, “You’re kind of a pain in the a**  aren’t you?” He replied, “Only to people who try to mess with my Marines.

2. 1lb of coffee and assorted snacks. This is essential gear.

Dad factor

1. Notes from dad- I included a box of cute cards for him to send to his daughter. Sure, she can’t read yet, but I thought it would be nice for his wife to receive them. Maybe she’ll put them in a scrapbook or maybe just save them for later. Either way, I think it would be sweet for his daughter to have them.

2. Simple durable frame for super-adorable photo.

3. Motivation tip from my daughter Sofia. To help him at work.

Name blurred for privacy. Smiley-faces blurred so I don't get in trouble with some Sticker Cartel for copyright infringement.

Name blurred for privacy. Smiley-faces blurred so I don’t get in trouble with some Sticker Cartel for copyright infringement.

4. More help from Sofia: groovy, multi-patterned pencils for sharing. You know, in case the other Marines forget to bring theirs.

I thought about sending him a parents’ magazine and labeling it, “INTEL” but I didn’t know if seeing those other kid pics would bum him out or not. Plus, I wasn’t sure how interested he’d be in the articles.

Welcome back?

I don’t really expect smiley-face sparkle stickers to become part of his official routine. I think it would be hilarious, but I don’t expect it. However, this Marine may as well learn now that he’s got all kinds of sparkle ahead of him. But as he arrives in the desert, we’ll “welcome” him back with the certainty that many people care. Even strangers. I’ve never met this Marine in person, we became pen pals through Soldiers’ Angels. Like my fellow volunteers, we hope to send a few extra smiles until we can say, “welcome home” again.

Update: He loved the box and followed Sofia’s advice! Two of his Marines did a very good job and he told her 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!

© Gina left the mall, 2013

The Day I Got A Flag

I didn’t own a flag and then one day, a troop sent me one from a combat zone as a heartfelt, “thank you.” As July 4th approaches, and more flags adorn more places, I thought I’d share the story of how I got mine.

No outdoor space

I live in an apartment building in NYC. While some people do have yards or balconies, I do not. Hanging things outside your window, many stories above unsuspecting pedestrians, is frowned upon here more than large sodas. Living vertically means certain safety considerations. When I lived in the suburbs we had a flag on the porch. But the porch stayed with the house. When I crossed the city line, owning a flag never crossed my mind.

“You have a package from Afghanistan”

In my volunteer experience, emails are easy to exchange but letters are mostly from here to there. So if I got correspondence, “from the sandbox” I was very touched. On this particular day I was not only surprised to have a package, but by the contents as well.

At times, troops will have flags flown at bases or in this case, carried aboard aircraft, in honor of someone. It’s a way to say thanks. I never knew about this tradition until that day.

I had been pen pals with an Airman and before he came home, he decided to do this for me. It seems that sharing funny stories about my daughter Sofia and the care packages we sent had helped him through a difficult period and painful losses. But because he never shared what he was going through at the time, I had no idea how much the little things we did meant to him. Then I opened the box.

Flag flown in combat, in Afghanistan. Gift from an Airman.

When I held the flag in my hands I was very moved, thinking about where it had been and his reasons for sending it. Underneath it, I found this certificate. The words “combat mission” made something I know is serious and dangerous, seem even more real. And, as always, made me wish for an outbreak of world peace. Seeing the words, “for Gina and Sofia” also struck me. We were strangers that wrote to him through Soldiers’ Angels. Yet he and all the others, “do what they do” for people they love and for the vast majority of us that they do not know and will never meet.

flag certificate from combat zone

(names blurred for privacy)

Happy Independence Day

Beach, barb-b-que, red, white, & blue cupcakes, fireworks, I wish you a happy holiday whatever you’re doing. I also thank our troops everywhere for helping ensure we can celebrate our country’s birthday yet again. I thank them and their families for the freedom to enjoy days like this with our own families. And, while my flag still remains indoors, I’m very grateful to have it.

© Gina left the mall, 2013

How To Stretch $16.46 Across The World

I believe every kind act has a ripple effect, the power to resonate. So last week I spent $16.46 to try use my “power” to help nine strangers in some far-off places. I’m not sure what will happen, but I have learned that anything’s possible.

When it’s not just “coffee”

If you’ve been here before, you know I send coffee and notes to the troops through Cup of Joe (COJ). I’ve had troops write me back and say, “I read this to my guys and we all had a good laugh. Thank you!” I love when I get those emails because knowing I made a few people smile in a combat zone, makes me smile.

I’ve stayed in touch with some of the COJ troops I’ve “met” this way. One ripple effect is that they’ve helped increase my understanding, which I’ve then shared here. The post about PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) is one of many examples. Anyone who has read them and learned something or been inspired only further increases the “ripple.”

I’ve had family members tell me how much it means to them that strangers took a little time out of their day to think of their deployed loved one. As a mom, I try to imagine how I’d feel if my child were far away and I couldn’t do anything to protect them. Granted, my kid is in elementary school, and I am a total mush to begin with. But I think seeing that someone else cares and knowing that your child is not forgotten, has power.

Some people ask me what I write to the troops. Well, anything that pops in my head at the moment. A lot of times, I “steal” ideas from my daughter. This time I wrote:

Dear Soldier,

Yesterday someone asked my daughter what she wanted to be when she grows up. She said, “world-famous swimmer.” They asked, “Olympics?”  She said, “No. Mermaid.”  Her back-up plans are, “world-famous rock climber,” or “fashion designer.”  I’m not sure what will happen in the future, but I do know that I’m grateful she has the freedom to follow her dreams. Thank you for helping to safeguard that freedom. Thank you for all you do. Sincerely, Gina

Below is the first reply I received back.

COJ reply. Name blurred for privacy.

COJ reply. Name blurred for privacy.

I bought 8 troops coffee @ $2 each so that’s $16.00.

Helping an “Angel”

I read a posting from a Soldiers’ Angel that the soldier she adopted was going through a stressful time. She wanted to send him a box with as many encouraging or light-hearted letters as possible. I said I’d be happy to help.

While I’ve become very good friends with a few troops, many times I don’t hear back. And that’s fine. I don’t do this expecting anything in return. But after I write a letter, I like to imagine its journey. In this case, I saw my fellow “angel” heading to her mailbox, getting letters from all over the country. I saw her being delighted with the support and happily filling that box. Then I imagined a soldier hearing his name at mail call and opening letter after letter….different postmarks….different stories…with my voice one among many and all with the same purpose: to make him feel cared for. My part in this cost 46¢ for a stamp.

Use your power

If you haven’t already done so this week, I invite you to use your power of kindness to help a stranger. There are a lot of little opportunities all around us. Of course, if you need ideas, I’ve got a few suggestions including those in this post. But no matter what kind act you do, be prepared for it to ripple back. It seems doing things for others has a way of touching our own hearts. What would the world be like with more kindness on a regular basis? Be nice to find out.

© Gina left the mall, 2013

Aloha Kandahar

I had a soldier in Kandahar whose job was to clear roads of IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices.) I decided that soldier needed a luau.

His base in Kandahar

His base in Kandahar

They already have sand…

When it comes to care packages, troops appreciate anything. While there are staples and standard items, doing themes is fun for both the sender and sendee. I figured since this soldier already had plenty of sand, I would give him a “luau” in a box.

LUAU care package

Luau care package part 2

It’s hard to tell from the picture but, those are TROPICAL flavored Tums and the small brown bag is Kona coffee. I got some cigars and made a cigar box out of a small USPS flat-rate box so they wouldn’t get smushed.

A real luau is a large feast not a hearty snack. However, it is where you gather with friends, wear bright colors and relax. I was hoping my version might make him smile after a long day. Since troops often share what they receive with their buddies, I knew the cigar break would be appreciated and help reduce stress a little.  With or without wearing leis.

Other essential items

Even when I send hygiene items, I’ll still toss in something fun. You never know when a game of dodgeball may break out. It’s good to be prepared.

care package- toys

When my friend Abby found out about the fun-factor she wanted to help think of ideas. I was about to send something to my solider based in the mountains and hadn’t come up with anything yet, so I accepted her help.

ABBY EXCITEDLY:  I know! I know!  How about a kite?

ME:  So… a bright, red, diamond-shape in the sky that can be seen for miles attached to a string that leads directly to his position on the ground?

ABBY:  Oh, that wouldn’t be good. What about a canteen?

ME: I have a feeling the Army gives them canteens. The Army may have even invented canteens.

Abby and I had a good laugh as we decided she should help in other ways. Imagine a kite in these mountains near his base.

Mountains near my adopted soldier's base in Afghanistan

Afghanistan

A different box

Of course, there’s more than one kind of box you can fill that makes a difference. That would be a mailbox because a simple letter or postcard can mean a great deal.

One thing I like about Soldiers’ Angels is the opportunity to help other members with their projects. Last week, an “angel” put the word out that her adopted soldier, a female combat medic, and her entire unit (50 soldiers) were having some tough days. The angel wanted to send them a care package filled with encouraging letters and postcards from all across the country. It only took a few minutes to write a letter and postcard. It only cost two stamps and the price of the postcard.

letters to the troops

While the luau box was fun, I love that I can make an impact by doing something small too. Because if there’s one place in the world where little things mean a lot, it’s wherever our troops are far from home.

© Gina left the mall, 2013

The 24,600-Mile Coffee Break

What would a coffee mug from a total stranger mean to you? Well, when you’re deployed to Iraq, little things can mean a lot. That, plus 24,600 miles, led to one of my best coffee breaks ever.

While you wait

A Marine named Adam signed up to be adopted at Soldiers’ Angels (they help every branch of the military.) I volunteered to send a care package while he was on the waiting list. I sent over an I LOVE NY mug, some coffee and snacks.

My care package was the first he received in Iraq. That made the mug special to him. I found out just how special at the end of his tour. When he packed his gear there wasn’t an inch to spare, let alone room to LOVE NY. But Adam couldn’t throw the mug out or leave it behind so, he decided to carry it home by hand.

Germany joe

Imagining this Marine walking around in uniform with a duffle bag and an I LOVE NY mug, made me laugh. I asked him if any of the other guys gave him a hard time.

ADAM:  I got a lot of flak from my guys, but in Leipzig Germany, we were sitting in a hangar and they had a coffee machine. Shortly after we were there they ran out of little styrofoam cups, I pulled my mug out. BAM! Just like that, I had coffee still! And of course some of the guys were jealous, but as Marines always do, we adapt, adjust and overcome. Some of them were cutting Gatorade bottles in half for some joe.

Since he brought it all the way back, I tried to guess the mug-milage. I was not even close. For one thing, I didn’t know his mail gets routed through San Francisco. Adam did the math for me:

Ok. So let’s take the fact that the mug was Made in China out of the equation.

From Manhattan to San Fran is about 2800 miles, and crosses 12 states. (According to Google’s fastest route).

From San Fran to Iraq, as the crow flies, 9800 miles, passes 9 states and 9 countries on 3 continents.

From Iraq to Camp Pendleton we’ll say another 9800 miles.

Cp Pendleton to Cincinnati, 2200 miles and 9 states.

So this mug traveled 24,600 miles, give or take a couple hundred, 39 state crossings, 18 countries crossed, and 5 continents crossed.

That’s enough to cross the world at the equator once.

Cincinnati joe

About a year later, I found out we’d both be in Cincinnati at the same time. Adam said he would like to buy me a cup of coffee as a thank you. I’ve only met a few of my troops in person so this was something special. I got to the cafe first. As I waited, I thought it’s funny how you never know what ripple effect a random act of kindness will have. I never thought that little care package would mean so much or that I’d gain a friendship.

Adam walked towards me and at first, I didn’t realize it was him. He looked so much younger than the pictures I had seen of him deployed. I think what I was really seeing was the effect of home and peace (that’s a good look on anyone.) Seeing Adam healthy, happy and safe was a wonderful feeling. My smile was big and my eyes filled with tears. Then I saw what he was carrying and I laughed. The server came over to take our order and Adam said, “Ma’am, I’ve brought my own mug. If you don’t mind, I’d like you to use it for my coffee, please.”

I LOVE NY mug© Gina left the mall, 2013

What are the chances?

What are the chances of reading an article online and then randomly “meeting” the writer in Iraq a few months later? Apparently, 100% because it happened to me with a deployed troop.

6 out of millions

I had just adopted a soldier and realized…I don’t know anything about soldiers. So I thought it might be a good idea to read some stories or articles written by troops. A quick search got me millions of results and I randomly chose six. Clearly, this was not exhaustive research. I just wanted to get a sense of what deployment was like for our troops. To understand a little how they felt when going through it.

A few months later, I started doing Cup of Joe (COJ) a wonderful program where you send a cup of coffee with a message to deployed troops. COJ distributes them randomly to any troop that signs up. It costs $2, many of them email back a “thank you,” and there’s a pen pal option.  I met Jim when I sent out a few COJs that Christmas.

ME:  Dear Soldier, A cup of coffee is pretty small to be a present. So what I really want to give you for Christmas is the certainty that you are not forgotten. And to know how grateful I am for your service. I’m from NYC and whether my day is crazy good or bad, I get to live it in peace. Your hard work and sacrifice gives me that gift. Thank you for all you do. I wish you a merry, happy and safe holiday. Gina

JIM:  That was about the sweetest sentiment I have ever received. I will copy this and save it for Christmas’s in the future. I truly appreciate your gesture and message. May Christmas find you with happiness, love and always security. Warmest of regards Jim Martin

I am using Jim’s name with his permission. Normally I don’t use full names because of privacy and/or security. He was a Senior Medical NCO for a Heavy Brigade Combat Team. When I told him I was a writer, he mentioned that had always been a dream of his. In fact, he had even gotten something published online once. I asked for the link. When I got it, I realized it was one of the six that I had read!!  Six articles out of millions…. thousands of deployed troops and my coffee finds him??  I smiled and laughed at this wonderful surprise. I had loved the emotional honesty in his words. “Meeting” the man who wrote them made it even more special. This is the article: Honor Our Sacrifice

$2

Along with a very nice “small world moment,” I got the pleasure of getting to know Jim. What our troops do, endure and brave is pretty amazing.  What are the chances we can do something meaningful in return with a $2 investment?  I’m happy to say the odds on that are also 100%.

chance

© Gina left the mall, 2013

Sending Them “Home” For The Holidays

I was up to my eyeballs in bubble wrap. Movers were coming the next day and I hadn’t finished packing. Probably because I don’t like packing. I was also doing my best to stay off the Soldiers’ Angels forum. It’s hard to resist because they are an enthusiastic group of volunteers making a real difference for troops every day. And a lot of it is personal. I don’t know how many people want to hug the Dept. of Defense, but when it’s a Combat Medic named Joshua, a Chaplain named Tom, a Sailor named Megan, or a Marine named Roberto, it’s different.

A Soldiers’ Angel takes care of the troop they adopt and when they need more help or have a special project, they put the request out to the group. I’m one of many, many people that would answer those kinds of requests. But not now. It’s packing time! That is, until I found the one holiday card I had left, a pop-up. Why pack it?  I’ll go on the SA site and read one card request. Just one.

Request from an Air Force wife

My husband is in need of some holiday cheer. This has been a very difficult deployment on him and our 3-year-old son.  He’s been really down and our son is having a hard time with Daddy being gone for so long. Usually when DH calls, our son refuses to talk to him. So I broke down the other day and bribed my child with ice cream to talk on the phone. The first words out of his young mouth were, “Daddy come home now!”  When my husband tried to explain that he couldn’t come home yet, our son just kept telling him he had to come today, come home now. It broke my husband’s heart. So I am trying to get him some Holiday Cards as a surprise! I know they have some new young Airman as well. I don’t know their names, but if you are interested in including a few cards, he could pass them out. There are probably 10 people no one is writing to.  Anything would be amazing and wonderful. Thank you!

Damn. Another one, straight to the heart. And the mailing deadline was the next day. I put down the bubble wrap, put on my coat and ran out and got a box of holiday cards (for the 10 young airmen no one was writing to) and a Santa hat for her husband to wear when he delivered them. Being me, I had to write something different in each card and if you think being a writer makes that easier or quicker, you’d be wrong. But even with the packing delay, my boxes and the cards were out the door the next morning.

holiday greeting card for a deployed Airman

This pop-up card interrupted my packing.

The following January my new mailbox was graced with a letter from the Airman. He sent it to all those that had responded to his wife’s request.  It said in part:

I would like to thank all of you for your abundance of support this holiday season! I have received so many Christmas cards and care packages from all of you, I really don’t know what to say other than Thank You. I am truly humbled. A lot of what we do is highly political and it’s hard to keep the big picture in mind as day-to-day events unfold. This tends to make the military a thankless job most of the time. It’s nice to know that there are so many of you out there who are letting the “boots on the ground” know that you care. A lot of things from the care packages I brought into work with me and shared with everyone. Many of you had sent an extra 10 cards for me to pass out, those Airmen were surprised to get so many!  Some of the cards and care package items I took over to the USO at the aero medical staging facility that transfers our sick and wounded. They were very appreciative.  Once again, THANK YOU so much for everything.

When I think of this Airman making every delivery and how many people he happily surprised, I can’t help but smile. It feels good to know I had a small part in it.

A few wishes

Along with joy and peace this holiday, I wish everyone random acts of kindness.  Because whether giving or receiving, it’s a simple way to build each other up. To feel the warmth of home, wherever you are. And that is a wonderful gift.

© Gina left the mall, 2012

All He Wanted Was A Little Dress

This deployed soldier in Afghanistan didn’t ask for anything for himself. However, “J” had a special request for the Soldiers’ Angel who had adopted him. His Angel was a lovely woman who shared it through the Soldiers’ Angels forum. I’m a member so that’s how it got on my radar.

His request

I need some help. The local kids are dirt poor (and when I say dirt poor, I mean these girls have 3 sets of clothing and NO shoes at all.) They live in a mud hut. They have to beg for water. They eat fruit stolen from the local orchards and bread that the mother makes somehow. The older girl smiles when I ask her name and I told her I would like to get some shoes and clothes for her.  Her name is _____ and her little sister is _____. They are 6 and 2 1/2.  Figure if we can help the kids, maybe the parents will be more receptive to US soldiers helping the community with building wells for clean water, improving streets, getting trash and pollution out of here. I hope that through the children’s smiles, they will melt the hearts of the adults and there, we will win the war through peace and charity.

My daughter Sofia was 6 then and this request melted my heart. I said I’d be happy to help and was told the dresses should be modest, conservative and ideally long-sleeved because it was getting cold.

Sparkle City

I went immediately to Sofia’s closet to pull out “hand-me-downs” that were in great shape. The only problem was her style at that time was Opposite of Plain. She loved sparkles, sequins, “jewels,” any form of bedazzlement. And her favorite color? Rainbow. That’s what she would say. She loved all colors… often on the same exciting garment which could then be paired with an equally exciting garment of unrelated pattern. It was slim pickin’s in Sparkle City but I did find a few things including the dress below. Then I went out and got a few new ones.

Little girl dress

The mission

I’m sure when J deployed that nowhere in any of his mission briefings was there a section on “fighting” war with toddler and size 6 dresses. Nor are these items standard issue Army equipment. But many times I’ve seen requests or heard stories of troops trying to make things better for the people around them and in ways that go beyond their training. I think it’s because the men and women who raise their hand to serve, are often the first to volunteer at home when help is needed. From food drives and clothing drives to disaster aid. It’s part of who they are. I love that J took action this way. He was doing what he could in his little corner of Afghanistan. And from random corners across the U.S. he was getting help from an army of Angels, each of us doing what we could too.

© Gina left the mall, 2012

Coffee And A Serving Of Perspective

What can you get for one $2 cup of coffee? How about a new perspective? This happened when I bought a soldier a cup of coffee through Cup of Joe. In a post about the program, I included my message that went with the coffee and his reply. It was this soldier that gave me a new outlook.

Dear Soldier,  A cup of coffee is pretty small to be a present. So what I really want to give you for Christmas is the certainty that you are not forgotten. And to know how grateful I am for your service. I’m from NYC and whether my day is crazy good or bad, I get to live it in peace. Your hard work and sacrifice gives me that gift. Thank you for all you do. I wish you a merry, happy and safe holiday. Gina

Thank you so much Gina. It is Christmas Eve and guess what? You are the first person to give me a present 🙂 And a cup of coffee is NOT too small to be a present. It is just fine. My name is SFC _____ and I’ve been in Afghanistan for almost 7 months. I have seen some things I hope to forget but I have some things I hope I never forget. As it is Christmas Eve I am just trying to be thankful to have a place like the U.S. to go back to with nice people like you who care enough to give me a cup of coffee. 🙂 Thanks again, ____

I’ll call this soldier “Gibbs” for reasons that will soon become clear.

The question

Gibbs and I became pen pals. It’s not always easy to think of things to write to a stranger. So I’d ask questions. Most people love animals so I’d ask about pets. Or, “did you ever break a bone?” Often, there is some funny childhood mishap involved. One time I asked Gibbs what his most incredible experience in the Army was. What was his favorite memory?

My stealth motive for asking that was to boost his morale. I figured recalling some positive experiences would be…..positive. I didn’t expect the stunning answer I received in return. It was emotionally powerful and the imagery he used… well, I felt like I was there. After I told him how amazing it was, I suggested he print out what he wrote and save it for his kids.

GIBBS:  No. I don’t want to share it. In fact, I’ve never shared that with anyone before.

ME:  Why?

GIBBS: No one ever asked me that question before. Besides, I don’t want to glamorize war. I went to war so my kids and your Sofia won’t have to. No war for them.

ME:  Understood. Big fan of peace. But what about when your kids are grown so they can know you better? You told me your dad was a Vietnam Vet. Is this story the kind of thing you wish you knew about him?

GIBBS:  Yeah. I wish I would’ve known.

ME:  So you’ll save it for them.

GIBBS:  No.

ME:  Well, what about the Library of Congress? I think you can do it anonymously. They are collecting soldier stories.

GIBBS:  Gina, you have to understand, in my real world I don’t talk a lot. With you…you’re not going run into anyone I know so, it’s okay. Nothing is going to bite me in the ass.  But in real life, I’m like Gibbs (from the TV show NCIS.)

ME:  Okay, so the one person you shared this incredibly moving story with is a total stranger you will never meet in real life?

GIBBS: Yes.

As a woman, a mom, and a writer (I’m in a communications field!) this made me crazy. But it’s not about me, is it? This is about letting him chat or vent and just being supportive. So I dropped it. Knowing how much his privacy meant, I deleted the email. And I’ve never repeated what he told me. But his story is an indelible memory that I have the honor of carrying. In my heart, I hope he did share it with someone in his real world. Because I think he is worth knowing and I’m rooting for him in every way.

Payback

Along with the coffee and emails, I sent him a few care packages. One was “dinner and a show.” That consisted of 1 can of soup, some candy for dessert and a DVD of his favorite TV show, NCIS. I admit the DVD was more money than I normally spend on a care package. But they had some bad days and I knew he’d really like it so, I sent it. As his deployment drew to a close, he told me he wanted to pay me back for the DVD. I told him if he sent me money I would hunt him down and “put the hurt on him.”

GIBBS:  Lol…Okay, if you won’t take money, what about this? What about my Unit patch that I’ve worn this whole deployment? It’s been through a lot and I’d like you to have it.

ME:  Don’t you want to save that for someone in your real world?

GIBBS:  I would like you to have it because you were the one who was here with me.

ME:  Tell you what, I will accept it and hold it for you. If you ever change your mind you can have it back.

When it arrived I held it and thought, of all the places this patch has been, the most unlikely is probably the palm of my hand in my little corner of Manhattan. I decided to carry it in my wallet and use it as a “perspective check.” When I have one of those days where I get caught up by the small annoyances, a bad commute, someone rude in the checkout line…what have you, I can look at it and remember. I remember there are worse things and places. I remember to be grateful for the good in my life. And when I face the big challenges, I can look at it then too. I look at it and remember to have courage. Because I am holding proof right there in my hand that difficult times can be overcome. And I got all that with one $2 cup of coffee.

Unit Patch  "Big Red 1"

© Gina left the mall, 2012

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