4 Lovely Surprises

The package in my mailbox had a return address in the Middle East. It was from Drew*, my adopted Airman. I wasn’t expecting to hear from him. Well, no volunteer expects anything. You do it to be supportive as our troops do a difficult, dangerous job for long hours far from home. Some troops wish to connect and have access to do so, others do not. Whatever they want is fine. And up to then, Drew had not been in contact.

However there—squeezed in amongst the relentless Christmas catalogs that kept coming while we were away at Grandma’s for the holidays—was Drew’s mail. Lovely surprise #1.

Inside the package was a beautiful letter thanking me and my daughter Sofia for our support. We were really touched. Especially when we learned how much he loved the postcards. Sofia had sent him 19  (with one word each) and they were all scenes of New York City.  It turns out that Drew is also from New York Ctiy! We had no idea we were sending him little pieces of his hometown. Lovely surprise #2.

“I hope you find a place for this in your home”

Yes Drew, there is a place in our home for your kind gift. And a place in our hearts for you, your family and all that you do.

Souvenir art from deployed troop

He said it was a small token of his appreciation. But there was nothing small about the smile it gave us.

Surprise #4

I don’t know if Drew will get the letter I sent on New Year’s. Or the one I am sending to thank him for this. Why? He is going home sooner than I expected. And that’s the best surprise of all.

*name changed for privacy

© Gina left the mall, 2016

Coffee That Stays Warm for Four Years

He wrote, “I have no idea how we met.” Turns out that Alex* was looking through old emails and found some of ours. So he wanted to wish me a Happy Thanksgiving. I admit, I wasn’t sure either. So I did some digging and found out that I had sent him a cup of coffee when he was deployed through Cup of Joe in November. That would be November 2011.

I’ve “met” a lot of wonderful people through this program and even become good friends with a few. In fact, one of them has helped me tremendously and generously with this blog. He’s one of my go-to people for understanding and writing about PTSD. There are others I have bothered for help in different areas. All of them have been very giving with their time because they know I want to make sure what I share rings true.

So I thought that serving more of this special coffee would be a great way to pre-game today’s holiday meal.

What I wrote

Dear Servicemember,

Today is Thanksgiving and you are definitely on the list of people my family is grateful for. Thank you for all you do! Today is also my daughter Sofia’s 11th birthday. Because it always falls near or on the holiday, there’s always birthday cake. So when she was little she’d get confused and wish anyone she met a, “Happy Thanksgiving Day To You” to the tune of the Birthday song. When she was 3, we took her to the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. She asked if it was all for her birthday. Her Grandpa said, “Yes!” Lol, I said “Great. Now her parties are all downhill from here.” Well, I hope this coffee and note helps make your day a bit brighter. That, and knowing you are never forgotten.

Sincerely, Gina

How to serve

If you’d like to serve some of this amazing coffee yourself, go to Cup of Joe. I’ve spoken of them often, but the short version is: for $2 you can send a cup of coffee with a personal note to a deployed servicemember and there’s an option to be pen pals if you both want to. You can send as many as you want, or simply one.

Deployed troops enjoying Cup of Joe

Deployed troops enjoying Cup of Joe (photo credit: Green Beans Coffee, COJ)

And from my family to yours, we wish you a very Happy Thanksgiving!

*name changed for privacy

© Gina left the mall, 2015

Vets Capture War In Six Words

What if I asked you to tell me about a major experience in your life with just six words? Good, bad, ugly, funny, whatever, but you only get six words to do it. That challenge is what two vets, Mike Nemeth and Shaun Wheelwright, asked of their brothers and sisters in arms who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan. They asked them to describe what they’ve been through in six-word essays. The finished result will be the first crowd-sourced memoir about these conflicts called Six Word War.

Nemeth and Wheelwright did not invent the six-word essay. A famous example is attributed to Hemingway, “For sale: Baby shoes, never worn.” But Six Word War expands on this idea by collecting the voices and viewpoints of many. Together, they tell a story that no single one could capture on their own. Some vets sign their essays. Some are anonymous. Here are some examples:

I am tired of the goodbyes. 

Mom, can’t chat now. Rockets incoming. 

Deployed three years, but for what?

Boredom, Boredom, Sheer Terror, Boredom, Boredom. 

Where did I leave my pants?

Air so bad. Filter cigarette’s healthy.

Sometimes I wish I was back.

Stories untold

When I came across Six Word War, I couldn’t help but think of some of the stories troops have told me. Especially the one I couldn’t convince a soldier to share in his real world. Maybe six words would be big enough for him to have a voice and small enough to not make him feel exposed.

I also think about the soldier who helped me understand PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) None of his buddies wanted to talk about the subject. So he described his own PTSD and it was a painful experience for him. But afterwards, I’m happy to say that he found it helpful to open up a little. I wonder if other vets who struggle with their story would find it healing to share it in six words. The brevity forces you to focus. And again, maybe it’s small enough to not feel completely vulnerable or raw.

Submissions and possibilities

The Six Word War Kickstarter campaign has been funded (I participated) but they are still taking essay submissions for the next few weeks at the Six Word War site. If you know a vet, please share this with them. Give them a chance to be part of it. If you are vet, please consider doing this. Be heard.

Six Word War

I hope the book becomes wildly successful. Because one possible result would be greater understanding between civilians and military. At some point, all of these thousands of men and woman who have been through this unique experience return to civilian life. How much better will we all be with a little shared knowledge and empathy?

I also wonder about a possible “companion book” from the family’s point of view. What six words would a military spouse have? How about a ten-year-old boy who’s Dad has deployed for half his life? Military parents? Or any loved one who has held their breath when the evening news came on.

Imagine the conversations that could begin with just six words.

© Gina left the mall, 2013

Apparently, You Can’t Reenlist In A Latrine

You’re in a combat zone and your enlistment is up. Exit Strategy? Nope, a chance for dedicated professionals to raise their hand once again. And while I’m sure each ceremony is very moving, the ones I’m familiar with also include a slightly different emotion. All the troops I’ve “met” have a pretty healthy sense of humor. If you’ve seen the troops imitating cheerleaders’ Call Me Maybe video, you know what I mean.

One of my soldiers in Afghanistan sent me this picture of himself and a few buddies sharing a special moment in the Pesh River. He told me a favorite reenlistment locale for his unit was standing on top of the Battalion Commander’s desk.

Taking the oath in the Pesh River (I blurred faces for privacy)

Taking the oath in the Pesh River (I blurred faces for privacy)

Keeping with the water theme, here’s one I found on YouTube for a Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class.

What would mom say?

Sgt. Brown* (name changed for privacy) was in Iraq and thinking about whether or not to reenlist. I asked him what his parents thought and he said his Dad was for it. Then he shared that his Mom had died when he was a boy and he missed her very much. I told him that if he ever wanted an Official Mom Opinion, I could hook him up. I told him those opinions and the ability to write excuse notes were powers bestowed in the maternity ward. I didn’t expect him to say, “yes, I’d like that very much.”

I was kidding around to brighten his mood. This is a serious thing, how do I answer? Especially when I have a little girl that I wish I could swathe in bubble wrap and never let out my sight? (Attn: Child Services, no bubble-swathing has occurred) I wanted to do right by this fellow mom I never met and be supportive of her son. So this is what I said,

“If you reenlist, I will not get one good night’s sleep until your boots are safely back on American soil. But what is also true, is that I am so proud of the man you have become. So what I want you to do is this: follow what’s in your heart. If that’s the Army, then that’s what I want you to do. But if you’re done, I want you to come home now. Don’t feel guilty about leaving your buddies. Don’t worry about the economy. I will be there for you and help you figure out what’s next. Just promise me you’ll be honest with yourself. That’s what I want you to do.”

He thanked me and continued to think about it. Finally, he decided he wanted to reenlist. The officer in charge asked him where he’d like to do it. Sgt. Brown said, “the latrine.” That idea was overruled. I laughed and told him it was probably against regulations.

We would’ve done it

I spoke to my Pesh River soldier about the latrine locale and he said, “Our unit would’ve done it. They would’ve wondered why you’d want that, but…sure.” Apparently, you can raise your hand more ways than I thought, and even cause a few smiles along the way.

© Gina left the mall, 2013

Finding The Beautiful Parts

C-130 in Afghanistan, snow-capped mountains

A soldier wrote to me about the snow-capped mountains in Afghanistan, “it’s too bad we don’t get along, I would love to snowboard there.” Another spoke of a local shopkeeper who served him tea while hand-carving a box he was buying. Yet another told me about a warm encounter in a bread factory in Kabul. These sound like very little things but they made me happy. I was glad that even in a combat zone, these troops still noticed the beautiful parts, whether in nature or simple human connections with strangers.

With all that we know about PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and the real threat strangers can pose, I think retaining the ability to find the beauty around you is important.

Hand-carved box made in Afghanistan

Hand-carved box made in Afghanistan.

Kabul bread factory

This is a story Col. Mike, one of my Cup of Joe soldiers, shared with me:

We inspected a bread factory in Kabul where they make all the bread for the police in the city. The bread factory is in a huge building that was built by the Russians over 35 years ago. They have 5 giant ovens and machinery that mixes the dough. Machinery inside a bread factory in KabulWhen I walked into the bread factory, there were the usual flies and there are birds that fly in through the broken windows pecking at the fresh baked bread! The women who were working there told me about how they wrap their hair with a scarf so their hair doesn’t get in the dough. I told them that I didn’t have that problem and they had a good laugh over that!

The workers shape the bread into different forms, some is flat, others are in loaves and they also make a sweet bread that is my favorite! All the bread tastes great and is a main part of every meal. Most of the workers are women and were very friendly. They were really proud of their work and kept asking me to sample the different types of bread. After every bite, I’d say “Xhoob as!” (That’s good!) and they would just get the biggest smiles on their faces!  When I tried the sweet bread, I said “Beeseyahr xhoob as!!” (That’s very good!)  I think they were just happy to get visitors. Unfortunately, the place was pretty run down and showed the years of use, and the strains of the turmoil over the last 30 years. But in spite of all that, they still made some of the best bread I’ve ever tasted!

Fresh baked bread in a  Kabul bread factory

In spite of all that…

In spite of all that, there are still moments of warmth to be shared and natural wonders to be appreciated. These things may be a small defense against disconnecting and feeling numb from the bigger and more dangerous moments. But as long as these troops are still noticing and connecting, that makes me feel like they’re going to be okay. And that’s a beautiful thing.

Travel Challenge: 1-year business trip, 2 bags.

Think of your job and what you need to do it. Now imagine going away for a one-year business trip and fitting your essential work items in two bags (similar to the one below.) In this challenge, you may or may not have electricity, running water or a bed at your destination. You could be in one locale or constantly on the move. And people may be shooting at you so, bring body armor. But pack light.

empty travel bag before deployment

Troops have to carry the essentials for their particular mission with them. Then try to squeeze in some personal items. Depending on their job, they have to carry it on their backs. And while the luggage rules may vary, space is severely limited. I looked at this travel challenge and thought, what are my bare essentials? Could I do a business trip this way? Here’s my list:

Laptop

Wi-Fi

Coffee maker

Electricity for laptop and coffee maker, coffee supplies. I can use powdered creamer if I need to “rough it” so no need for a mini-fridge to store milk. However, bringing my own electricity may prove harder to solve than the milk issue. So too the Wi-Fi.

Desk and chair. I wasn’t going to add these two items, but I have carpal tunnel and if have to sit and write in a weird position for a year, I’d come back looking like one of the dancing zombies in the Thriller video. I remember some Marines I wrote to were setting up an outpost in a remote locale and their furniture didn’t arrive. So they broke down the wooden crates that other supplies arrived in and made tables and benches.

Clothes  Our troops don’t have a lot of angst over what to wear each day. “Hmm, camo or…the camo?” This makes things easy but also caused one troop I know to lose all civilian fashion sense. I did my part and saved him from some unfortunate holiday sweaters. But while deployed, most service members don’t bring a large selection beyond a few uniforms (both work and physical training.) So I guess I could live rotating just a few things for a year.

Of course I couldn’t take my most essential, essential, my daughter Sofia. Loved ones are only carried in the heart and mind. But when I try to imagine being separated from her for a year, my heart aches.

Bouncy balls and Tinkerbell

I’ve often sent toys in care packages, just hoping to make someone smile. Rubber bouncy balls have been a hit. Apparently they are fun for games of surprise dodgeball. I found out that Dan* (name changed for privacy) carried the ones I sent him in his combat assault pack “for luck” for his entire deployment. Even after he got home, he never removed them.

Dan also carried something Sofia sent. I was making a care package for him when Sofia ran to her room and came back with a set of Tinkerbell magic markers. She put them in the box. I looked up and she said, “He needs these!” She was very certain about this so, off they went. It seems she was right because Dan replaced the black marker he used for work with the Tinkerbell one. Whenever he would use it, other guys would start to make fun of him and he’d say, “a little girl named Sofia in New York City sent me this marker.” Then everyone thought that marker was pretty cool.

What we carry with us

Both the bouncy balls and the Tinkerbell marker tell me something about what is truly essential in any journey: love and support. Those are the real items we should never leave home without.

 

© Gina left the mall, 2013

Long-Distance Rescue

Jack was 4 and did not want to speak to his deployed dad on the phone. No matter how hard his mom tried. His dad, Andrew* (*name changed for privacy) was one of the troops I was writing to in Afghanistan. His son’s silence was breaking his heart. I tried to help. First with words, then with action. Action worked better.

Steal a helicopter

I’m not a child psychologist, but I am a mom. I shared my mom-guess that Jack’s reaction was normal. “Rejecting” a phone call is a way to have control in a situation where he was otherwise powerless. Especially since Jack had clearly told his dad to, “steal a helicopter and come home now!” When his dad did not comply, what else was there to say? I told Andrew, “it’s not that your son doesn’t love you… his anger is because he loves you so much.”

Also, this little boy did not live in a military community so, there weren’t other kids in the same boat. Everyone else had their dads. Where was his? You can’t hug National Security. That whole idea doesn’t mean much to a preschooler. My pen pal thought this all made sense but it didn’t help his mood.

Closer to home

I thought Andrew would feel better as he got closer to going home. I was wrong. It’s almost like time slowed down for him. Me brightly saying, “hey, you’re one day closer!” did not lift his spirits.

I wanted to have some positive effect on this Serviceman. But how? Nothing short of being with his boy was going to cut it. Or maybe… I could do something that would make his son smile. If I could do that, I knew Andrew would be thrilled. Whether that thrill lasted a day or just a few minutes, it would be time spent less stressed.

Action

Okay, so what could I do for Jack, a child that I do not know at all?  Wait, that’s not exactly true…I knew his Halloween costume was Ironman. His favorite blanket is blue, named “Blue.” His favorite stuffed animal is “Kitty.” Kitty has been repaired so many times that Jack’s mom feared that one day, there would be nothing left to sew. And I knew that Jack absolutely L-O-V-E-S fire trucks and firefighters.

I was also well aware that I live in the same city as one of the most amazing Fire Departments on the planet, the FDNY. Who better to help me rescue Andrew’s sinking morale? So I reached out to Engine Company 8, Ladder 2 in Midtown Manhattan. Could they help this troop connect with his son? Hold some signs? Surprise a little boy that these real official firefighters in NYC “knew” him and cared about him? The FDNY Lieutenant I spoke to said they would be more than happy to.

When I got to the firehouse, they were out on a call but a firefighter in the office asked me to please stay close by. When I came back again, the Lieutenant gathered his men and asked me to tell them about Andrew and Jack. This family they didn’t know mattered to them. They extended an invitation to Jack to visit any time. I was only there a few minutes but I was very touched by their genuine kindness. I had tears in my eyes when I took this picture.

FDNY helps deployed troop by saying hi to his little boy

FDNY Engine Co. 8, Ladder 2

Sending a lifeline

Andrew was so excited when he received this picture!! He immediately sent it to Jack’s mom, and to the grandparents and other family members and a thank you note to the firemen and, and, and… I could feel his energy when he wrote me about all of this. More importantly, I could feel his happiness when he told me that Jack thought the picture was “awesome.” They had spoken about it on the phone.

© Gina left the mall, 2013