Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

glass of whiskey

The military has its own culture. I quickly learned that like any self-respecting culture, it has its own language. Upon first hearing it, you may wonder, “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot?” Which, of course, stands for the letters “W-T-F” in the Nato Phonetic Alphabet. I found that understanding this language meant embracing acronyms. They are everywhere in the military, like the linguistic version of camouflage. After all, it was the U.S. Army that gave the world ASAP. Which is how we all know when things are due at the office.

Nato Phonetic Alphabet

Nato Phonetic Alphabet

Not every acronym is issued by the Dept. of Defense. Humor happens. All the troops I’ve “met” have made me laugh at one point or another. Like when I found out that BCG = Birth Control Glasses. These are the standard-issue eyeglasses which are considered to be so unstylish that they make the wearer attractive to no one.

I asked one of my soldiers, Col. Mike, to help me become more fluent. So he described his deployment (Nato phonetically speaking) as: Sierra Hotel which means in this case, Sh*t Hot. Then he gave me a sample paragraph. If you are very sensitive, I should warn you that “f-bombs” are dropped in combat and censored ones in the following section.

Acronyms in action

Below is a sample followed by the translation.

When I was in the AOR, I was a CA with NTM-A, CSTC-A working at the MOI in Kabul advising the ANP as part of the ANSF. We worked to establish LOCs and LOLS by building a RSC in each region and a PSP in each province. I wasn’t the HMFIC just a FNG but it didn’t take much of a SWAG to figure that TARFU! But I figured since I was already there, FIDO and do the best I can. BOHICA some things never change!

AOR– Area Of Responsibility (Afghanistan) ; CA– Combat Advisor; NTM-A – NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan; CSTC-A– Combined Security Transition Command-Afghanistan; MOI-Ministry Of Interior; ANP– Afghan National Police; ANSF– Afghan National Security Forces; LOC– Lines Of Communication; LOLS– Lines Of Logistics Support; RSC– Regional Support Center; PSP– Provincial Supply Point; HMFIC- Head Mother F—er In Charge; FNG– F—ing New Guy; SWAG– Scientific Wild A– Guess; TARFU– Things Are Really F—ed Up; FIDO– F— It, Drive On; BOHICA– Bend Over Here It Comes Again

For pen pals

Luckily, how troops speak is not how they write to civilian pen pals. For me, language questions have fallen into two areas. The first is their deployed addresses, which often resemble bad Scrabble hands. The other is when acronyms or terms sneak into the conversation. That’s how I learned things like DFAC = dining facility (pronounced D-FAK.) and that v/r at the end of a letter means “very respectfully.”  Below are a few of my favorites.

Soup sandwich = someone or something that is as useless or difficult as a soup sandwich.

Off Base Commander = spouse or significant other.

FM = f–ing magic. As in, “it runs on FM.” Used when the real answer is too long or difficult for the questioner to understand and would be a waste of time to explain.

As with most languages, there are dialects. I read a helpful post from my friends at Buoyed Up about some Navy terms. I was trying to find master lists for the all the branches, but only found partial ones. And quite a few slang sites. However, there is a Joint Forces dictionary you can search. Or read. But as is usually the case, it’s easier to learn when you converse with a real person.

A few words about transition

After years of saying, “roger that” when someone tells you something, is it hard to go back to saying “okay” or “I understand?” Or to switch from “Bravo Zulu” back to “well done?” Does it take effort to lose the rhythm and cadence of short direct bursts when sharing something important?  When our troops go back to being civilians, the transition is physical, emotional, mental, financial…I wondered if verbal was also on the transitional to-do list.

So I asked one of my soldiers how he felt. He had left the Army in ’03 when he was wounded and came back in ’08 when he got his medical waivers. During his time out, he had a lot to deal with. But he said one of the hardest parts was learning how to talk to civilians again. “My mouth almost got me in trouble because I was used to speaking a certain way.” I’m not sure if all troops find it as challenging. But if they do, I hope they also find civilians who can speak from the heart and say, “I’ve got your 6.” Which means, of course, “I’ve got your back.”

© Gina left the mall, 2013

A World Away From Walmart

I think the sign on this store in Afghanistan is either humor or some shopkeeper’s overly generous view of his inventory level.

Walmart sign hung on a store in Afghanistan.

A shop in Afghanistan. Not really a Walmart. (Soldier pointing to sign is blurred for privacy.)

Of course, nobody goes to a combat zone for the shopping. But if there were more of a selection, requests wouldn’t have gone out for Matchbox cars, a year’s worth of Hallmark moments and children’s books. All three were different ways that troops tried to feel more connected to home. All three requests came via Soldiers’ Angels who were doing their best to help the troops they adopted in every way they could.

Matchbox contest

Two Airmen were having a friendly contest to see who could get more Matchbox cars. One of them wanted to take pictures of the cars around the base to email to his 4-year-old son and then ship the cars home. This way his son could see where Daddy worked and hold the cars that were there in his hands. Both troops started receiving these small vehicles. However, the Airman with the little boy had been adopted by a Soldiers’ Angel. He happened to mention the contest to her. As a surprise, she put the request out to the group (I am a member) and he received cars and encouraging letters from all across the country. The ones I sent are below. Technically, the NYPD and FDNY are not Matchbox but, I thought his son might like them.

Matchbox cars and note to deployed troop for his care package

(name blurred for privacy)

This Airman was moved by the outpouring of support for both himself and his son. Even his buddy enjoyed seeing how much people cared.

Happy “______” Day

A Soldier with two pre-teen girls wanted to be able to send them cards on every holiday. He always did this at home and wanted to keep that up while he was gone. Creating or keeping small rituals can help people feel closer. However, stationery stores aren’t easy to find. So his Angel put the word out.

Now you may be wondering what happens if he gets more than he needs? The thing is, troops share. They share with each other and, if the items can be used by the local orphanages or the community, they share there as well. In fact, many troops donate time, effort and goods to those in need. One of my readers, blogger and Soldier Jenny O, is among them.

Cat In The (camouflage) Hat

Why would troops need children’s books? Because they wanted to read to their children at night over skype.  Or to record themselves and send it home. It’s another one of those little rituals that mean even more if you are separated. To be able to maintain it is something special for both parent and child. So I purged my daughter Sofia’s bookshelf and then got a few new ones too. That night when we had storytime I had tears in my eyes and an ache in my heart. Other families were trying hard to have that very moment.  I didn’t want to take it for granted. After all, it’s one of those you can’t buy in a store. No matter what the sign says.

© Gina left the mall, 2013

“Dear Jane Letter” And The Gnomes

A female Sailor I was pen pals with received a care package from her boyfriend. Inside she discovered the keys to her truck. That’s how he broke up with her. By mailing her keys to a combat zone. She had to mail them back to a friend so they could retrieve her truck- from his driveway. She decided not to attempt to reconcile with him. I was very supportive of that idea.

Deployment can strain any relationship. And shaky ones are not made stronger by it. After all, if long dangerous separations were romance-builders, everyone would do it.

PERSON IN LOVE 1: Baby, I think we’re ready for the next step.

PERSON IN LOVE 2: Gasp!  You mean…

PERSON IN LOVE 1:  Yes, see you next year.

PERSON IN LOVE 2:  Awesome! I’ll handle everything solo. You try not to get shot.

SFX (sound effects) :  KISS

The effects of deployment extend beyond romantic relationships. They impact the entire family. Especially children. All kids are different but all miss their mom or dad. You can get a sense for what a young child goes through here. An Airman told me that his 3-year-old son was angry with him for not doing what the boy instructed. He kept saying, “Daddy, just steal a helicopter and come home!”

And then there are gnomes

I have heard and read so many stories about “deployment gnomes.” How everything goes wrong the minute troops leave. The boiler breaks. The engine fails. The plague arrives. Sometimes all on the same day. These gnomes can cause the person at home to feel even more stressed and on their own.

You know how there are sounds that only dogs can hear? I think there’s one that only appliances, vehicles and small children can hear. When a plane full of troops takes off, I think it emits a sound that alerts all devices and toddlers that now- NOW! is the time to have a meltdown.

DM C-130 takeoff

Just because you can’t see the gnomes or hear the signal, doesn’t mean they’re not there.

The cure for heartaches & gnomes is…

If I had the answer I’d be a millionaire. Love and appliances can be difficult in civilian life. Deployment takes it to a new level. But I think there are things that can help.

If you know a military family with a deployed loved one, please check in with them from time to time. If you can offer any help, being specific is better than a general, “hey if you ever need anything, let me know.” This way the person knows it’s a genuine offer versus just being polite. For example:

“I’m going to the supermarket, is there anything I can pick up for you?”

“I heard the kids were sick.  Do you need a hand?”

“We’re having movie night, why don’t you join us?

Or simply the occasional email saying they are in your thoughts. Showing concern is wonderful. However, if you see something bad in the news, don’t bring it up. Many families try not to watch the news or only want to discuss it AFTER they know for sure everything is okay.

Overall, both troops and their loved ones need to know that they are not forgotten. Will some relationships still end? Of course. Just like some washing machines were meant to die. But knowing you have people standing with you, rooting for you and just generally on your side…well, that’s when we all have our best chance to thrive. Gnomes be damned!

© Gina left the mall, 2013

Spiders And Everyday Battles

A deployed soldier sent me an email with the subject line, “look what I killed in my bunk this morning.” Knowing his sense of humor, I didn’t know what to expect. Turns out, it was this lovely baby camel spider.

baby camel spider

Photo courtesy of R.O., Soldier

When I saw it I thought, if National Security rested on my small shoulders we’d be doomed. I can just imagine the phone call…

THE PRESIDENT:  Gina, we need you to go on dangerous mission. The fate of the world is at stake.

ME:  Will there be spiders? Because that’s a deal-breaker.

Along with stealthy insects

I know troops must have courage, stamina and skills for their particular job. But I also learned about the everyday battles when they deploy. Along with stealthy insects, here are a few others:

1. Keeping clean and dry

This impacts health in a lot of ways. It’s easier to do if you’re on a base with running water versus living out of the back of a truck in the sweltering heat in some remote area.  But even on bases I’ve had troops whose tents and surrounding roads would flood for long periods. Then keeping their feet dry would be a challenge.

2. Breathing clean air

There’s a reason that living next door to an open burning trash pit is recommended by no one. Yet some troops endured this.

3. Keeping weight on

My adopted soldier K lost 50 lbs. during his deployment. Hiking with 100 lbs. of gear in 120 degree heat will do this for you.

4.  Ground Hog Day

This refers to the movie where Bill Murray is forced to relive the same day over and over.  Many troops have told me they feel this way.

 5. Company 24/7

Yes, there is special bond amongst the troops. But imagine never being alone. After a while you want a break. Many troops hang blankets on their bunks for privacy. One amazing Air Force Mom made this awesome curtain. I love the phone holder and other interior pockets. I think this is a “luxury suite” compared to the usual.

bunk curtain

Photo courtesy of Kathy, Air Force Mom

bunk curtain- interior

Note the pockets. As for the pillow, it was given to this Airman by his daughter when she was little. It then became a deployment tradition.  Photo courtesy of Kathy, Air Force Mom.

bunk curtain interior with lights

Photo courtesy of Kathy, Air Force Mom.

6. Morale

This is one of the most important everyday battles because it influences so much. It can affect focus and performance as well as stress, anxiety, depression, and PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder.)

A real break

A Vietnam Vet told me this:

When you’re a soldier, you’re always too hot, too cold, too wet or too dry. Maybe you’re sleeping in the dirt. Maybe you have a cot. But it hurts. It physically hurts to be uncomfortable for so long. Then mail call happens. And it’s like a break from your reality.  A letter lets you go someplace else. You read it and you’re transported to a whole other world. And a package…wow… and for those moments, you feel better in so many ways. You forget how much you hurt.

I think it’s amazing that a simple letter could have a positive impact both emotionally and physically. There are no bad side effects and each dose costs 46 cents. This may not stop spiders or keep boots dry, but it does help with battle #6, Morale. It seems that’s one we can fight together.

© Gina left the mall, 2013

When My Adopted Soldier And I Decided To Meet

They tell you contact usually ends when deployment ends. But I already had a few unusual things happen with my adopted soldier “K” so…why should this be any different? We started making plans for him, his wife and infant child to visit me in NYC. Both their friends and family and mine said, “What???” After all, we were strangers.

(At this point, I would like to suggest a detour for my readers with a loved one who is currently deployed. Perhaps the post where golf balls helped increase safety or how this all started. Why? Because parts of the following sections may be hard to read. And I’m a big fan of reducing stress.)

Most of the time

Most of the time our correspondence was light. I sent him a lot of funny stories about my daughter Sofia. But the events unfolding around him were anything but light. K was the first troop I ever got to know and he had one of the more difficult deployments of all the troops I’ve come to know. 10 days after I adopted him, they had a casualty. His unit had only been there a few weeks and this was not the first one. Then a nearby base was overrun and many lives lost. And so on. He would state these events simply, never going into detail.

At home, when I mentioned an attack, most people hadn’t heard of it. That felt very isolating. I felt like I was caring about somebody in a parallel universe. But I understood that people weren’t aware because I used to be one of them.

The worse things got, the more I wanted to do something to help protect him. I know that sounds crazy because he is a highly trained, very capable soldier and I am afraid of spiders. But I’m also a Mom so that protect-gene is hard to turn off.

Maybe I could do this

K told me that getting mail was like Christmas morning for them. I know that mail = better morale. Better morale can reduce stress, depression and anxiety. I thought, hey…If I could keep his morale up, maybe I could help him get home in better shape. Then I found out the Army has a soldier’s creed. So I made a “volunteer creed.”  I never told K because I wrote it for myself. I feel a little vulnerable sharing it but, I think it captures how I had come to feel.

I am my soldier’s soldier. My mission is to make sure he hears his name at every mail call for the duration of his deployment. To make him feel that the hard, dangerous job he does, the long stressful hours for days on end…is appreciated. To brighten his day if only for a few moments with a taste of home. To pray for his safe return. And to do this with no effort, thanks or consideration required on his part.  And no complaints or wavering on my part. I am my soldier’s soldier.  And I will never fail him.

He was in a remote base and mail arrived by convoy every two weeks. When you adopt, you send one care package a month and one letter a week. I doubled that to increase my chances of hitting both deliveries. Once he got a box much quicker than I expected. He explained that the convoys kept getting attacked so they started doing helicopter drops. Now mail came every 2-3 days.

ME:  That’s great!

ME ON THE INSIDE:  Uh oh.

How the heck was I going to make all those mail calls? Of course, it’s not like anyone knew that was my goal. A more sane person might just say forget it. Clearly, I am not that person. I decided to rely on the kindness of strangers.

Enlisting strangers

I started carrying around postcards. Especially when I travelled for work. If I were delayed at an airport I’d sit at the bar. After chatting with the bartender for a few minutes, I’d ask if he could do me a favor and say “hi” to my adopted soldier. Or if I were getting my nails done, I ask the girls around me.  After the initial surprise (you can adopt a soldier?) the answer was always yes. They felt good doing it. After they wrote a message, I’d address it (you keep addresses private) and drop in whatever mailbox in whatever town I was in.

His wife

Usually contact is with your soldier. But the Taliban kept shooting out their internet. So for the second half of his deployment, I had much more contact with his wife. That’s how I came to see the everyday impact on the family. She would share a “first” that baby Kyle did and I would realize, wow…another thing he missed and that she did solo.

One day she wrote that I might not hear from K for a while. And she wanted to let me know what was going on. His best friend, a fellow soldier deployed with him, had shot himself. The military calls this a Non-Combat Death. I don’t think this is an accurate description because I believe combat has a great deal to do with Army suicides.

I found out this soldier left behind a 3-yr-old son. I wrote a letter to the family.

K

I didn’t hear from him for a while but I got updates from his wife. Then he went on a mission for a few weeks where he had zero contact home. By the time he returned, he found a pile of mail on his bunk. There were packages from his wife and my daughter, plus a stack of mail from me and my army of strangers. Including a copy of the letter I sent his friend’s family. He appreciated it all. But the letter meant so very much to him. Maybe it’s why that day, we decided to meet in real life.

Visiting a total stranger sounded unusual to others. But the truth was, by that point, we didn’t feel like strangers at all.

New York City skyline

Where we planned to meet.

© Gina left the mall, 2013

Baby Monkey. Good Roommate?

There are pros and cons to living with a baby monkey. Most of them revolve around the inescapable facts of 1. baby and 2. monkey. This is something my adopted soldier, Staff Sergeant K and his platoon found out when they rescued and adopted one in Afghanistan.

Meet Joe the monkey

Joe. Baby monkey rescued and adopted by soldiers.

Joe

One of K’s men was on patrol when a villager threw a rock at a baby monkey. The rock struck its nose and injured him. After seeing this, the soldier bought the monkey and brought it back to their forward operating base so they could care for him.

injured baby monkey rescued by soldiers

You can see Joe’s injury here and why the soldiers rescued him.

They named him Joe and decided to adopt him. So that would be 24 soldiers, 1 monkey, no problem, right? Well, like many forms of life with the word “baby” in front of it,  Joe did not like to be alone. Or to sleep at night. Joe made this known to his human friends with the time-tested tactic of throwing tantrums. K told me that they had a meeting to work out the logistics. That made me smile. I pictured the normal agenda, sharing intel, upcoming missions and then…monkey-sitting duties.

Why I like Joe

It was good for Joe to get out of an abusive situation. But I think Joe was also good for the soldiers. I base this on my years of no psychological training. (This would be similar to my years of no medical school in A Healthy Cigar)

K and his men were in a remote area and they had many difficult days. They had limited contact with loved ones and few amenities. That also means they few distractions from their situation (one reason why mail call is such a morale boost.)  But here is a little innocent monkey they can care for. I think pets help you take the focus off yourself at times. In a stressful situation, that can actually reduce your stress. I did a quick search just now and WebMD has  27 Ways Pets Can Improve Your Health. Of course, none of them are about combat, but I believe the same principles and blood-pressure lowering benefits apply.

Roomies

K’s wife wrote me, “Did you hear about the monkey?” She was home with a newborn and my daughter was 4 then. We both suspected that baby anything was going to be more work than they expected. We laughed about the learning curve. But even if Joe kept them up, he made them laugh too. Joe was fun and affectionate and good to be around. What more can you ask of a roommate?

© Gina left the mall, 2012

Even The Storms Are Beige

sandstorm

sandstorm (Photo credit: bzo)

my marineMy Marine in the desert was tired of beige. The sand was beige. The tents, trucks, uniforms, even the storms, while tremendous to witness, were beige. When I asked him what he was missing, he said: color. Especially the green of nature. For a minute I thought about sending him a handful of grass and some fall leaves. Instead, I sent him 25 postcards of Central Park all at once (15 arrived on one day. The rest over the next year) He hung them up in his tent so they would be the first thing he saw every morning. I laughed at how excited he was to get them. He reminded me not to take the little things for granted. In fact, he asked me to notice and appreciate them for him. I promised I would. But every day is busy and after a while I noticed that I kept forgetting to notice. I felt bad about this unkept promise to a man I never met.

We “met” over coffee

My Marine, Gunnery Sergeant MZ, had signed up with Soldiers’ Angels to be adopted and was on the wait-list. Volunteers like me would send a letter or one-time care package to hold them over. I had sent him coffee and a mug and we wound up becoming pen pals. He was what some at Soldiers’ Angels would call my “unofficial.” That’s someone you support but not at the same commitment level of adoption which is one letter a week and one care package a month for the duration of deployment.

Little Is Big Day

To make up for my delay, I decided to appreciate as many little things as I could for a whole day. Here’s just the first two:

1. Hot shower

I usually turn on the water without thinking. But this morning as I paused to appreciate this act, a certain troop I helped came to mind:

“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 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 we are not out here alone.”

2. Waking my daughter up

This is usually a difficult task as my daughter is the U.S. Sleep Champion. And she only trains on schooldays. But this morning I thought of all my troops who were separated from their children. I remembered a female combat medic I wrote to with three kids. Her youngest was a little girl the same age as mine. They were both starting 1st grade. This combat medic would miss every wake-up struggle for the whole year and more. Then suddenly this difficult task felt like a gift. I get to do this in freedom and safety because other men and women are not doing it. This is part of what they sacrifice when they raise their hands to serve.

A promise kept

Little Is Big Day turned out to be very meaningful and sometimes emotional. But it helped me hit the reset button. So now even on busy days, I’ll take a moment to find a little something special around me. If you try Little Is Big Day, please let me know how it turned out. As for mine, I’ll tell you somewhere in an arid sea of beige, I made one Marine very happy.

© Gina left the mall, 2012