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

Combat Gumbo and The Sexy Lunch

Mountains near my adopted soldier's base in Afghanistan

combat outpost

my soldier’s combat outpost

Mario Batali is not hiding in these mountains. The Iron Chef does not deploy. So if you’re at a remote base like my adopted solider, you get creative if you want a break from Army issued MREs (meals ready to eat). That’s how I found out about a dish I call Combat Gumbo. As I supported more soldiers, I learned other tasty tidbits like how food and lots of “sex” can bring us one step closer to world peace. I now share this bounty with you.

MREs

This is food-to-go that has to withstand harsh conditions and have a long shelf life. The troops eating it need nutrition and energy. This is especially important if it’s 140 degrees out and you’re hiking in the mountains with 100 pounds of gear. My adopted soldier, Staff Sergeant K, lost 50 pounds during this deployment. And he did not start out overweight.

Taste-wise, I hear that you would never confuse an MRE with home cooking. However, the ingredients can often be used to add something new to your menu. Below are some MREs. If you’re first reaction is not “yum!” you will understand their culinary motivation. 

Army MRE cherry blueberry cobbler

cherry blueberry cobbler

Army MRE spaghetti

spaghetti with meat sauce

Gumbo

I once sent SSgt K a care package with 23 pounds of canned soup. (Yay for flat-rate boxes! One price no matter how much it weighs.) However, had I known he was going to use that soup as the base for a recipe, I wouldn’t have sent such a variety.  I can only imagine what they tasted like as he combined them in a large pot for shared meals.

“I would use the soup you sent me with saved up MRE rice packs and a chicken that we bought. I would also use V8 vegetable juice as a base and use goat, rice, and the seasonings that I saved from the MREs”.

He also tried this recipe with cow meat, potatoes and some other vegetables.

“The way we got all the ingredients was from a local Afghan kid with a donkey. We would pay him and then the next day he would show up with all the food and some chickens tied to the donkey.”      

I don’t have an image of the finished dish. Or the chicken-toting donkey. But here’s the prep. The black thing in SSgt K’s hand is a knife. Looking at this makes me want a grilled cheese sandwich…or pretty much any chicken-less dish. But when your options are severely limited and you’re tired of MREs, this is the beginning of a beautiful meal.

soldiers preparing "combat gumbo"

The Sexy Lunch

I met Colonel Mike through Cup of Joe (where you buy coffee for troops)  and I asked him about his favorite meal while deployed. This is what he shared:

“Two of the Afghan generals I work with threw a big farewell lunch for one of the majors who is leaving to go home soon. She had been here for a year and was very well liked and respected. After a big traditional lunch of lamb, rice, chicken and some of the best fruit I’ve ever tasted, it came time for the generals to say a few words and present some farewell gifts. My interpreter, Safi, was doing the translating. The generals stood up and gave some very nice speeches about how hard the major worked and how they all liked her. They kept wishing her very good success, that she has success when she gets home and that she has lots of success in her life. Safi has a little trouble with his “c” and “s” sounds so when it came time to translate what the generals had said, Safi said that they wished her very good sex, that she has sex when she gets home and has lots of sex in her life!  All the Americans started laughing but none of the Afghans could understand why we were all laughing so hard!!  They had a good laugh when it was explained to them!

This was one of those times when I could really appreciate the Afghans as a generous, kind people who are very social and warmhearted. I think we might have just made a very simple but powerful step forward just then while we were crowded in a small room sitting shoulder to shoulder enjoying a great meal and a great laugh!

US soldiers and Afghan soldiers sharing a meal together

The delicious care package

Mail reduces stress and improves morale for our deployed. I think a care package with food has it’s own special power. Think of how many memories occur around the table. Or how a favorite childhood snack can still make you smile. Food is simply one of the ways we show love and welcome new friends. It’s also how to give a total stranger, like your adopted soldier, a little taste of home.

© Gina left the mall, 2012

Beating The Odds

I didn’t meet SSgt. RD at a biker rally, elk hunt, gun club or Hooters restaurant. Mostly because I don’t ride, hunt, shoot or want that kind of burger combo. He didn’t meet me in any of my worlds either. Our paths crossed through Cup of Joe, where a civilian can buy a deployed troop a cup of coffee.

I appreciated his service. It meant something to him that I cared. Other than that, we had nothing in common. What are the chances we’d became good friends? Well, I learned that beating the odds was his theme. I learned other things too from “fun” animal facts to something very important. It’s knowledge that may make you want to take action at the end of this post.

Never ask about elk hunting

This should be number two on your list right after, “never cut the blue wire.” Apparently, procuring fresh elk-meat is more hands-on than my online grocery order. As RD described in detail the prepping and dividing of elk amongst the group of men gathered under a large tree, I had visions of an Amish hit squad.

“Gina, you eat hamburgers. Where do you think they come from?”

“My hamburgers are magically formed from cows who die a sudden, natural, painless death in a lush meadow while baby bunnies frolic nearby.”  

Why soldiers fight

When Osama bin Laden was killed, RD made a list of his fallen brothers and put a bottle of Jim Beam on the table. He wanted to do one shot for each buddy. He drained the bottle and passed out before he got halfway down the list.

Whenever RD walks through airport security he lights up like a Christmas tree from the four bullets that couldn’t be removed, the confetti of shrapnel plus the metal rods in his shoulder and spine.

This is a picture of the interior of a vehicle he was riding in. That hole was made by an enemy sniper. RD felt the air around the bullet as it flew just in front of his face.

Interior of MRAP vehicle my soldier was riding in when an enemy sniper's bullet hole.  It just missed him.

He also has PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). Once, after a difficult period, he begged his wife to leave him because he thought she could have a better life without him.  She refused.

One day I asked him why he puts his body, heart and mind through all this. Why does he fight?

“You have to understand….we don’t love war, we fight because we love what we left behind…  We do it for our wives and kids, for our friends and family and for their kids, we do it for the guys next to us and their wives and kids… we do it for you Gina.  It’s what’s behind us… is why we fight so hard.

The battle now

No troop I’ve met ever wants to talk about his medals. But I asked RD to please tell me. Among his awards are 2 Purple Hearts, 2 Bronze Stars, and 2 Army Commendations. Now this decorated and dedicated soldier is facing what may be his last battle. He may be forced to retire on medical grounds.

RD loves the Army. With passion and resilience he wants to use his hard-earned knowledge any way he can to benefit his brothers and sisters-in-arms. I don’t know what the odds are once you get to a medical review board. I know he’s doing all he can to continue to be allowed to make a difference as a soldier.

This post is my way of fighting for him. I know the chances are small that one civilian and some blog readers can sway the United States Army. If you would like to fight for RD too, if you want to keep brave soldiers with passion and resilience in our Army, please say so in the comments. As a taxpayer, if you don’t want all that hard-earned knowledge just walking out the door, leave a comment. This way he can share it with the review board. And maybe, just maybe, we can beat the odds together.

*UPDATE- Click here for the update to this story:  When Uncle Sam Breaks Up With You. I  posted on September 18, 2013. Yes, it took that long.

© Gina left the mall, 2012

“We had a rough week….”

Bad things happen in a combat zone. In my head, I knew that. But after adopting my soldier, I felt it more. My connection to him made the evening news feel personal. Or as my buddy Andy said, “now you have skin in the game.”

His Email

In the first 9 days after adopting my soldier, I learned:

He couldn’t wait to meet his baby boy, Kyle.

He is a sniper currently doing a Personal Security Detail.

He is in charge of 23 soldiers. He cares about them a lot.

He is a huge hockey fan.

He loves canned ravioli.

Day 10:

“……. this last week has been really tough here. Another platoon in our unit lost a guy when their truck was hit by a roadside bomb. The…….other guys in the truck were sent back to the states because of injuries. We have been here since mid June and this is the third person we have lost. It has been hard for most of my platoon since this is their first deployment and they have never been through anything like this before. “

His concern was for the fallen, the families and his fellow soldiers. My concern was for him as well.

This I Can Do

I can’t make world peace happen. I’m all for it, but I can’t make it just happen. However, I could do this- I could make sure he hears his name at every mail call. Give him 5 minutes where he’s reminded of his real world a world away. Where he knows that the sacrifice he and his family is making is appreciated. So I stepped up the letter writing and started sending a few more care packages.

Communication Blackout

sniper rifle on roof in combat zone

Six weeks later, I turn on the news and there’s been an attack. It sounded like the area my soldier was in. His emails stop. The e-silence in my inbox was profound. I found out that when someone is KIA, there is a communications blackout until the next of kin are notified. In this attack, eight U.S. troops were killed and 22 wounded. Here I am not knowing if my soldier is okay or not. I was worried. Then I thought, “I’m a stranger. What must his wife be feeling?”

I found out the attack occurred at a base about 15 minutes away from him. I said a prayer for those soldiers and their families. And I felt relief that my soldier was alright. There would be more days to get to know him.

© Gina left the mall, 2012