Fired Over Therapy Dog Request?

A disabled Veteran named Michael says that is exactly what happened when he asked his bosses if therapy dogs were allowed at work.

Michael served with my adopted soldier in the Army until he suffered a traumatic brain injury (TBI) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and was medically retired. Later, Michael was fortunate to find a job he greatly enjoyed in Texas at an energy-related company. He was upfront with his employers about his condition and what medications he was taking.

According to his wife, “Everyone wanted to keep Mike on their team because he was a hard worker and fast learner. He made top scores in his classes he took and LOVED his job. Our little family of 4 was settling in the civilian world.”

Things seemed to be going well. Then Michael’s therapist suggested he would benefit in social situations even more if he had a therapy dog. Michael asked his bosses if it were possible to bring a therapy dog to work with him. He did not have a therapy dog, but wanted to know if they were open to it.

Monday: Michael makes the inquiry. Says his higher-ups seemed intrigued—might be cool to have a dog around.

Thursday: One boss suggests that Michael quit. The impression Michael got was that management felt if he needed a service dog, he couldn’t be trusted at his job.

Friday: Michael was told to take a personal day and please bring in the truck so it can be refitted because we’re transferring you to another division.

Friday at 5:30pm:  Fired

Now if this Texas company had concerns that any employee were unfit for their job, those concerns should be addressed. However, when the week began, the reviews of Michael’s work were all positive.

Michael’s wife was understandably upset and reached out to my adopted soldier’s wife, Mrs. K. Then Mrs. K called me asking for advice about next steps. This problem is not in my normal realm of care package ideas and letters, but I tried to think of what I could do to help.

My first thoughts

My first thoughts were a jumble of: hire an attorney, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) may have some insights or know people who faced similar situations, maybe Team Allen knows a thing or two about disabled vet rights. Oh, and maybe they could reach out to leaders in the therapy dog community. Along with any local media or veteran groups in his area that can be an advocate for him.

Okay, that’s not exactly true. My first thoughts were really:

1. Wow.

2. Maybe this is why some troops don’t go for counseling after suffering traumas while serving—they’re worried about perception.

Now what?

Michael has hired a lawyer. Since law is not my area of expertise, I will turn to what I do know—the power and kindness of strangers. If you have any encouraging words or brilliant ideas for Michael and his family, you can leave them in the comments or email me here: gina@ginaleftthemall.com and I will forward. Michael and his wife have two little girls ages 3 and 5 and a whole new challenge in front of them right now.  At the very least, I hope to show them that they are not facing it alone.

dog collar

SEMI-UPDATE: The legal process is in motion and, for legal reasons, the details will not appear here. But when things resolve, I hope to report good news. Meanwhile, I wanted to share this note from Michael’s wife:

Michael was very humbled by the blog and all the comments. We have felt an outpouring of love and feel so grateful to have so many people care. 

© Gina left the mall, 2014

Coffee Can’t Cure Everything

When someone asks me about sending troops coffee, care packages, or letters, I share ideas that have worked or went horribly awry and should be avoided at all costs. Either way, I’m helping. When I’m asked to support troops in areas I’m not so familiar with, I do my best to refer the person to organizations, blogs, or anyone I think may help with forward motion. However, sometimes I get a question that’s just beyond my caffeinated or handwritten powers.

Catch-22

A young woman reached out to me. Her friend is in the reserves and their unit is being treated unfairly. Note that I do not identify the branch of service. Also note that “treated unfairly” is an incredible understatement and purposefully vague. Why? Because revealing details would be the opposite of help. (A) The troops love their unit and don’t want to publicly trash it (B) higher-ups would not take kindly to this and (C) “repercussions” are a reality on some level and why go there and make things worse?

So my first suggestion of, “write to a congressman” went out the window once the ABC’s were explained to me. Undaunted, I asked her, “who speaks for the reserves?” I wondered if there were some high-level person that was an advocate for these men and women. Maybe we could write to this person privately. She could not find anyone. Next thought: maybe fellow troops could advise. Let’s write a letter to Stars & Stripes describing the problem (without identifying the unit) and ask how current reservists or vets would handle the issue.

But describing details would help identify the unit plus make the young woman feel that she was betraying her friend’s confidences. I pointed out the conundrum:

How can anyone help if you don’t tell them what’s wrong? Even if we assume good faith, like it’s a bureaucratic red tape issue and not something purposefully or willfully wrong, there’s no way to find a solution without stating the problem. You can’t reach out to the Dept of Defense and say, “Something, somewhere, is amiss. Please look into it. That is all.” With no information, you’re not even giving someone the chance to resolve the issue.

A smaller cure

When I initially spoke to the young woman her voice was trembling because she was so upset. As I came to understand the situation, I became hurt and angry on behalf of these troops as well. So when I ran out of ideas, I apologized. I felt bad that I could not think of one viable way to fix things.

She surprised me by saying I did help. Because I tried, I cared, and I gave her the opportunity to vent, she felt a little better. I’m sure in a much bigger way, she gave the same kind of help to her friend.

So while coffee or the other small gestures are not a cure, they can do one thing—assure someone in a tough spot that they are not alone. Sometimes all you can do is help someone get through one moment to the next. Sometimes, that’s everything.

coffee cup with bandaid

© Gina left the mall, 2014

The Perfect Excuse

The other day I received an important request:  I’m doing those ‘open when’ cards for a friend who is deploying. I have one for open when you are sick and I want to put a funny please excuse soldier today “mom” style sick note in there… But I’m not a mom and I’ve never written one before. Please help.

Of course I am happy to use my powers for good! If you are currently deployed or love someone who is and you need a mom-note, feel free to fill in the blanks on this one.

Dear Sir or Ma’am,

Please excuse _____________________ from _______________ today as he or she has a stomachache.  Although _____________ is not my child, I am a mom and therefore imbued with the unalienable, unquestionable, and formidable power to write this note.

If you have any doubts, I invite you to consult your own mother who will not only guide you through this “teachable moment,” but ensure that you do so without a smirk on your face, running with scissors, or worse—running with scissors while smirking.

If ___________is feeling better, he or she will be in tomorrow.

Sincerely,

Gina

excuse note

More excuses lead to 3 soldiers

In a rash moment of non-clarity, I decided to give up chocolate for Lent. I have come to realize that I love chocolate very much and that this was a mistake. So I devised a brilliant plan to excuse myself from this situation and I posted it on Facebook. In all honesty, I was kidding. But I got some very thoughtful responses, caring prayers, a little guilt, and three new soldiers to write to. This was my brilliant plan:

Attn fellow Catholics: I gave up chocolate for Lent and I regret it. So, if you “forgot” to give up something for Lent and are feeling guilty, I am now willing to sublet my sacrifice. It’s a win-win-win. YOU get a discount on time served/suffering till Easter. I get to resume a daily habit that’s up there with breathing air as a mandatory activity for me, and God still gets to balance the books on a promise kept. If you’re interested in being a team on our mutual salvation, let me know.

What I learned is that a few of my friends have given up “giving something up” and instead do kind deeds. One person even recommended writing to soldiers. I told her that I couldn’t count something I already do as Lenten activity, but I would be happy to write to any soldiers she needed help with. She sent me three.

So now I have the perfect excuse to start buying chocolate again—to send to these troops in Afghanistan.

© Gina left the mall, 2014

Orders To Nowhere

The Army will be getting smaller, down to its pre-WWII levels. The Air Force is looking for volunteers for early retirement. Every branch is making cuts. That means more troops will be transitioning back to civilian life. They’ll have, as Mike Grice puts it, “orders to nowhere.” Are they prepared? Are we?

Mike Grice retired from the Marines (although, “once a Marine, always a Marine”) and he took notes along the way. Whether a servicemember chooses to leave or is forced to because of budget cuts, they will face a big transition. And Mike’s notes can come in handy.

I first found Mike when he was sharing his journey dealing with the VA in his blog, Orders to Nowhere. When I reached out to him to help me with a soldier, he was generous with his advice. Recently, I learned a great deal more about his return to civilian life because he pulled all his notes together in the book, Orders To Nowhere. From getting out, figuring out what’s next, to dealing with the VA, it’s insightful, specific, honest, and from chapter 3 onward, there’s a recap and checklist of lessons learned. It’s more than his memories and experiences; it’s a guide that gives needed clarity to an often confusing and complex process.

Whether in his blog or book, I feel Mike’s writings are one way he continues to serve. (Lately his blog has been a great resource for transition news from various sources.)

Lieutenant Colonel Michael D. Grice USMC (Retired)

After an amazing career he loved, after four combat deployments in five years among other things, Mike woke up one day and knew it was time. It was time for him to leave his military life and start a new chapter—one that no longer required his family to make the sacrifices they had been making.

He assumed retiring would be simple and that nine months was plenty of time to transition. He was wrong. I must admit I laughed when he reviewed his official checklist of things to do. The first item was—get the official checklist. Less funny, the second item began with, “12-24 months before separation…” Mike had just started the process and he was already behind. 

Things I assumed would be easy, like getting your medical records in order, were not. As you can imagine, 0 doctors recommend carrying 100 lb. of gear on your back for extended periods of time, breathing in burning garbage, getting shot at, etc., as a health regimen. There are many things our troops do that cause wear and tear on their body and/or psyche. All of this must be meticulously updated and confirmed if the VA is going to provide any healthcare for these injuries after a servicemember leaves. However, it can take months to get appointments (wow!) and, since our troops move a lot, it can take time to track down certain documents. Oh, and don’t assume all records have been digitized for quick emailing.

Things I assumed were obvious when it came to resumes, interviews, networking, and that sort of thing, apparently are not obvious. That makes sense. If you’ve never done it, why would you know how? A military career has different norms, rules, and types of documents. Mike points out that when people ask a servicemember what they intend to do next, “get a real job” is a popular answer. But it’s not the right answer if the person you’re speaking with could be a potential contact in your new career. A better response is the “thirty-second sound bite” that has real goals and substance.

I like the honesty Mike has throughout his book. Including wisdom from another vet who endured a tough transition, John Ruehlin. John created a course with his lessons learned and one is, “First and foremost nobody in the private sector really cares what you did in the military. They care about what you can do for them in the business world.” This does not mean that what you learned and accomplished in the military doesn’t matter. However, you do need to frame it in a way that’s meaningful to the private sector.

Mike’s notes 

Mike went from being an officer leading Marines in combat to just another guy in khakis at a transition meeting who had no clue how to proceed. In his book, he’s upfront about what he did right, what he did the hard way, and the moments that were bittersweet. He also admits that if he knew then what he knows now, he would’ve been even better able to serve and mentor those he had the honor of commanding as they returned to civilian life.

The volunteer work I have done is focused on those who are deployed. But as troops I’ve met begin to transition out, this is an area I want to learn more about. If you or someone you know is considering leaving the military, I think getting Mike’s notes are a great first step. Even before you get your official checklist.

You can find Mike's book at Amazon.com

You can find Mike’s book at Amazon.com

© Gina left the mall, 2014

Thinking About Hooters

One of my soldiers is a big fan of Hooters—the restaurant famous for its waitstaff of beautiful women in short shorts and low-cut tank tops. I went there once. It was many years ago on a business trip at my first job. I was part of a junior team and our boss took us there for lunch. He really enjoyed the atmosphere and that made this work lunch a little awkward. Hooters didn’t cross my mind much after that. But when it did, that’s the one word that popped in my head—awkward.

Then one day, I started getting lots of suggestions from Facebook that I become friendly with Hooters. I thought that was random and odd until I found out that the soldier I mentioned was connecting with every Hooters restaurant he found. Since he and I are Facebook friends, his likes came my way. Mystery solved! Then I didn’t think about Hooters again, or his love of it, until two years later in Prague.

Prague style

Prague is a jewel of a city and the capital of the Czech Republic. The architecture is so beautiful and in such good condition, it looks fake—like the Disney production team came in and set up Europe-Town. I was there for work and, as I walked along the cobblestone streets, I felt lucky that I got to see this part of the world. Below are a few pics I took and why, amongst these historic buildings, Hooters leapt to mind.

Prague1

Prague2

Prague3

Prague4When I saw this poster I immediately texted my soldier who was a fan. He wrote back right away that he wanted me to go there and, if possible, please pick up a t-shirt. If I were standing in front of the restaurant, I would have. But I didn’t have a lot of free time to go find this place. Plus I have no sense of direction. My personal-GPS fails are epic. So the t-shirt wasn’t happening and that was the end of it. Until two and a half years later when Hooters crossed my mind again. Which brings us to last week.

Carrying-on

I was traveling (apparently I never think of Hooters at home) and had the chance to visit the USO with an Airman at the Raleigh Durham Airport in North Carolina. (FYI-the USO is staffed with some of the nicest people you’ll ever meet.) As I was leaving, I noticed a 2014 Hooters Girls calendar with a thank-you note attached to it.

The note on the calendar.

The note on the calendar.

I thought of how much my soldier would love it!! Then a sweet, grandfatherly, USO volunteer noticed me noticing and asked me if I wanted it for a servicemember. I said yes and I asked him if he had a bag I could put it in. He did not.

I stood there. On one hand, I had my awkward Hooters moment and no real desire to walk through the airport with this not-subtle oversized calendar. On the other hand, I knew that my soldier would be very, very happy to receive this. I decided happiness trumped awkwardness and carried the calendar on the plane with me.

I guess I’m due to run into Hooters again, mentally or otherwise, in another two years. What will I think of first? The lunch? My soldier? I have no idea. But I am certain that at this moment, I’m grateful that Hooters helped me make my soldier smile.

© Gina left the mall, 2014

Giving Thanks to a Soldier, a Friend, and a Stranger

If you have thanks in your heart but don’t have the words in your pen or keyboard, I invite you to use some of mine. Why? Because it has come to my attention that some people hate writing. It could be just people I’m related to (especially at homework time) but I suspect they are not alone. That’s why I’ve jotted down a few words that may come in handy this week for anyone that needs them.

There are many things to be grateful for. Such as the fact that there are too many to list here. So my joyfully incomplete list includes three people you may wish or need to give thanks to on November 28th: a soldier, a friend, and a stranger.

Soldier

Somewhere, thousands of miles from home, there are Soldiers, Airmen, Marines, and Sailors you’ve never met who would do anything to keep you safe, up to and including sacrificing their lives. They raised their hand and took this on. However, choosing this life doesn’t make their hearts less vulnerable. If anything, they appreciate the moments with their loved ones even more. Everyday things like reading to your child at bedtime become like treasure.

I know you’ve probably heard the words, “remember the troops” a thousand times. Possibly a few of those times were me. But the truth is that it’s important they know they are not alone.

One way to remember them is to send a thank-you with coffee through Cup of Joe (COJ) Below are two options if you’d like to do this but need some ideas on what to write:

1. Simply replace the underlined details with your own.

Dear Service member,  My two brothers, sister-in-laws, their kids, my parents, and 2 dogs are all headed to my place for Thanksgiving and then sleeping over. Along with my family (husband, 2 kids 1 dog, 1 cat, 1 turtle) this is the recipe for craziness. The very best kind. Sure, every dish may or may not turn out perfectly. Someone may or may not fight over the X-box. But this much is certain: we are grateful for your help in making this day possible. Because of what you do, we have the freedom to be together in safety. Thank you for this on Thanksgiving and every day. Sincerely ___________________

If you’re not hosting the dinner, you can change the opening to reflect your plans, “We’re headed to _________”

2. Copy or change as you like.

Dear Service member, It is Thanksgiving and you may be far from home, but you are not far from our thoughts. It is your service, and that of your brothers and sisters in arms that allow us to gather at the table, free from fear. Not everyone in the world enjoys this amazing gift. So, I wanted to take a moment to say thank you. Please tell your family that my family thanks them as well. Sincerely_________

Each cup of coffee you send costs $2. You can even send just one.

A friend 

My family is spread out from NY to the Pacific Rim (that’s geographic, not cinematic.) For me, Thanksgiving usually means heading to Nancy’s house on Long Island. If you’re headed to a friend’s and want to include a note along with the wine or pumpkin pie you’ll be bringing, here are my words:

Dear Nancy,  Just wanted to say thank you for including us and making us feel like family. Knowing we have a place to call home for the holidays means more than I can say. Not having to cook for five hours is also pretty exciting too. Thank you for all of it. You rock. xo, Gina

A stranger 

For the first time ever, I’m traveling ON Thanksgiving Day. I’m taking my daughter Sofia to Florida to see Grandma and Grandpa. For the journey through La Guardia Airport, we’re bringing a bag of candy to share. It’s for the Policemen, TSA agents, gate agent, flight attendants or whomever we meet. Maybe they wanted to work, maybe they got stuck with the shift. Either way, there are probably slightly more desirable ways to spend a day devoted to family than x-raying a stranger’s carry-on luggage. Plus, since holiday travel can be stressful, any drop of kindness is probably a good thing.

This time, the words we’ll use are simple and what I wish for you and those you love:

Happy Thanksgiving!

Some of the candy we'll give out at LaGuardia Airport on Thanksgiving Day

Some of the candy we’ll give out at LaGuardia Airport on Thanksgiving Day

© Gina left the mall, 2013

Beauty Is Who You Are

I had never heard of Aaron Mankin when they handed him the microphone. He only spoke for a few minutes, but I was inspired to learn more. I found out he was a wounded Marine, his opinion on beauty, and the amazing story behind it.

Aaron Mankin

Cpl. Aaron Mankin addressing IAVA marchers before the NYC Veterans Day Parade 11.11.13

What I heard him say

I was standing with IAVA (Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America) marchers this past Veterans Day in NYC as they waited to join the parade on 5th Avenue. Aaron Mankin was introduced as a leading voice of this generation of veterans. Since November 11th is about expressing gratitude, he spoke of that.

He said that when people would come up and thank him, he always felt awkward and uncomfortable. “What do I say? Hey…you’re welcome!” The semi-cheesy way he delivered the line “you’re welcome” made everyone laugh. He said that after a while he realized what his response should be. “What do I say now? Thank you for your support. Because all this…right here with each other, in our hometowns…all across the country, if we have this, we have all we need.”

As I stood in the cold, I found the warmth of his words uplifting and comforting. I loved his sense of humor. And I feel strongly that supporting each other, even with the smallest kindness, has tremendous power. So I was looking forward to finding out who he is and why he was a “leading voice.”

Marine Corporal Aaron P. Mankin

“On May 11th, 2005, Cpl. Mankin was wounded when the 26-ton amphibious assault vehicle he was traveling in rolled over an improvised explosive device and was propelled 10 feet in the air.

Four Marines died in the attack and 11 others were injured. In addition to the damage sustained to his throat and lungs from smoke inhalation, Cpl. Mankin suffered intense burns on over 25 percent of his body. His ears, nose and mouth were essentially gone and he lost two fingers on his right hand.”

This is the information about Cpl. Mankin at Operation Mend. He was their first patient two years after the attack. Operation Mend is a program at UCLA Medical Center where top plastic surgeons and reconstructive surgeons donate the their time and talents to vets with severe facial injuries and other medical issues.

After almost nine years, he’s had over 60 surgeries. When I found images of when he first got hurt, I was absolutely shocked. I did not recognize the man I saw speaking that day. I have to admit that looking at them made my eyes fill with tears. I’m not sure what surgery # the photos below are, but even the “before” photos are incredible progress. I am so grateful for Operation Mend and the work they do.

Part of the journey for Cpl. Mankin. (photo credit: UCLA Health and UCLA Operation Mend)

Part of the journey. for Cpl. Mankin. (photo credit: UCLA Health and UCLA Operation Mend)

Through it all Cpl. Mankin has continued to serve by helping other injured veterans to heal, to be a voice for them, and to inspire everyone around him to find their own ways to serve. He also helps spread the word about Operation Mend.

If you know of a veteran that could be helped by Operation Mend, please tell them about this organization. If you live in the LA area, you have the opportunity to be a Buddy Family. This program helps patients and their families spend some time beyond the hospital and hotel walls by joining host families for a home-cooked meal or an activity. If you wish to make a donation, you can do so at their site as well.

A beautiful truth

Cpl. Mankin actively avoided the mirror in this hospital room. When he finally did look, he didn’t recognize the man staring back and he says plainly, “I cried for a long time.” But then he made a choice. He said he didn’t want a stranger who dug a hole and planted a bomb to dictate who he was. He was still the same man inside. And that man chose to continue giving and serving with courage, kindness, and humor. He doesn’t avoid the mirror now. Because, “beauty is who you are, not how you look.”

© Gina left the mall, 2013

3 Things Vets Want You To Know

November 11th is a day of national attention and affection that we honor our vets with. Of course, how we treat them after all the parades matters even more. So I’m re-posting the 3 things I learned after I attended the NYC parade last year. As for today, I’m headed out to celebrate with IAVA (Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America) I hope that whatever your plans are, you take a moment to think of our vets and thank any that you know. Our men and women that have raised their hands to serve are pretty incredible.

3 Things…

As the NYC Veterans Day Parade was about to start, I asked a few Vets this question: What three things do you want civilians to know? These were not in-depth interviews as there was an impending parade. You’ve heard of speed-dating? This was a speed-survey. But I got a lot for investing just a few minutes.

Tireak, Marine Corps Veteran 

1. We need a hand up not a handout. We’re proud.

2. We’re normal. Don’t be afraid to learn about Veterans

3.  Tom Hanks had an interesting idea about service in a speech he made at Yale. He talked about our years of service and challenged them to match that service by helping Veterans transition from soldier to citizen.

I pulled this excerpt from Tom Hanks’ speech:

We all will define the true nature of our American identity, not by the parades and the welcome home parties, but how we match their time in the service with service of our own….Give it four years, as many years as you spent here at Yale, in acts both proactive and spontaneous and do the things you can to free veterans from the new uncertainty that awaits them.

Lyndsey, Army Veteran 

1. Please don’t forget the family. I get a lot of thanks. That doesn’t recognize the strength this takes for our family members.

2. Not everyone has PTSD. (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder)

Lyndsey mentioned trying to do a project at work involving soldiers. It was not embraced for fear that “something might happen” because of PTSD. She felt this was an inaccurate perception and an overreaction.

3. Take advantage of our leadership skills. Capitalize on our service. We can handle stress and deadlines. We already have.

Moses, Marine Corps Veteran

1. We’re still people. We’re human, not robots. I still yell at the TV during the game. My Giants are killing me. (NY Giants lost that day)

2. We’re not helpless. We’re used to leading and we love to serve.

3. Serve with us. You see Vets doing Team Rubicon, helping with Hurricane Sandy. Involved in giving back in so many ways. Serve with us in the community.

Matt, Air Force Veteran

1. We’re very motivated.  We continue to serve in different ways after [our military] service.

2. “Thanks” goes a long way. When I travel I shake the hand of someone in uniform….I know it meant something to me.

3. Employing a Veteran is the best decision you’ll ever make. They’ll be the best employee you ever had.

Maria, Army Veteran 

1. Embrace PTSD as normal. It’s not a stigma.  It’s normal to be different. Handling this kind of stress can take even greater strength.

2.  Employers shouldn’t think we are without experience because we don’t have industry experience. Our skills are transferable.

3.  I would also say more support for the families.

Tom, Vietnam Vet

1. jobs

2. we want to know people care

3. jobs

ME:  Okay Tom, everyone wants jobs. Could you be more specific about what Veterans need?

TOM:  We need mentors in different fields. Vets often don’t know how the skills they have acquired translate to a specific industry. Personal attention makes a difference. I organized a job fair but kept it small so they got personal attention.

A few more voices

This is obviously not the entire list of everything Veterans may wish to share. (Also I’m missing Navy and Coast Guard here) but maybe it’s a conversation starter. I didn’t speak with Paul Rieckhoff who leads IAVA, but I heard him say three things that day that stood out to me so I’m adding them in.

1. Vets aren’t a charity, we’re an investment.

2. We’re not a problem, we’re the solution.

3. Make every day Veterans Day. Put them on the frontlines of your company.

One day closer

Almost all of my volunteer work has been for deployed troops. But each day, every one of them gets one day closer to completing their service. To becoming a civilian again. They will be shaped by their experiences. Some will have scars both seen and unseen. But whatever their individual story, I hope they will find the support they need to come home and thrive. Last, but of course not least, thank you to all our Veterans and their families.

My first soldier's platoon in Afghanistan, 2009

My first soldier’s platoon in Afghanistan, 2009

© Gina left the mall, 2013

Monster Coffee

“Dear Soldier, Today is Halloween so, along with this cup of coffee, I thought I’d send you a scary story. My 8-yr-old daughter decided she wanted to be a Monster High girl for Halloween. On the off-chance that the Dept. of Defense does not issue Monster High Dolls with your combat boots and you are unfamiliar with them, simply imagine fashionable werewolves, vampires, etc who go to a super-cool high school. As far as I can tell, there are 10 girls and 1 boy at this high school.

My daughter put on her costume and suddenly my little 8-year old looked 16. That was frightening. Later today, she will go ask strangers for candy (clearly a Mom did not invent this holiday) and be surrounded by monsters and more, laughing and having a wonderful time. Of course, one reason she can enjoy this holiday without fear is because of you. The hard work you do helps keep us safe. Thank you for helping my daughter have the freedom to scare me 🙂 We appreciate your service today and always. Sincerely, Gina

This is the note I sent to 10 troops this morning through Cup of Joe (COJ.) It’s twice as long as the messages I usually send but, unlike Twitter, COJ doesn’t limit my character count. That means I can do what I want. BWAHAHAAAAAA (I hope you read that with your inner monster voice.)

As always, COJ lets you send any amount of coffee to deployed servicemen and women for only $2 a cup. You can check the pen-pal option or not check it. Either way, most times you’ll receive a thank-you note. It’s a small thing but a terrific way to boost someone’s morale. If you’ve never tried it, I have to tell you it really is a great program.

Darth Vader kicking butt in a wheelchair

Darth Vader Tie Fighter Costume

Darth Vader Tie Fighter Costume (Photo credit: Tostie14)

A while back I happened upon a blog called Military Special Needs Network. Each staff writer is a military family member with a special needs child (or children.) They created this network to share information, inspire, empower, and connect other families in the same situation. They were also kind enough to help me with one of my soldiers who was facing difficulties. I am very grateful for that.

If you think of those you know with a special needs child, you have an idea of the challenges they face. The stress of deployment adds another layer. So does waking up one day after you’ve got a routine down with teachers and therapists your kid is thriving with and surprise…you’re moving across the country. Or to Germany. Possibly next week. Wheeeeee……

Sometimes when I read their blog I learn about things specific to our military families. Sometimes I gain a deeper understanding of the special needs world in general. And there are topics any parent could relate to. Like finding a great Halloween costume.

Until the other day, I never knew there was such a thing as Adaptive Costumes. In their post, Adapting Halloween, one of the links was for a great Pinterest page with adaptive Darth Vader, Batmobile, a little girl who turned her crutches into the front legs of her giraffe costume, and more. The creativity, the joy, the spirit…these kids looked great. And I think they knew it. Their smiles made my smile even bigger.

That’s one of the things we all want. To make the people we love happy. And sometimes, to make strangers happy too…with or without the aid of monsters. Happy Halloween!

MonsterCoffee

© Gina left the mall, 2013

A Patient Reminder

I no longer take for granted the little luxuries like hot showers or color. Our troops have helped me to appreciate these things in my own life even more. After all, when you don’t see grass or trees for a year, the green of nature is like gold. I’d like to say that I remember this every single day. I’d like to, but I can’t. Some days I will in fact, “sweat the small stuff.” Luckily, it’s never long before something comes along to remind me to do otherwise.

The waiting game

I have to admit that I do not excel at waiting. In fact, I have been known to “abandon line” in stores if the checking-out process is too long. Once I accompanied my friend Linda shopping for clothes at a department store. An hour later, she had an armful of items and we made our way to the register. However, there was a long line AND multiple returns. For some reason, my friend refused to leave. So I scoured the place for the most “interesting” outfit (this was the 80s so….lots of choices) then I held it aloft and called out, “Linda! They DO have it in your size!” At first, people stared. But after I kept bringing Linda fashion-forward combinations to consider, they were laughing. Yes, Linda was laughing too. Eventually.

Fast forward to yesterday. I had waits and delays at every turn. If I were not already stressed, I probably wouldn’t have found it so irritating. Later, after I got home, I came across some old pictures one of my solders had sent me. The note on this one said, “waiting.” I couldn’t remember the rest of the story so I called him.

soldiers waiting in a bunker in Iraq

DYLAN: Well, that was Christmas morning in Iraq, 2009. Our base was being mortared. It started before sunrise. I think we had to stay in that bunker 7 or 8 hours. The good news was that they had shut down the chow hall earlier. I say that because we took a direct hit there. Luckily no one was inside. 

Suddenly, my delays didn’t seem quite so horrible. Instead, I felt lucky that I had the freedom to go run whatever errands I wanted. I had two uninjured legs to stand on in those lines. My reset button had been hit. So I jokingly said to Dylan, “Oh yeah? Well let me tell you about MY day and the waiting I endured.” As I feigned outrage, we both started laughing.

Dylan told me that he doesn’t like waiting either. Then he shared a checkout challenge that involved Walmart, two open registers, and what appeared to be the entire town shopping there at once. His quest for milk and lightbulbs took one bad turn after another and we laughed some more. As we talked, he never said, “don’t lose sight of what really matters.” He didn’t have to.

© Gina left the mall, 2013