Finding My Place In The Healing Process

Jessica Allen was at her desk working when she got the call. It was January 22, 2011 and the voice on the other end was telling her what happened to her husband Chaz. While on a dismounted patrol in the Zhari district of Afghanistan, he stepped on an IED, instantly lost both legs and broke his elbow. Nothing would be the same.

The Allen Family at Ground Zero.

The Allen Family at Ground Zero. (photo credit, Team Allen)

When I hear about something like this, my heart aches and then I hope and pray the family does well in their recovery. That’s generally the extent of it. I mean, I’ve never met them in person. I don’t live in their town. I’m not a doctor. I can’t build them a wheelchair-friendly house. I don’t have a place in the healing process. Or do I?

The movie and more

When I found out about the documentary Comedy Warriors, (famous comics teach wounded warriors how to do stand-up to help them heal) I thought that was something special. I wrote about it. Jessica saw the post and emailed me. She said in part, “I wish you could meet all the Heroes I have been blessed to meet. They are so inspiring…. Rob Jones, the double amputee featured in the film, was at Walter Reed when my husband was. We were able to see him run for the first time.” Jessica also shared the links below about her family:

www.facebook.com/GoTeamAllen

AdventuresOfTeamAllen

I’ve been following along since July and I’ve learned a few things. I’ve seen Jessica and crew cheering Chaz and others on. I’ve seen an, “off-road” wheelchair that looks pretty amazing. I’ve read some of the hard parts too in her blog. Then there’s a whole separate category of stuff I just never thought of, like body temperature. You lose both your legs, that’s a lot of biological real estate. Your body is used to maintaining 98.7 for a bigger area. It takes years to adjust. In the meantime, Chaz feels like he’s burning up.

I found it inspiring that Jessica did more than just try to heal her own husband and family. She tries to help as many families as she can through her work at Yellow Ribbon Fund (YRF.) So after reading, learning, and cheering them on, I wanted to know more.

My questions

ME: What 3 things do you wish people knew or understood?

JESSICA:

-Just because someone is missing limbs, they are still quiet capable of living a great life. Do not pity them for what they’ve lost. Instead celebrate them for what they have overcome.

-Caregivers are the silent heroes of our war. They sacrifice so much and so often go unnoticed.

-There is so much left to be done. It takes a nation to heal a hero. We must find our place in the healing process and help them heal.

ME: What is your biggest challenge now?

JESSICA: Balancing everything. I work full-time for YRF. YRF alone is a lot. We help so many people. As soon as one project is complete we are hopping to the next one. In addition, I still run my tax business. We homeschool our girls. I am a Girl Scout leader. And I still try to volunteer where ever I can. It’s a lot to juggle.

ME: What is the best thing to come out of this?

JESSICA: We are finally a family. Chaz missed our oldest daughter being born. Then he was gone for over half of her life. She never really had a chance to get to know him and threw up walls every time he came around. Our youngest daughter accepted him from the beginning. But the oldest was just a little different. Now we are together all the time. We have truly been able to get to know each other. We have had more fun that I ever knew you could have. We’ve gone on so many adventures together. The gift of time together has just been amazing!

Chaz playing with the girls in the park.

Chaz playing with the girls in the park. (photo credit, Team Allen)

Team Allen reaching the top

Reaching the top! (photo credit, Team Allen)

My place

Jessica’s response about all of us healing a hero struck me. I never thought of having a place in this process. So I tried to imagine what that could be.

I believe strongly that awareness and empathy matter. No one wants to feel misunderstood or alone. For our wounded warriors and families, this is especially true. So maybe I could try to help increase that kind of healing by sharing their story. Maybe this is the place I could serve.

© Gina left the mall, 2013

When Uncle Sam Breaks Up With You

A while back I told you about my soldier who was fighting to stay in the Army despite his many injuries. The post was called Beating The Odds. I shared our unlikely friendship (we don’t have much in common) and how our paths would never cross except in a cafe in Iraq over a $2 donated cup of coffee (Cup of Joe.) I also asked for some supportive comments he could share with the Medical Evaluation Board. Readers responded and he and his family were very touched. This post is the update to that story.

It worked before

Staff Sergeant RD had been injured before and forced to medically retire before. He fought his way back by getting stronger and getting waivers. That was a good thing because when it came to being a civilian, his transition was like something out of a movie. Specifically, the second act of a movie where the hero is in trouble and the zombies are winning. It was a nightmare.

This is especially true when he took a few sleeping pills to deal with his insomnia. His mother didn’t know this and struggled to wake her groggy son. She grabbed his shoulders roughly. In that moment, he thought he was being attacked. He flipped her to the ground and it wasn’t until he had a knife to her throat that he realized that she was not the Taliban. He was so devastated by this event that he left. He disappeared for a year. It took him a few more years to get healthier from that point. But he did it. And Uncle Sam took him back.

10 years later

Since then, RD has done a lot. Most soldiers don’t like to talk about medals, but I found out that his include: 2 Purple Hearts, 2 Bronze Stars, and 2 Army Commendations. But along the way his injuries have gotten more serious, numerous, and include the bonus thrill of PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) He was hoping to teach. To train soldiers and share the benefit of his knowledge. But the Medical Evaluation Board turned him down. He will be retiring in the coming weeks.

Most of the troops I know are active duty. A few have retired but that was their choice. I asked RD how he felt about all this.

RD: Borderline failure. The mission’s not complete.

ME: You wanted to go for 20 years? 

RD: I wanted to go till my grave.

ME: How do you feel about returning to civilian life?

RD: It changes. Sometimes it scares the shit out of me. I remember the first time, which was horrible. Then I think, well…I’m 10 years older, more life experiences… I’ll handle things better. Plus maybe doing it once before gives me insight.

ME: You also have a strong marriage and other connections you didn’t have before. And a job lined up.

RD: That’s true. And all that matters. It does. But it’s hard to lose the sense of brotherhood. I can’t talk to my wife or my mom about the things I’ve done and seen. I don’t want them to know. I don’t want my wife to roll over and look at me and think: What the “F” did I marry? And all the people I can talk to are dead or won’t be around me. Plus it’s hard to watch the news. To know I can’t do anything. To know that my brothers are there. I feel like I let them down.

ME: What could a family member or civilian do to help with your transition?

RD: I honestly don’t know. If I did know the answer to that, I wouldn’t be worried about transitioning.

ME: Are you okay if I share this?

RD: G, if it helps one person, it’s worth it. In fact, I participated in a study about PTSD at the college nearby. They hooked me up then showed me images of dead bodies. Friendlies, enemies, children…all sorts of horrible things. They measured how my brain reacted. MRIs etc. Then they made me talk about my worst stories. It tore me up. But I did it. Because if me being torn up for one week helps even one guy not suffer like this, it’s worth it.

ME: How does your wife feel about you retiring?

RD: She’s excited. And worried. You know, because she knows it was rough last time. It’s also something new…having me around. Me not leaving for 12-15 months at a time. It’s a new part to our relationship.

ME: Will you always feel like a soldier? Is that your identity?

RD: The day I turn in this uniform, is the day I’ll stop being a soldier. But I will always be a patriot. I will always care.

Second chances

I told RD that I was feeling hopeful. I readily admit that I am no psychologist. But looking from the outside, I see a man with a self-awareness that he didn’t have 10 years ago. RD knows his strengths and weaknesses. And he voluntarily put himself through personal hell to be part of that study. He chose to take his pain and try to make some good come out of it. I also think his strong family connections are vitally important. As is the job he lined up.

Maybe I’m being naive, but I believe in his resilience, passion, and determination. I believe in him. And I like his chances of moving on from Uncle Sam.

soldier's boots

© Gina left the mall, 2013

Today Is One Year

Happy 1st AnniversaryI couldn’t help but notice. Whenever I shared stories about “my” troops, people would suddenly feel connected to them too. Some would ask how about ways they could get involved. If I was talking to someone in the military, the stories touched their heart. So I decided to start blogging to see if I could help these good things happen more often.

It’s now one year later and I’m humbled and honored by the response of my amazing readers. I’m thrilled that many have been inspired to take action. Here are just a few examples:

-Thanks to readers, an Air Force family got help from Peyton Manning in a special way after the tornadoes in Moore, Oklahoma. Folks reached out, shared their story, sent supportive messages…the family felt comforted even before they knew Peyton would get involved.

-Wendy from the blog The Monday Box (care packages of home-baked love) was inspired to create some “desert-safe” recipes specially taste-tested to survive the rigors of shipping to a combat zone. Now she’s a valued resource for those wanting to send “home baked love” to the troops (or any bakers wanting travel-friendly recipes.)

-Dayna is a Veteran who is spending her civilian life having as many travel adventures as possible (35 countries and counting) She shares them on her blog Where In The World Is Dayna. Reading a post here made Dayna remember how much letters and care packages meant to her when she was deployed. So she adopted two soldiers.

-Another reader is a caregiver to a family member. Her situation is isolating and challenging. This reader was inspired to adopt some soldiers and use her love of writing to lift others up. She wound up lifting her own spirits as well.

-Natalie from the blog Mother Goose, was inspired to “do more.” So she turned her volunteer work, hand-making Blue Star Family banners, into a charity. She hopes to help more of these families connect and feel supported in their communities. She knows how important this is because she has two sons in the Navy.

-Many readers have told me they were sending coffee through Cup of Joe or adopting troops through Soldiers’ Angels or Adopt A U.S. Soldier or participating with the other charities listed in the Ways To Make A Difference page.

Then there are the comments and emails. I appreciate every note and the emails have been especially moving. Civilians have shared what volunteering has meant to them. Troops and families have said they feel like they have a voice here and how much it means to know that they are not alone. I should know by now to have tissues ready when I open my blog inbox.

Thanks and…

Thank you for coming here. For caring and for every kindness shared. Thank you for all you do. I’m also grateful for my “advisors,” both civilian and military who I bug with questions, bounce ideas, and receive invaluable feedback from (often on very short notice.) And thanks to all the wonderful and experienced bloggers who have encouraged and taught me along the way.

After my initial “hello” post, I wrote about the random event that started this journey. It’s called A Sailor Wrecks My Indifference. One year later, the last line in that post has taken on even more meaning.

© Gina left the mall, 2013

 

When Should You Tell A Missing Limb Joke?

How about when you’re a wounded warrior doing stand-up “therapy” with comics like Lewis Black, Zach Galifianakis, B.J. Novak, and Bob Saget? When I’ve written to wounded warriors in hospitals, I’ve secretly worried and wondered what was next for them. Would they have all they need to face the challenges ahead? Feel forgotten? Have a VA-delay nightmare? What about their families? I never thought to ask if trauma could be treated with laughter, even though every troop I’ve met has had a great (and often dark) sense of humor.

But I found out that an amazing group of comics did ask. They wondered about “healing through humor” and the result is a project and documentary called Comedy Warriors. It features five vets like Bobby Henline, the sole survivor of a roadside bomb who was burned over 38% of his body and lost his left hand. This man will make you laugh. And touch your heart. Meet him and the other incredible vets in this trailer:

Comedy Warriors

A slight divide

1% of the population serves in active duty. If you add all vets, the number goes up to around 6%. With that kind of math, many of us don’t know what our troops and their families endure. The military experience is unique. For the wounded, that becomes even more true when they get back to the civilian world. Wounded Warrior Project, a group that “honors and empowers wounded warriors,” has these recent battlefield figures: 6,717 deaths, 50,897 wounded, 320,000 estimated TBIs (Traumatic Brain Injury) and 400,000 estimated with PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.) For perspective, the current U.S. population is about 322 million.

So if you’ve been wounded, how do you explain, express or connect with those around you who may have little understanding of what you’ve been through? If you hold everything in, how do you heal? I once asked a soldier I know who has PTSD and other combat injuries, to help me understand PTSD better. I didn’t realize how hard it would be for him to respond. But in the end, sharing eased his pain a little. When I tried to picture him doing a project like this, I laughed out loud. He’s a piece of work without a microphone. I bet he’d excel at comedy therapy.

Sharing (and healing) through humor is both disarming and empowering. Fear and pain are pushed aside to create a space where military and civilian can come together. And when we’re in something together, we are all strengthened. These wounded warriors are resilient, inspiring and yeah, pretty damn funny. I would love to see the whole documentary. But I have to ask. Actually, a lot of us have to ask. In order for the film to get wider distribution, our local PBS, cable providers, and movie houses need to hear that we’re interested. I’m going to send a few emails. I hope you do too.

Did you hear the one about the wounded warrior who got the last laugh?

Imagine if we could all say, “yes!”

*Update: Bernadette Luckett, a Co-Producer on the film, told me that this was a labor of love for all involved. She also told me how they’re trying to bring Comedy Warriors to a larger audience by entering film festivals to get attention and secure a distribution deal. They’ve won top prizes in the ones they’ve been able to enter. If anyone would like to support their participation at major film festivals through a tax-deductible donation, this is their help page. 

© Gina left the mall, 2013

Can A Song Heal The Invisible Wounds Of War?

Richard Casper, a Marine veteran, took a disabled Marine named Jesse to some “experts” to help him heal. Not doctors, musicians. You see, when Richard himself was dealing with the effects of TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury) he discovered that writing his story down helped. Turning those stories into songs helped even more. He decided he wanted other vets to experience the tremendous difference this could make. So Richard brought Jesse to Nashville and with the help of the band, Blackjack Billy, Jesse was able to put to music things that were hard to say. It was a life-changing experience for him.

I first became aware of this from Richard’s friend and my fellow blogger, Mother Goose. When I listened to the song I was very moved because some of the lyrics were words I’ve heard before from different troops. It was beautiful and painful at the same time.


Their next goal is to raise $5,000 to produce a music video. If you’d like to be an honorary Producer in this, click here.  If you’d like to help share Jesse’s song, “Til It Feels Like Home,” I know they’d greatly appreciate that.

More voices

I think for vets, and for anyone who loves them, sharing their story can be incredibly healing. While not everyone may know Richard, anyone can access StoryCorps. I found out about them when I attended an IAVA (Iraq Afghanistan Veterans of America) event.

StoryCorps says: Over the last ten years, 2.4 million men and women have served in Iraq and Afghanistan and millions of families have stood behind them at home. The military community knows well the challenges of multiple deployments, combat injuries, and long-awaited homecomings. Yet few civilians truly understand the complex realities of our troops’ service and sacrifice.

The Military Voices Initiative (MVI) amplifies their important stories and lets them know that we–as a nation–are listening.

Each conversation is recorded on a free CD to share, and is preserved at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. StoryCorps is one of the largest oral history projects of its kind, and millions listen to our weekly broadcasts on NPR’s Morning Edition.

The stories are short, powerful, and cover so many perspectives. I listened to a soldier who had sent his wife (also a soldier) on the mission that took her life. I listened to curious kids interview their mom about what she felt like when she had to deploy. And how they felt about her being gone for a year. I listened to a man talk about one of the best days of his life- welcoming his brother home from Iraq. I listened to a father who traveled to Iraq wanting to kneel on the ground where his son had died.

Sometimes, all you need to do is listen. I think Richard and Jesse would agree.

© Gina left the mall, 2013

We Know Peyton Manning!

Tuesday morning I posted, Do You Know Peyton Manning? asking for your help. Wednesday afternoon we were successful!! I want to share details and thank everyone for the kindness of their efforts. For those that saw the post, you know that Jenn, an Air Force wife, wanted to help an Air Force family who lost everything in the tornado. For those that missed it, here’s the short version in pictures.

Peyton Manning autograph in post-tornado rubble

A treasured photo found in the rubble of the Brown home

This is the Brown Family's home and where three of them rode out the tornado.

This is the Brown family’s home. Mom, Dad and son rode out the tornado here.

This is the storm shelter the Brown family was in

This is the storm shelter the Brown family was in.

Robin finds out

Robin Brown didn’t know we were doing this until she saw the link on Jenn’s Facebook page.

JENN: I don’t normally ask my friends and family to share things on FB, but this is one time I am going to do just that….. I would like to ask each of my friends to read this blog and to share it on your FB time-line, and if you can get your friends to share it, then even better! My friend Robin and her family have been through a lot and if we can just get the right people to see this then we might just be able to make this happen!!

Robin was surprised and then so very moved as messages and emails started coming in. Here are a few:

—I met Robin Brown when we were stationed at Keesler AFB, MS. Always there with a kind word, prayer, and a smile. If you have any idea who may have any connections to Peyton Manning, this would be incredible for this Moore, OK family. In the meantime we will continue to keep this community in our hearts and prayers.

 … “My friend tweeted this to Eli Manning!!

…That is such a great thing you are trying to do. I pray this msg gets to Peyton and it helps the family find some peace after that terrible tornado.

…My friend was a Colts cheerleader while Peyton was there. I’ll forward to her

…Shared it with a good friend in CO…..see if he has any connections???

…Gina, I am a long-time Indiana resident and NFL fan who happens to follow several of Peyton’s old Indianapolis Colts teammates. I have sent a Facebook emails to some of them to see if we can reach Peyton. Hoping to help heal some emotional wounds with a small gift!

…Olivia and Archie (Peyton’s parents) live in New Orleans, which is where I’m from. I’ll check with someone who I think knows them. I’ll let you know ASAP.

…I live in Durham, N.C. (home of Duke University). I don’t have a connection personally but Duke’s head football coach David Cutcliffe was Peyton’s coach at Tennessee. Peyton has been here for training over the last couple of seasons. Here’s the email address to Duke’s football office.

The real “win”

Jenn shared a text she got from Robin:

Jennifer you’re awesome! I saw your link last night and was taken back at how my friends and my Air Force family have been so kind. You realize even if we only do a quick chat or share recipes, or lives on candy crush you still have that bond of friendship for life and when one of our own are in need we step up and try to take care of each other. I don’t know how I can replace the kindness of others but know if any one of my Air Force friends or other friends ever are in need I will mimic the same kindness I have been given. I love you all! I know “thank you” is all I got but its not enough to repay the kindness of so many people that have touched our lives. Love to you and all my friends!

After Jenn saw that, she told me,

“You know what? Even if we don’t succeed, we’ve already won. For Robin to see how much people care and to really feel it? That’s the win right there.”

My new favorite TV channel in Denver

Jenn also shared the post on pages such as Air Force family support, sports, talk shows, and a news channel in Denver. She wrote:

I am an Air Force wife… When you move from duty station to duty station you build a whole new family… an Air Force family. No matter how far away you live from that family you have built, when something happens to one of those family members you try to help them any way you can… you reach out to anyone you can think of… This is the story of my friend Robin and her family they lost everything in the tornado in OK...

Deb Stanley, a multimedia journalist for ABC News Channel 7 in Denver responded. Their sportscaster, Lionel Bienvenu, would see Peyton at practice the next day. She asked Lionel to help.

Check your messages!!

When you lose your entire home you also lose things like your phone charger. Robin was trying to find one when her son said, “Mom! Jenn says to check your messages!!”  When Robin was finally able to, she read:

OMG!! We did it!! I just got a message from ABC 7 news in Denver… The sports anchor Lionel Bienvenu reached out to Peyton and they are going to get you another signed photo!!!

What I like to imagine is that moment when Robin turned around and told Steve. When, in the middle of a bad news week, she was able to share news that came with a whole lot of good. Good thoughts, good prayers and the always good…kindness of strangers, including Peyton Manning.

A loss for words

Jenn and Robin are both struggling to find words that capture how thankful they are. I know how they feel. How can I convey how grateful I am to all my readers, to all who shared and reached out, to my new favorite TV channel in Denver and to Mr. Manning?

You know, the Browns will have a beautiful photo long before they’ll have a wall to hang it on. But I hope that when the road ahead gets tough, that they can look at that photo and know how many people are rooting for them. To know that they are not alone. I thank you all for giving them that gift.

© Gina left the mall, 2013

Do You Know Peyton Manning?

I got that question and these pictures from Jenn, an Air Force wife, trying to help her friends who lost everything in the tornado in Moore, Oklahoma. I asked her to explain.

Peyton Manning autograph in post-tornado rubble

A favorite picture found in the rubble of the Brown home.

The Brown Family home. Mom, Dad and son were here during the tornado.

The Brown Family home. Mom, Dad and son were here during the tornado.

The Brown Family

Jenn met the Browns when they were all stationed in Alaska. Robin Brown and Jenn were both teachers’ aids in the same school. Jenn’s husband and Steve Brown were both Airmen and the kids were friends too. In every branch of service, there’s a lot of moving. People come in and out of your life all the time. But because military life is so all-encompassing, the friends you make become family and stay that way despite time or distance. In civilian life, you may or may not feel this way about former co-workers and neighbors.

When the tornado hit, Steve, Robin and their son Caleb were in a shelter below their home. Their daughter Megan was a few blocks away and took shelter there. Other family members were horrified as they watched weather updates and saw the tornado heading towards the Brown’s street. With raging winds ripping apart their home beam from beam above them, Robin had doubts that they would survive. Steve did his best to be reassuring. They all prayed.

After the tornado passed, they realized they were trapped in the shelter. They smelled gas and it became more and more difficult to breathe. Caleb was able to get a text out that they were alive and needed help. Megan ran past block after decimated block to find her own home reduced to rubble, but at least she knew her family was alive. It took 45 minutes to dig the Browns out. Those minutes felt longer. But the entire family felt lucky and grateful to still have each other.

“I feel helpless”

If Jenn lived nearby, she and her family would help clear rubble. And cook food. And take them in. And do anything they needed. The fact that she can’t do these things makes her feel helpless. “I know they’re strong people, but they’ve already been through so much with Robin’s stroke and all. I wish I could do something for them.”

Then Jenn found out about the, “buried treasure.” Amazingly, as the Browns searched through the rubble, Steve found that a few precious items had survived. He found a bible that his grandmother had given him. He found his Air Force shadow box, a gift he had received when he retired after 20 years of service. And he found something else that meant a great deal to him, an autographed picture of Peyton Manning that he had bought at charity event at an OKC Thunder game. The picture was beat up, but at least it wasn’t completely gone. To Jenn, she had found something that she could DO. She could try to get that one special thing, “back to normal.”

When you have nothing left, recovering a special item touches and strengthens your heart in a tremendous way. It’s something to hold onto as you begin the long process of rebuilding your life.

Do you know…

I do not know Peyton Manning. I asked a friend in advertising who used to work on a major beer account (I figured beer…NFL.) but he didn’t have a connection. Linked In says Manning is out of my network (no surprise.) Another friend of Jenn’s had already sent a message to Manning’s website and thus far, there has been no response. So I figured I’d write this post and ask my readers.

If you know Peyton Manning or you know someone who knows him, please forward this post or email me so I may reach out. Of course, if you’re reading this and you are Peyton Manning, that works even better. In that case, I would add:

“Mr. Manning, as you can see, the Browns are going through a tough time. I’m hoping you can help Jenn do this kind thing for them. I’m hoping you can replace your photo and sign it again. With all that the Browns need, it may seem strange to request this. But I know having something they loved restored to them would lift their spirits. And that may be one of the most important things of all right now. If you would like their contact info, you can reach me here: gina@ginaleftthemall.com. Thank you for your consideration.”

Some help and little things

If anyone would like to help out in other ways, some friends of the Browns started a giving page to help them rebuild and the Red Cross is in Oklahoma trying to help all of these families who lost so much. Simply click the links to learn more or take action.

In many posts, I talk about how much the little things mean to our deployed troops. How a cup of coffee or postcard sent with a few kind and encouraging words is an incredible morale boost. But you don’t have to be deployed for little things to have this effect. I think it applies to any tough situation. There is a long to-do list for the Browns before they get even close to, “replacing treasured autograph.” But if we can make this happen, I think it will make that long list feel just a little bit lighter.

*********  UPDATE 05-29-13, 5:51p.m. EST: OMG! WE DID IT!!  *************

Sports Anchor Lionel Bienvenu at ABC News Channel 7 KMGH in Denver, was able to reach out to Peyton and they will get another signed photo to the family!!

JENN:  I am truly at a loss for words! My husband says for the first time ever (laughter) THANK YOU to Channel 7 and THANK YOU TO EVERYONE who made my friend and her family feel cared about and loved and so touched in the midst of these nightmare days for them.

There have been a flurry of emails, messages, and people going out of their way for this project over the last 1.5  days. I will have more details and thank you’s on the next post, but please know that I am incredibly grateful for all of your efforts!  xoxo, G

© Gina left the mall, 2013

Don’t Forget Snowballs For Memorial Day

Burgers, beer, sunscreen…on Memorial Day Weekend there’s shopping to do, beaches to umbrella and pools to cannonball. Even so, I’d like to suggest one more thing to the list: snowballs. Specifically, Snowball Express, a charity that serves the children of men and women who died serving our country. Since Memorial Day is meant to honor these men and women, doing something for their loved ones seems like a fine idea.

A Snowball’s chance

Snowball Express, “creates hope and new memories” for children of the fallen by organizing special events for them. It’s a chance for these kids to have fun and be with other kids in the same situation. Also, the families get to see that they are not forgotten or alone. Past events include baseball games, magic shows, and concerts.

Now you know

The number of people in active duty is small, about 1% of the population. So not everyone in the other 99% knows someone in the military. Sometimes, the meaning of Memorial Day can feel far away, like a history lesson instead of both our collective past and present. If that’s the case, I’d like you to know someone this day is for, Pfc Jesse Givens. I found his last letter to his family on the Snowball Express site. It inspired them even further in their work. It brought me to tears. (Reader note- if you have a loved one who is deployed right now, I’d skip to the next section.)

22-April-03

My family:

I never thought I would be writing a letter like this, I really don’t know where to start. I’ve been getting bad feelings though and well if you are reading this….

I am forever in debt to you, Dakota, and the bean. I searched all my life for a dream and I found it in you. I would like to think that I made a positive difference in your lives. I will never be able to make up for the bad. I am so sorry. The happiest moments in my life all deal with my little family. I will always have with me the small moments we all shared. The moments when you quit taking life so serious and smiled. The sounds of a beautiful boy’s laughter or the simple nudge of a baby unborn. You will never know how complete you have made me. Each and every one of you. You saved me from lonliness and taught me how to think beyond myself. You taught me how to live and to love. You opened my eyes to a world I never dreamed existed. I am proud of you. Stay on the path you chose. Never lose sight of what is important, you and our babies.

Dakota you are more son then I could ever ask for. I can only hope I was half the dad. I use to be your “danny” but no matter what it makes me proud that you chose me. You taught me how to care until it hurts, you taught me how to smile again. You taught me that life isn’t so serious and sometimes you have to play. You have a big beautiful heart. Through life you need to keep it open and follow it. Never be afraid to be yourself. I will always be there in our park when you dream so we can still play. I hope someday you will have a son like mine. Make them smile and shine just like you. I love you Toad I hope someday you will understand why I didn’t come home. Please be proud of me. Please don’t stop loving life. Take in every breath like it’s your first. I love you toad I will always be there with you. I’ll be in the sun, shadows, dreams, and joys of your life.

Bean, I never got to see you but I know in my heart you are beautiful. I know you will be strong and big hearted just like your mom and brother. I will always have with me the feel of the soft nudges on your moms belly, and the joy I felt when we found out you were on your way. I dream of you every night, I always will. Don’t ever think that since I wasn’t around that I didn’t love you. You were conceived of love and I came to this terrible place for love. I love you as I do your mom and brother with all my heart and soul. Please understand that I had to be gone so that I could take care of my family. I love you Bean.

I have never been so blessed as the day I met Melissa. You are my angel, soulmate, wife, lover, and best friend. I am sorry. I did not want to have to write this letter. There is so much more I need to say, so much more I need to share. A lifetime’s worth. I married you for a million lifetimes. That’s how long I will be with you. Please keep our babies safe. Please find it in your heart to forgive me for leaving you alone. Take care of yourself, believe in yourself, you are a strong, big hearted woman. Teach our babies to live life to its fullest tell yourself to do the same. Don’t forget to take Toad to Disney World. I will be there with you. Melissa I will always want you need you and love you in my heart, mind, and soul. Do me a favor, after you tuck Toad and Bean in, give them hugs and kisses from me. Go outside look at the stars and count them. Don’t forget to smile.

Love Always
Your husband
Jess

A Memorable Weekend

Here’s to making wonderful new memories this weekend and honoring some old ones. And I don’t know about you, but I’ll be having a Snowball with my burger.

Blue Sky

photo courtesy of Tinyspitcracker

© Gina left the mall, 2013

20 Years And The Water Gun Banquet

“Magic Marv,“ formerly known as “Mad Marv,” was retiring from the Air Force after 20 years. They called him “Magic,” for the way he knew the answer to anything you needed. “Mad,” came from all the yelling he did at Airmen who didn’t know answers he thought they should. Both sides of Marv wanted an informal retirement ceremony. Which is how we wound up at the all-you-can-eat Chinese Buffet. 

Marv’s ceremony and an annual awards banquet were two events on the same day that I had the chance to attend while visiting one of my Air Force families. The events were totally different yet, in some ways they were exactly the same. 

Magic/Mad Marv

The 10 of us ate-all-we-could for $6/person. That’s either a great deal or just my reverse sticker-shock when outside of Manhattan. Then Marv’s boss, Senior Master Sergeant Tracy, got up to say a few words. She spoke of his talents and contributions over the years. That part I expected. Then simply and almost gently, she spoke of a difficult time in Afghanistan. How Marv helped prepare the young Airmen around him and others for what they would face and how much that meant to her. Even though she didn’t come out and say it, it was clear they had lost troops in their unit that day. While some other professions face life and death together, the vast majority of us don’t. We aren’t asked to give everything to a mission or co-workers up to and including our lives. Being reminded of that in this context was striking.

Thoughtful gifts and certificates of appreciation are also part of saying goodbye. But what I liked best is when Sergeant Tracy asked Mrs. Marv to stand. Then she handed Mrs. Marv a bouquet of flowers and thanked her for her service…for all the long hours and late nights waiting for Marv, for all the support she gave him at home and during deployments. For everything she went through too. Then she handed her a retirement pin to add to his uniform. As Mrs. Marv placed it on his lapel, Sergeant Tracy said, “Thank you for letting us borrow your husband for 20 years. This pin symbolizes his return to civilian life. We are giving him back to you. You are now his commander again.” There was laughter and a few tears. Marv said some words too. None of them angry and a few of them magical in a Marv way.

There may be water guns

When I was told there would be another function, I asked what the dress code was. “Well, it’s a banquet. And there may be water guns. So, business casual.” Of course. I also found out over 1,000 people would be attending.

There are times in life for formal banquets with white tablecloths, waiters and flower arrangements. This was not one of them. It was being held in an airplane hangar and catered by a local barb-b-que joint. I’ve been to annual awards banquets held in very nice ballrooms and no offense to the Waldorf Astoria but, I thought the hangar was kind of cool.

Airplane Hangar

Not the Waldorf Astoria.

There were four main teams there and each had a color designation, a nickname and a mascot. The mascots appeared to be homemade. Part of the tradition of this event involves attempting to steal the mascots. When one team found theirs missing, they promptly “stole” another team leader’s spouse and forced her to sit at their table until the items were returned. It was an energetic crowd. Yes, one team brought water guns. Luckily I was sitting out of range.

The awards were for outstanding hard work they had done both at home and while deployed last year. That involves some serious stuff. But being able to laugh together is vital to healthy work relationships too. The pride they had in each other was genuine. So was that feeling of family again. Whether they are 10 people or 1,000 they are truly brothers and sisters. And, for one day, I felt like part of the family too.

© Gina left the mall, 2013

Look For The Helpers

Boston Marathon bombing (NBC Evening News)

Boston Marathon bombing (NBC Evening News)

Soldiers complete Boston Marathon, then rush to help

Soldiers complete Boston Marathon, then rush to help (Yahoo News)

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” –Fred Rogers. As the news unfolded in Boston, I thought, Mr. Rogers was onto something.

In my last post I spoke of worrying about my family in Guam (thank you North Korea) and how, like many military families I have met, I didn’t want to watch the news.  I clearly requested, “an outbreak of world peace.” The bombs in Boston are the opposite of this. Clearly, I am not in charge.

Living in NYC, it’s not hard to imagine what the folks in Boston may be feeling right now. But rather than focus on heartache, I am going to follow Mr. Rogers’ advice and look for the helpers. Be inspired by the kindness of strangers. By the first responders who rush in and the everyday people who reach out, whether carrying victims or the thousands who offered their homes to those who were stranded. And, as always, by our troops who help us face every danger near and far. (Update- In the news, we could see many troops or vets simply leaping into action. The yahoo news article captures a few of the ways how.)

I’m going to “fight” this moment by trying to increase the kindness quotient. I especially would like to do something for the family of the 8-yr-old boy, Martin Richard. As I dropped off my 8-yr-old daughter at school this morning, surrounding by the entire 3rd grade, the loss really hit home. I found out a fund has been set up for families and other ways to help here.

Invincible

At the end of the day, there will always be some things that cannot be destroyed. The strength we give, the love we share, and our ability to help one another through anything are among that which is ever invincible.

© Gina left the mall, 2013