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

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