Afghanistan To Manhattan

My adopted soldier “K” got home from Afghanistan and one week later he, his wife and 1-year-old son were on their way to visit me in NYC. It would be their first time in the Big Apple.  Before they arrived, I seriously considered learning to cook. My food strategy up to that point had always been: date men who can cook. But then I remembered that pretty much every restaurant delivers so, I was saved.

As we planned the trip, both their friends and mine had concerns. My favorite was a half-kidding query from his wife’s Mom:

WIFE’S MOM:  You’re visiting this lady in New York City? A stranger? Are you sure that’s safe? What if she murders you in your sleep and steals my grandchild?

WIFE:  Mom, Gina asked me how much baby-proofing I want. She got outlet covers and wants to know about furniture bumpers.  I think we’re okay.

FYI, her Mom and I are friends now.

Crowd Control

Before K came home, I had no idea that troops had to “transition” back from deployment. I thought, you get off the plane….hugs, tears, hurray and we’re good. Nope. There are a whole lot of things they need to get used to again. From simple things like color to feeling at ease in crowds. They’ve just spent a long time in a heightened state of alert where crowds often mean danger.  When K’s wife mentioned this, I was a little worried.  I have over 8 million neighbors.

MySoldierInAfghanistan

From here….

New York City skyline

to here.

So going to the Statue of Liberty (long crowded lines) was scrapped in favor of a harbor cruise around Liberty Island. We’d skip Times Square. Dinners with my friends would be small groups. And we’d take a break from the city and spend 2 days in a suburb near the beach. I also enlisted many wonderful friends to help me carry out this plan. Some of them were the same people who had helped me with postcards and packages.

Meeting K & family at the airport

My adopted soldier + son at LGA

K & his son at LGA

This part is hard to describe. I was “with” them during one of the most difficult times of their lives, yet we were strangers. I had worried for both of them. I had cried when he lost friends and prayed for the families. After all that, we were about to say “hello.”

I saw a family approach and my first thought was shock. K had lost 50 pounds during his deployment (hiking in the mountains in 120 degree heat with 100 pounds of gear will do that to you.) But the baby and wife looked just like their pictures so…it had to be them.

I felt like crying but I felt shy too. After some polite hugs we headed back to my place. We went up to the roof of my apartment building, had a few beers and snacks and started to relax. After dinner, we stayed up till 1:00 a.m. talking.

Three faves

We did site-seeing and had great meals with awesome people. I can’t thank my friends enough for creating such a warm welcome. There were a lot of terrific moments but I’ll share three of my favorites:

1. My friend AB and his lovely wife Sarah hosted a b-b-que for them (among many other kind things they did.)  K was playing “monkey in the middle” with some of the kids. This stood out to me because the previous week was Kyle’s 1st birthday. K had spent most of it in the house alone. He wasn’t ready yet to be around so many people. Yet here he was, relaxed and engaged with the group. He was just another Dad in the backyard having fun, but I felt it was a big step in his real journey home.

2.  The nightly late-night talks. Besides sharing family stories, I got the details, good and bad, on different events when he was deployed. And I learned things like the toy I sent him once was technically a weapon. In my defense, “wrist rocket sling shot” sounded to me like something Opie Taylor would play with in Mayberry. At some point, we talked about 9/11. I told him about my day here and he told me that was the day he decided to join the Army.

3. USS Intrepid Museum. The random event that put me on this path occurred on this ship. So from being inspired to taking action to being there with them…I felt like I had come full circle. That I had truly honored the service of the WWII Vet that put this all in motion.

Big hugs

At the end of this amazing visit, I said good-bye to his wife with a big hug and a promise to visit them so they could “repay the kindness.” Then she started to strap baby Kyle into the car seat. K and I stood there a moment in silence. Then I said simply, “welcome home.” K replied warmly, “thank you for everything you have done for me and my family.” He gave me a big hug and when I looked in his eyes I understood that all the silly letters and crazy projects truly meant a great deal to him. And I realized in that moment that my family had just grown by three people.

Epilogue

Yes I have visited them. And last week I found out he will be deploying again. We’re hoping to get together before he leaves.

© Gina left the mall, 2013

Baby Monkey. Good Roommate?

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

Meet Joe the monkey

Joe. Baby monkey rescued and adopted by soldiers.

Joe

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

injured baby monkey rescued by soldiers

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

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

Why I like Joe

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

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

Roomies

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

© Gina left the mall, 2012

Killer Snowflakes

Did you know that glitter could be picked up by night-vision goggles? At least that’s what I found out after I mailed the glitter-filled 1st grade snowflake project I sent my adopted soldier, Staff Sergeant K. Previously, I had sent some care packages that turned out better than I ever imagined (Combat Golf and Phoenix Coyotes vs. The Taliban) along with greatly appreciated ones of soup or beef jerky. This was the first time I had problems and glitter was only part of it. Ironically, these killer snowflakes taught me something very important about volunteer work. And class projects.

Night vision

Night vision picking up something reflective. Presumably not glitter.

It seemed like a good idea at the time

My daughter Sofia was in 1st grade and it was close to the holidays. What could be more heartwarming than getting a boxful of handmade Christmas decorations from her class? The school said that was great but it couldn’t have anything to do with religion. Okay. What could be more heartwarming than getting a boxful of handmade winter decorations from her class?

I invented “Snowflake Wishes.” I’d have the kids make and decorate snowflakes. Then write something they wished for him on a card, which I would then attach with clear fishing line and let it magically dangle below the snowflake. Oh, and I’d make fishing line loops for the top too so he could string the snowflakes up. Exactly what part of my single-working-mom brain came up with this labor-intensive plan, I do not know.

Making 27 kids cry

To introduce the kids to my soldier and this project, I gave the teacher a few pics of him in uniform and some of him with his family. She projected them on a white board and the images were huge. The kids were all drawn to the one with him and his infant son, baby Kyle. Roughly, the conversation went like this:

CHILD 1: He’s not with his Daddy?

ME:  Well…not right now, no.

CHILD 2:  But they’ll be together for Christmas right?

ME:  Um…no.

CHILD 3:  What about the next day?

ME:  Well…his Dad works far away and…

CHILD 4:  What about day after that?

I revealed that my soldier would not be getting back till June of the following year. Suddenly I was surrounded by tear-filled eyes and trembling lips. Uh oh. But then I explained that was why these snowflakes would mean so much and be such a happy surprise.

They then became a determined little group on a mission to make this happy surprise. Their 4th grade book buddies were also there to help with any “scissor issues” in snowflake production.

Box of sad

Decorating was cut short by the surprise fire drill. Then I found out these snowflakes needed to dry. I didn’t factor in “dry-time” and I had to ship soon to make the Christmas, I mean winter deadline. The teacher and I checked on the wishes and found two main areas. 1. Heartbreaking hopes to be with baby Kyle and 2. “hope you don’t die.”

Now the teacher and I were ready to cry. How can I send him a box of sad? So I asked the kids if they could have anything they wanted right now, what would it be. One said “pizza” another shouted “ice cream!” So they wrote another round of wishes. After he got them, he made an observation.

SSgt K:  It was so funny, most of them wished me pizza and ice cream.

ME:   Really? How interesting.

VERY IMPORTANT VOLUNTEER LESSON

Putting together these snowflakes was a nightmare. I didn’t have enough time. The book buddies made some too so I had more than 27. The “fishing line” or whatever craft line I bought defied being tied. It was too slippery to stay knotted without tremendous effort. My carpal tunnel hands angrily protested this activity. And I felt I had to make sure the right wish went with the right snowflake. Have you seen how first-graders write? Not an easy code to crack. But, as the clock turned from 1:59AM to 2:00AM and I was still working on this to meet my shipping deadline……I realized this:

You don’t have to do a lot to make a difference.  Do what you can.

This project was too much for me. I should’ve asked for help on the back-end or done something smaller. I think this lesson holds true in any volunteer situation. But especially with our troops because little things mean a lot out there.

Glitter Kills  

After I was so happy to get that care package out the door, I happened to read glitter danger articles. I had visions of his platoon standing under these snowflakes while shiny bits of vulnerability floated down upon them. So I wrote and mentioned there may be some mess or glitter in this box. It was fine. And the funny part? Look how he hung them up. I laughed thinking about the extra work I had created for myself with those darn loops.

Snowflake Wishes my daughter's 1st grade class made for my adopted soldier

(photo cropped for privacy and security)

In the end, he appreciated that the class did something thoughtful and kind for him. That’s all that mattered. And even though the first-graders were the ones in school, I’m the one that learned the biggest lesson: do what you can.

© Gina left the mall, 2012 

Combat Gumbo and The Sexy Lunch

Mountains near my adopted soldier's base in Afghanistan

combat outpost

my soldier’s combat outpost

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

MREs

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

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

Army MRE cherry blueberry cobbler

cherry blueberry cobbler

Army MRE spaghetti

spaghetti with meat sauce

Gumbo

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

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

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

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

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

soldiers preparing "combat gumbo"

The Sexy Lunch

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

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

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

US soldiers and Afghan soldiers sharing a meal together

The delicious care package

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

© Gina left the mall, 2012

A Healthy Cigar

The man at the wooden table hand-rolled another cigar. I was the only non-smoker in the shop. Possibly ever. But I had discovered a health benefit to cigars and was on a mission. That mission brought me to a fancy cigar store uptown and to this altogether different one where I would receive an interesting offer.

I have no medical proof but…

My adopted soldier and a few other soldiers I wrote to loved cigars. Based on my years of no medical school, I decided that the emotional and physical benefits outweighed the nicotine negatives because:

1. Getting mail reduces stress, anxiety and a host of other bad things. Getting a care package with an item you love and miss ups those benefits.

2. Their current environment and/or air quality is worse than anything I could do. They were working near towns that burn trash in endless fires in long ditches, and breathing in fighter jet fuel, smoke from being mortared, etc.

Sounds like pickles

I pressed a buzzer to gain entry into the uptown cigar shop. The atmosphere was quiet and reverent. I was led to the walk-in humidor to contemplate my purchase. After a few minutes, Adam came to help me. I asked him what he recommended.

ADAM:  Does your friend like strong flavors?

ME:  I don’t know. We’ve never met. He’s my adopted soldier. Although he once mentioned something that kinda sounded like pickles…um gerkins. Does that sound familiar?

ADAM: Yes Gurkhas.  Do you want a box?

There is a wide price-point when it comes to cigars. I wound up getting a variety. As I only got four cigars, it was a small variety, but it’s the thought that counts. Adam kindly tossed in a cutter and a box to help me ship them and wished my soldier well.

We know it’s about your hair

The next time I went to a place that hand-rolled their cigars. I was a little shy to walk in because it felt like a clubhouse. But these guys were awesome and more than happy to help me.

Outside Martinez Cigar shop in NYC

As a gentleman thoughtfully chose cigars for my soldier, I kept walking in and out of the shop. Finally, one of the guys said,

We know what you’re doing. We know it’s about your hair. This is why our wives and girlfriends won’t hang out here. They don’t want their hair to smell like smoke

He was right. But in my defense, I had just gotten my belligerent waves blown-out and was pretty much having the best hair day of my life.

So they made me an offer. If I would sit there with them and smoke my first cigar, they would pay to get my hair redone. I wanted to be the cool chick that said yes and had a good story. But I’m me and I was already queasy from the smoke. A cigar would put me over the edge.

Before I left, they asked me to give my soldier their thanks. They also gave me a few cigars for free so he could share and hoped he enjoyed what they had picked out. I asked if they would tell my soldier themselves:

Staff and friends at Martinez Cigar send a message to my soldier in Afghanistan

Cigars in action

Each time I sent cigars to Afghanistan the soldiers loved them. They loved being able to take a break and to have this taste of home. The air around them changed for a few moments, infused with good memories. It brightened their spirits. My adopted soldier even saved one for when he came home on leave. His commute back was like Amazing Race with bullets. It involved many days and little sleep. At the airport, he met his infant son for the first time. Finally exhaustion kicked in and he slept for 12 hours and when he awoke,

“Of course everyone was still sleeping since it was 5am, so I made my dogs wake up and go for a walk with me. After that I tried waking up my wife and she begged me to let her sleep for another hour. So I went outside and smoked one of the cigars you sent me and just enjoyed the country morning.”

The following year when my adopted soldier returned from his deployment, I found out he brought back all the letters people had sent him. He had saved them because these letters from strangers meant something. Small things do when you’re deployed. His wife made me a beautiful scrapbook and I found out he saved every cigar band too. That may not be scientific proof,  but it’s proof enough for me that these cigars gave him a healthy morale boost. In a combat zone, that is very, very good for you.

My adopted soldier saved every cigar band from the cigars I sent. His wife put them in beautiful scrapbook she made me.

© Gina left the mall, 2012

Combat Golf

My adopted soldier found a driver in Afghanistan. I assumed that meant “chauffeur.”  Nope, he meant golf club. Of course. So I figured I’d send him some golf balls. Then I saw how expensive they were. I revised my plan to be: I think I’ll ask everyone I know to give me some used golf balls.

I went to the usual suspects and got a small pile. But I wanted more. I wanted to fill a box and have them spill out in his brick hut when he opened it. Sort of an interactive care package.

I know a guy…

As luck would have it, I shared this plan with my friend Tina. Tina knew of a guy who would dive for lost balls in a golf course lake, clean them and then sell them out of the trunk of his car on a certain street in Staten Island. Of course.

Tina graciously handled the deal and commuted in with a LOT of golf balls. I filled a few flat-rate boxes. Then I had the problem of carrying these heavy boxes to the post office.  Once again, it was Tina to the rescue (thanks T!)

Balls in the zone

All the balls made it to the combat zone. My soldier opened the boxes (no, they didn’t spill) and ran to get the biggest golf lovers in the unit. Picture three guys, eyes wide, very happy.  They went to the roof of their brick hut to create a driving range. However, I did not think to send a golf TEE.  I’m not very sporty. No problem. Our soldiers are resourceful. They used a shell casing.

Yes I know the picture is cut off. As always, I edit for privacy and OPSEC/PERSEC (Operational Security and Personal Security) guidelines.

My adopted soldier in A'stan hitting the golf balls I sent off the roof of his brick hut.

Shagging (UK readers, this is not what you think)

The soldiers hit the balls off the roof and had a great time doing it. There were not a lot of entertainment options at this remote mountain base. Then something surprising happened the next day. Some Afghan children came to the FOB with their shirts held out and filled with golf balls. They had shagged the balls and wanted to sell them back to the soldiers.

A price was agreed upon. The children were paid in cash or brass shell casings. Children would often collect the casings because they were worth .50 each in the local economy.

The soldiers hit them off the roof again. Again the kids shagged the balls and sold them back. This went on until his unit pulled out. He left the driver and the balls for next unit.

You don’t realize what you did

I was just happy that I helped a few guys have a little fun.  When I shared this story with another soldier he said,

“You don’t realize what you did. We’re not welcome here. You gave them a positive way to interact with the community. The kids are the lookouts when the bad guys are planting IEDs. Getting the kids on your side is huge. You probably saved lives”

Okay, I don’t think I saved lives. But maybe I helped a few of those positive interactions with the kids. Reduced a little stress for the soldiers.  And that officially makes this my best (and only) golf game ever.

© Gina left the mall, 2012

My Soldier’s Wife

Friends. Family. Total strangers. “My adopted soldier’s wife” doesn’t fall neatly into the usual categories. My situation also wasn’t the norm. The Taliban kept attacking my soldier’s base and knocking out their internet. After a while, I had more contact with his wife than him. And along the way, I learned things worth sharing.

The family also serves

My soldier’s wife is amazing. When we “met” she was a new mom (he missed the birth by two weeks). His deployment was difficult and their contact was limited. He could call her once every 3 days for 15 minutes. Unless his mission took him away for…who knows how long. That uncertainty was her everyday normal. But the everyday resiliency and grace she exhibited was impressive.

She went house-hunting solo (from out-of-state no less). Set up the baby’s room. Handled the bills. Handled everything. I wish I were half as buttoned-up.

I’m sure she had her bad days that she shared with those closest to her. But the part I saw was her taking action. Doing all she could to keep her family thriving. That also meant making him feel as connected as possible to home. Including sending updates and pictures to a total stranger in NYC. I think she didn’t want me to mistake his increasing silence as a sign to stop writing.

If I’m worried…

There was a bad attack in his area. The news named his task force and unit. The military has a communication blackout policy when there are KIAs. I was worried for him. But then I tried to imagine how she felt. That’s the moment I figured out that when a soldier raises his hand to serve, the whole family serves as well. Not just in the scary moments. In the ordinary moments too, where we do most of our living. Imagine going months without the help and support of your loved one. That is just part of what we ask of our military families.

Questions

“Doesn’t his wife mind you writing to her husband?”

SFX (sound effects):  NEEDLE SCRATCHING RECORD

I stopped what I was doing. The beef jerky hovering above the flat-rate box I was packing for him. “What??? He sent me pictures of them together. I’m sure she knows and supports his being adopted and um…um….”

That’s when I decided to assume he was not the only one reading my emails. I’d assume his wife and roommate were too. Not that I was planning on writing anything “bad” anyway. I would just keep the potential audiences in mind. It was a long time before I shared that I’m a single mom. I was a little cautious because I wanted to make sure that nothing I wrote came off the wrong way.

“Doesn’t he have a wife to send him care packages?”

“Yes he does. She’s at home with the newborn he hasn’t met. He’s in firefights in Afghanistan. So should we have her shoulder everything? Do we all get to skip to the park with our kids feeling safe and on the way we’ll yell out- hey you two, thanks for handling that freedom and security thing.”

There was a less sarcastic answer to that question. I just didn’t feel like using it.

The power

I sent my soldier some snacks and included four small water guns. I thought they were funny to send to a sniper. My soldier’s wife wrote that they loved them. They used them to “ambush” a guy on his birthday. She said they’re all really big kids at heart and how it was great that I thought to do that. And what she said next is the reason why I’ve wound up doing things for over 800 more troops.

She told me that they felt grateful and lucky that he got me as his adopter. The thought and effort I put in was making a difference for him. She told me that she felt lucky too and how it made a difference for her.

I thought, I have never met any of these people. But being a total stranger did not in any way stop me from having a positive effect in their lives that day. Even if it was a small thing, it was something good in the face of challenges.  How cool is it that we each have that power? Realizing the impact I was making inspired me to step up and expand my efforts.

I don’t think I ever told my soldier’s wife that she was the reason I started doing more. So I’ll tell her here that she made a difference in my life right back.

© Gina left the mall, 2012