Coming Home Early

Exciting news!!! My soldier’s deployment is being cut short AND he will be home in time for the birth of his child! YAY!!!!! Of course, before we all get too comfortable, he’s already been informed he’ll be deploying again this year. But for now, we’ve hit his mail-stop date and all kinds of joy are just around the corner.

This is the same soldier, Sergeant (Sgt.) K, that many of you helped me support with my snail-tweet project (one postcard a day, every day.) Thank you for all the messages you left here for me to send. Thanks also to everyone who sent me postcards from their home state to use.

He did get most of them. And he loved them. That’s the big win. If I ever do this again, there are a few small things I would change. And many things I wouldn’t.

Snail review

1. Getting postcards ahead of time and having snail-tweets from other people is a huge help.

2. Writing to the same person every day made me more aware of the passage of time. And gave me an even greater appreciation for what Sgt. K’s family goes through.

3. Deciding after you start snail-tweeting to create a craft project and photograph each one (both sides) in different locales with different backgrounds adds a layer of complexity that is not necessary at all.

4. If you travel, bring more than the exact number of postcards that you need in case something goes wrong. Like you are ambushed by a sneak rainstorm while visiting your mom in Florida a few months ago.

The ambush

It was a beautiful sunny day. See?

(I blurred out the last names and address for privacy.)

(I blurred out the last names and address for privacy.)

Do not trust this shade of perfection-blue. It may turn on you. Innocently, I wrote out that day’s postcard. Then, adhering to my Mom’s outgoing mail system, I used a wooden clothespin to attach it to her mailbox. The mailbox is protected by an awning that extends five feet. I put it on and went out with Mom to run an errand.

In my absence, it rained hard for 10 minutes. Sideways. The postcard was soaked. Gingerly, I peeled it free and then attempted to return this near-pulp object back to a solid state with a blow-dryer. After I was done, I still wasn’t sure the structural integrity would hold so, I put it in an envelope. Back it went to the mailbox with the clothespin but this time I kept a steady eye on the skies.

Trying to save snail tweet #31

Trying to save snail tweet #31

Luckily, it survived all the way to Afghanistan. This is part of Sgt. K’s office wall.

Some of the snail tweets that made it to Afghanistan. #31 is among them.

Some of the snail tweets that made it to Afghanistan. #31 is among them.

Since this picture was taken, more 4×6 doses of morale-boosting care have arrived and been added to the wall. Soon Sgt. K will take them down and start concentrating on a much better decorating project: the finishing touches on the nursery for his new baby.

© Gina left the mall, 2014

Vets Capture War In Six Words

What if I asked you to tell me about a major experience in your life with just six words? Good, bad, ugly, funny, whatever, but you only get six words to do it. That challenge is what two vets, Mike Nemeth and Shaun Wheelwright, asked of their brothers and sisters in arms who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan. They asked them to describe what they’ve been through in six-word essays. The finished result will be the first crowd-sourced memoir about these conflicts called Six Word War.

Nemeth and Wheelwright did not invent the six-word essay. A famous example is attributed to Hemingway, “For sale: Baby shoes, never worn.” But Six Word War expands on this idea by collecting the voices and viewpoints of many. Together, they tell a story that no single one could capture on their own. Some vets sign their essays. Some are anonymous. Here are some examples:

I am tired of the goodbyes. 

Mom, can’t chat now. Rockets incoming. 

Deployed three years, but for what?

Boredom, Boredom, Sheer Terror, Boredom, Boredom. 

Where did I leave my pants?

Air so bad. Filter cigarette’s healthy.

Sometimes I wish I was back.

Stories untold

When I came across Six Word War, I couldn’t help but think of some of the stories troops have told me. Especially the one I couldn’t convince a soldier to share in his real world. Maybe six words would be big enough for him to have a voice and small enough to not make him feel exposed.

I also think about the soldier who helped me understand PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) None of his buddies wanted to talk about the subject. So he described his own PTSD and it was a painful experience for him. But afterwards, I’m happy to say that he found it helpful to open up a little. I wonder if other vets who struggle with their story would find it healing to share it in six words. The brevity forces you to focus. And again, maybe it’s small enough to not feel completely vulnerable or raw.

Submissions and possibilities

The Six Word War Kickstarter campaign has been funded (I participated) but they are still taking essay submissions for the next few weeks at the Six Word War site. If you know a vet, please share this with them. Give them a chance to be part of it. If you are vet, please consider doing this. Be heard.

Six Word War

I hope the book becomes wildly successful. Because one possible result would be greater understanding between civilians and military. At some point, all of these thousands of men and woman who have been through this unique experience return to civilian life. How much better will we all be with a little shared knowledge and empathy?

I also wonder about a possible “companion book” from the family’s point of view. What six words would a military spouse have? How about a ten-year-old boy who’s Dad has deployed for half his life? Military parents? Or any loved one who has held their breath when the evening news came on.

Imagine the conversations that could begin with just six words.

© Gina left the mall, 2013

Pillow Talk

Andrew* is trying to get pillows and sheets for the 90 soldiers in his platoon because they have none. I said I’d help. That led to some interesting “pillow talks” with a soldier, a child, and a passionate “debater.”

The soldier is Dylan* and we’ve been friends for a while. I know that when it comes to deployment, accommodations vary. So I asked him about his personal worst and best. (*Names changed for privacy.)

No mint on your pillow here

DYLAN: The worst was either Columbia or Afghanistan in ’01. Iraq in ’03 was bad too. There were NO accommodations. Sleep where you fall and dig. Eat what you can kill, catch, or carry. Latrines??? Nothing. The best you could hope for (I deleted the rest of this sentence. I wish I could also delete Dylan’s colorful “no latrine” description from my brain.)  Ammo and other supplies, had to have air dropped. This caused a whole new set of problems…we weren’t the only ones that could see the plane or chopper coming. Had some hellacious firefights over resupplies!!

Best… Iraq 09-10 (OIF7) when you and I met!! We had living quarters, chow hall, internet and phone shacks, a small PX, and a gym. Still got rocketed and mortared a lot, but still nice to not have to (another colorful description that can be summed up: latrines = good.)

Night-lights are mandatory

To be clear, I was not buying 90 sets of twin sheets and pillows. I was getting two. Andrew had written to Soldiers’ Angels and they put the request out to the group. (So far, volunteers have signed up for all the pillows and 37 sets of sheets.)

As I headed to the store, my daughter Sofia informed me that I had to send them a night-light too. “Mommy! You can’t make them sleep in the dark! The dark is scary!” Technically, she has a point. I imagine it can be scary out there in the dark. But if I told her the soldiers probably didn’t need this, I know she’d say, “but what if one does?” Seeing her concern and how she relates it to her own world and what makes her feel vulnerable, touched my heart. The nightlight was in.

My options were Sponge Bob floating in a bubble of water, mermaids, or princesses. I went with Sponge Bob because had the edgier look in his eyes. I also got coffee. After all, with all this newfound comfort, these soldiers may need help waking up.

Pillows, sheets, "mandatory" Sponge Bob  night-light and coffee

Pillows, sheets, that’s Sponge Bob sleeping on top, and coffee getting weighed at the UPS store. No way to smush that into my usual flat-rate box.

More than talk

Leslie at Soldiers’ Angels had shared Andrew’s request and was keeping track of the responses. So I let her know how many pillows and sheets I picked up. We got to chatting and I found out:

1. She is the wife of a disabled vet.

2. She does a lot of volunteer work at Soldiers’ Angels.

3. She got into a “debate” with a gentleman at Walmart and is now writing 4,000 letters to deployed troops to prove him wrong.

Number three took me by surprise. Leslie explained that she was wearing her Soldiers’ Angels t-shirt as she shopped in Walmart. A woman approached her and started asking questions. Leslie was happily answering when a gentleman chimed in, “They don’t want letters, all they want is stuff. Letters don’t make a difference.” Leslie asked him why he had that perception. He didn’t have an answer. He just kept repeating his assertion.

I know, as Leslie does, that a letter can make all the difference in the world. It can transport you and lift your spirits. A letter can be carried with you and offer irrefutable proof that you are cared for and not forgotten. Whether our troops sleep on a bunk or in the dirt, whether they have bedding or nothing, that’s knowledge that brings comfort.

The, “all they want is stuff” part bugged me. These are our young men and women in harm’s way. Not Veruca Salt from Willie Wonka (the girl who wants it all and sings, I want it now!) The number one item I’ve seen requested is: anything. Because any little thing is appreciated. They’re in a combat zone. They don’t have access to the every day things we take for granted. Chips, soap (for those in remote areas) a cup of coffee. These are touches of home that mean a great deal. And when there are specific needs or group requests like Andrew’s, I know exactly what the motivation is: they want to help support their fellow troops any way they can.

Leslie’s debate went in circles until she asked this gentleman what she could do to change his mind.

GENTLEMAN: Nothing!

LESLIE: You tell me how many letters you want me to write. I will write them and show you the response and I will change your mind.

GENTLEMAN: 2,000

LESLIE: I’ve hit 2,000 in one year before. So why don’t we make this interesting? Let’s say 4,000.

GENTLEMAN: I don’t think you can do it.

LESLIE: You’re on!

She has been doing it. To cheer her on or check the countdown, go to her facebook page: 4,000 Letters From Home. The deadline is December 31, 2013. I look forward to this gentleman starting the New Year with a new perspective.

Almost bedtime

The bedding care package is on its way to Afghanistan. I hope Sofia’s nightlight makes them smile. And since I enjoyed the talks the pillows started, I figured I’d let Andrew have the last word by sharing the last line of his request:

Anything will be cherished. Thank you.

© Gina left the mall, 2013

Back To The Desert

A Marine I met two years ago is deploying for the fourth time. But this is his first time doing so as a dad. Before, one of the things he missed most was color. Like the green of grass and trees. Of course, this time, he is already pre-missing his baby girl. So I tried to take that into account as I thought about what to send him. This is what I came up with:

Essential gear

1. I LOVE NY coffee mug- Nothing says, “I’m a friendly guy, please sit down and chat a while” like something that screams New York. I am laughing on the inside because I know this Marine can be a bit difficult when he wants to be. After he shared a few work-related stories, I jokingly asked, “You’re kind of a pain in the a**  aren’t you?” He replied, “Only to people who try to mess with my Marines.

2. 1lb of coffee and assorted snacks. This is essential gear.

Dad factor

1. Notes from dad- I included a box of cute cards for him to send to his daughter. Sure, she can’t read yet, but I thought it would be nice for his wife to receive them. Maybe she’ll put them in a scrapbook or maybe just save them for later. Either way, I think it would be sweet for his daughter to have them.

2. Simple durable frame for super-adorable photo.

3. Motivation tip from my daughter Sofia. To help him at work.

Name blurred for privacy. Smiley-faces blurred so I don't get in trouble with some Sticker Cartel for copyright infringement.

Name blurred for privacy. Smiley-faces blurred so I don’t get in trouble with some Sticker Cartel for copyright infringement.

4. More help from Sofia: groovy, multi-patterned pencils for sharing. You know, in case the other Marines forget to bring theirs.

I thought about sending him a parents’ magazine and labeling it, “INTEL” but I didn’t know if seeing those other kid pics would bum him out or not. Plus, I wasn’t sure how interested he’d be in the articles.

Welcome back?

I don’t really expect smiley-face sparkle stickers to become part of his official routine. I think it would be hilarious, but I don’t expect it. However, this Marine may as well learn now that he’s got all kinds of sparkle ahead of him. But as he arrives in the desert, we’ll “welcome” him back with the certainty that many people care. Even strangers. I’ve never met this Marine in person, we became pen pals through Soldiers’ Angels. Like my fellow volunteers, we hope to send a few extra smiles until we can say, “welcome home” again.

Update: He loved the box and followed Sofia’s advice! Two of his Marines did a very good job and he told her to imagine them in a combat zone with smiley face stickers on their uniforms. He said, “that should bring a smile to your face.” It most certainly did!

© Gina left the mall, 2013

Finding The Beautiful Parts

C-130 in Afghanistan, snow-capped mountains

A soldier wrote to me about the snow-capped mountains in Afghanistan, “it’s too bad we don’t get along, I would love to snowboard there.” Another spoke of a local shopkeeper who served him tea while hand-carving a box he was buying. Yet another told me about a warm encounter in a bread factory in Kabul. These sound like very little things but they made me happy. I was glad that even in a combat zone, these troops still noticed the beautiful parts, whether in nature or simple human connections with strangers.

With all that we know about PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and the real threat strangers can pose, I think retaining the ability to find the beauty around you is important.

Hand-carved box made in Afghanistan

Hand-carved box made in Afghanistan.

Kabul bread factory

This is a story Col. Mike, one of my Cup of Joe soldiers, shared with me:

We inspected a bread factory in Kabul where they make all the bread for the police in the city. The bread factory is in a huge building that was built by the Russians over 35 years ago. They have 5 giant ovens and machinery that mixes the dough. Machinery inside a bread factory in KabulWhen I walked into the bread factory, there were the usual flies and there are birds that fly in through the broken windows pecking at the fresh baked bread! The women who were working there told me about how they wrap their hair with a scarf so their hair doesn’t get in the dough. I told them that I didn’t have that problem and they had a good laugh over that!

The workers shape the bread into different forms, some is flat, others are in loaves and they also make a sweet bread that is my favorite! All the bread tastes great and is a main part of every meal. Most of the workers are women and were very friendly. They were really proud of their work and kept asking me to sample the different types of bread. After every bite, I’d say “Xhoob as!” (That’s good!) and they would just get the biggest smiles on their faces!  When I tried the sweet bread, I said “Beeseyahr xhoob as!!” (That’s very good!)  I think they were just happy to get visitors. Unfortunately, the place was pretty run down and showed the years of use, and the strains of the turmoil over the last 30 years. But in spite of all that, they still made some of the best bread I’ve ever tasted!

Fresh baked bread in a  Kabul bread factory

In spite of all that…

In spite of all that, there are still moments of warmth to be shared and natural wonders to be appreciated. These things may be a small defense against disconnecting and feeling numb from the bigger and more dangerous moments. But as long as these troops are still noticing and connecting, that makes me feel like they’re going to be okay. And that’s a beautiful thing.

Aloha Kandahar

I had a soldier in Kandahar whose job was to clear roads of IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices.) I decided that soldier needed a luau.

His base in Kandahar

His base in Kandahar

They already have sand…

When it comes to care packages, troops appreciate anything. While there are staples and standard items, doing themes is fun for both the sender and sendee. I figured since this soldier already had plenty of sand, I would give him a “luau” in a box.

LUAU care package

Luau care package part 2

It’s hard to tell from the picture but, those are TROPICAL flavored Tums and the small brown bag is Kona coffee. I got some cigars and made a cigar box out of a small USPS flat-rate box so they wouldn’t get smushed.

A real luau is a large feast not a hearty snack. However, it is where you gather with friends, wear bright colors and relax. I was hoping my version might make him smile after a long day. Since troops often share what they receive with their buddies, I knew the cigar break would be appreciated and help reduce stress a little.  With or without wearing leis.

Other essential items

Even when I send hygiene items, I’ll still toss in something fun. You never know when a game of dodgeball may break out. It’s good to be prepared.

care package- toys

When my friend Abby found out about the fun-factor she wanted to help think of ideas. I was about to send something to my solider based in the mountains and hadn’t come up with anything yet, so I accepted her help.

ABBY EXCITEDLY:  I know! I know!  How about a kite?

ME:  So… a bright, red, diamond-shape in the sky that can be seen for miles attached to a string that leads directly to his position on the ground?

ABBY:  Oh, that wouldn’t be good. What about a canteen?

ME: I have a feeling the Army gives them canteens. The Army may have even invented canteens.

Abby and I had a good laugh as we decided she should help in other ways. Imagine a kite in these mountains near his base.

Mountains near my adopted soldier's base in Afghanistan

Afghanistan

A different box

Of course, there’s more than one kind of box you can fill that makes a difference. That would be a mailbox because a simple letter or postcard can mean a great deal.

One thing I like about Soldiers’ Angels is the opportunity to help other members with their projects. Last week, an “angel” put the word out that her adopted soldier, a female combat medic, and her entire unit (50 soldiers) were having some tough days. The angel wanted to send them a care package filled with encouraging letters and postcards from all across the country. It only took a few minutes to write a letter and postcard. It only cost two stamps and the price of the postcard.

letters to the troops

While the luau box was fun, I love that I can make an impact by doing something small too. Because if there’s one place in the world where little things mean a lot, it’s wherever our troops are far from home.

© Gina left the mall, 2013

A World Away From Walmart

I think the sign on this store in Afghanistan is either humor or some shopkeeper’s overly generous view of his inventory level.

Walmart sign hung on a store in Afghanistan.

A shop in Afghanistan. Not really a Walmart. (Soldier pointing to sign is blurred for privacy.)

Of course, nobody goes to a combat zone for the shopping. But if there were more of a selection, requests wouldn’t have gone out for Matchbox cars, a year’s worth of Hallmark moments and children’s books. All three were different ways that troops tried to feel more connected to home. All three requests came via Soldiers’ Angels who were doing their best to help the troops they adopted in every way they could.

Matchbox contest

Two Airmen were having a friendly contest to see who could get more Matchbox cars. One of them wanted to take pictures of the cars around the base to email to his 4-year-old son and then ship the cars home. This way his son could see where Daddy worked and hold the cars that were there in his hands. Both troops started receiving these small vehicles. However, the Airman with the little boy had been adopted by a Soldiers’ Angel. He happened to mention the contest to her. As a surprise, she put the request out to the group (I am a member) and he received cars and encouraging letters from all across the country. The ones I sent are below. Technically, the NYPD and FDNY are not Matchbox but, I thought his son might like them.

Matchbox cars and note to deployed troop for his care package

(name blurred for privacy)

This Airman was moved by the outpouring of support for both himself and his son. Even his buddy enjoyed seeing how much people cared.

Happy “______” Day

A Soldier with two pre-teen girls wanted to be able to send them cards on every holiday. He always did this at home and wanted to keep that up while he was gone. Creating or keeping small rituals can help people feel closer. However, stationery stores aren’t easy to find. So his Angel put the word out.

Now you may be wondering what happens if he gets more than he needs? The thing is, troops share. They share with each other and, if the items can be used by the local orphanages or the community, they share there as well. In fact, many troops donate time, effort and goods to those in need. One of my readers, blogger and Soldier Jenny O, is among them.

Cat In The (camouflage) Hat

Why would troops need children’s books? Because they wanted to read to their children at night over skype.  Or to record themselves and send it home. It’s another one of those little rituals that mean even more if you are separated. To be able to maintain it is something special for both parent and child. So I purged my daughter Sofia’s bookshelf and then got a few new ones too. That night when we had storytime I had tears in my eyes and an ache in my heart. Other families were trying hard to have that very moment.  I didn’t want to take it for granted. After all, it’s one of those you can’t buy in a store. No matter what the sign says.

© Gina left the mall, 2013