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

Air Force Mom. Mission Of Love.

When my son went in, it was before 9/11. All this wasn’t going on. Back then it was almost like he had an everyday job. There wasn’t this heightened sense….like I had to do something. That changed.

Denise is an Air Force Mom and USO volunteer at Raleigh-Durham International Airport. With all the love in her heart, she helps troops and families. She helped me too when what I saw at the USO that day drove me to tears.

He grew up right before my eyes

I asked Denise to tell me a little about her son.

We were together on 9/11 in London. He was there on leave. His friends met us and we were deciding where to go next. Maybe Buckingham Palace…they were just kids being tourists. We sat down at a restaurant and when the waiter heard our accents he mentioned a plane hit the tower. We assumed it was an accident. The TV was on. When the second plane hit, we knew. 

I looked at my son and right before my eyes, he changed from my baby to that Airman, that highly trained person. You don’t see your child as that person. Before my eyes, he grew into a man 10 feet tall and strong and very protective. The phones started ringing like crazy and they had to get back to base. The media were waiting when we got off the train near the base. They wanted to talk to Americans. He walked in front of me to protect me, got me to my hotel and said, ‘Mom I’ll see you later.”

"This is what everyone else sees when they look at my son."

“This is what everyone else sees when they look at my son.”

"This is what I see when I look at my son."

“This is what I see when I look at my son.”

Banking love

I look at these troops and think, this is another woman’s child. So I treat them like my own. I say, “you tell your mom there was a mom here who made you fill up your pockets with sandwiches and snacks and took care of you.”

I tell my son I put something in the bank for him to withdraw when he needs it. Because when my son is somewhere in the world, maybe at a USO, I hope that there’ll be a mom there with a smile or sandwich or whatever he needs at that moment. Someone to give him the same kind of love that I give to those that I meet here. 

Three of many

I asked about some of the people she’s met. Here are three of many.

1.The young wife who was travelling overseas with pets. She had all kinds of crates that didn’t meet airline standards and was crying because if she missed the flight, she might not see her husband before he left for training.

What I did was reassure her that she was part of a big family. If she couldn’t get to him in time, someone would be there to meet her…another wife, another soldier …someone would be there for her. You’re part of a big family now. No matter what branch. No matter where.

2. Around the holidays, the USO is very busy. A soldier Denise was talking to was amazed that they all volunteered to be there, at how much they were doing and that they were open 24/7.

Finally I asked him, didn’t you volunteer for the Army? He looked me in my eyes, and said, ‘yes I did.’  I said, me volunteering here is my way of thanking you and those that serve with you. 

3. A family of six came through. The mom was pregnant and had a toddler in a stroller. Just the mom and toddler were headed to Phoenix to visit her sick mother.

We fed them and made them comfortable. Then I said, “let’s get you juice boxes and some snacks for the flight.” The mom started crying. She said she only had $5. That’s all she had in her wallet and there was a layover too. When we heard that, we really packed it in. Gave her all she could take.

The gold star

The were a few other people at the USO the day I spoke with Denise. The women at the table behind me looked exhausted. I assumed they had some terrible travel delays. Nearby was a volunteer named Julie. We started chatting. “I’m a Gold Star Mother, do you know what that means?” My heart dropped. I knew it meant her son or daughter died while serving this country. Julie said she was there to help the family behind me. To help them get through the airport and whatever else they needed as they “brought him home.” My heart dropped even further.

A few minutes later it was time for me to catch my flight. I had made small talk earlier with one of the women behind me. Now that I knew what this family was going through, I didn’t want to just leave. I wanted to tell them how very sorry I was for their loss. I got as far as “I’m so…” before I choked up and started to cry. Trembling, I couldn’t get the words out. Their eyes filled with tears and they nodded. I nodded back and walked away, afraid I was going to just lose it. I felt Denise’s hand on my shoulder. I had to keep walking. When I got home, there was an email from Denise.

Just wanted to check in with you…I know how you feel. My first two shifts at the USO involved families receiving the body of their loved ones KIA. It leaves a mark deep within. As volunteers we fill many roles, by far comforting a family in this situation is the most challenging…I’m here if you need to talk.

One thing

I asked Denise what was the one thing she wished everyone knew.

When they look into the face of our service people, that they would just remember, that’s somebody child or husband or wife. That every day they sacrifice something, a big portion of their lives…time with their family… so you can be free to do the things you want. 

I wish they could remember this about our service people.  And to just give them the respect and support and love that they deserve. 

© Gina left the mall, 2013

Sending Them “Home” For The Holidays

I was up to my eyeballs in bubble wrap. Movers were coming the next day and I hadn’t finished packing. Probably because I don’t like packing. I was also doing my best to stay off the Soldiers’ Angels forum. It’s hard to resist because they are an enthusiastic group of volunteers making a real difference for troops every day. And a lot of it is personal. I don’t know how many people want to hug the Dept. of Defense, but when it’s a Combat Medic named Joshua, a Chaplain named Tom, a Sailor named Megan, or a Marine named Roberto, it’s different.

A Soldiers’ Angel takes care of the troop they adopt and when they need more help or have a special project, they put the request out to the group. I’m one of many, many people that would answer those kinds of requests. But not now. It’s packing time! That is, until I found the one holiday card I had left, a pop-up. Why pack it?  I’ll go on the SA site and read one card request. Just one.

Request from an Air Force wife

My husband is in need of some holiday cheer. This has been a very difficult deployment on him and our 3-year-old son.  He’s been really down and our son is having a hard time with Daddy being gone for so long. Usually when DH calls, our son refuses to talk to him. So I broke down the other day and bribed my child with ice cream to talk on the phone. The first words out of his young mouth were, “Daddy come home now!”  When my husband tried to explain that he couldn’t come home yet, our son just kept telling him he had to come today, come home now. It broke my husband’s heart. So I am trying to get him some Holiday Cards as a surprise! I know they have some new young Airman as well. I don’t know their names, but if you are interested in including a few cards, he could pass them out. There are probably 10 people no one is writing to.  Anything would be amazing and wonderful. Thank you!

Damn. Another one, straight to the heart. And the mailing deadline was the next day. I put down the bubble wrap, put on my coat and ran out and got a box of holiday cards (for the 10 young airmen no one was writing to) and a Santa hat for her husband to wear when he delivered them. Being me, I had to write something different in each card and if you think being a writer makes that easier or quicker, you’d be wrong. But even with the packing delay, my boxes and the cards were out the door the next morning.

holiday greeting card for a deployed Airman

This pop-up card interrupted my packing.

The following January my new mailbox was graced with a letter from the Airman. He sent it to all those that had responded to his wife’s request.  It said in part:

I would like to thank all of you for your abundance of support this holiday season! I have received so many Christmas cards and care packages from all of you, I really don’t know what to say other than Thank You. I am truly humbled. A lot of what we do is highly political and it’s hard to keep the big picture in mind as day-to-day events unfold. This tends to make the military a thankless job most of the time. It’s nice to know that there are so many of you out there who are letting the “boots on the ground” know that you care. A lot of things from the care packages I brought into work with me and shared with everyone. Many of you had sent an extra 10 cards for me to pass out, those Airmen were surprised to get so many!  Some of the cards and care package items I took over to the USO at the aero medical staging facility that transfers our sick and wounded. They were very appreciative.  Once again, THANK YOU so much for everything.

When I think of this Airman making every delivery and how many people he happily surprised, I can’t help but smile. It feels good to know I had a small part in it.

A few wishes

Along with joy and peace this holiday, I wish everyone random acts of kindness.  Because whether giving or receiving, it’s a simple way to build each other up. To feel the warmth of home, wherever you are. And that is a wonderful gift.

© Gina left the mall, 2012