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

When My Adopted Soldier And I Decided To Meet

They tell you contact usually ends when deployment ends. But I already had a few unusual things happen with my adopted soldier “K” so…why should this be any different? We started making plans for him, his wife and infant child to visit me in NYC. Both their friends and family and mine said, “What???” After all, we were strangers.

(At this point, I would like to suggest a detour for my readers with a loved one who is currently deployed. Perhaps the post where golf balls helped increase safety or how this all started. Why? Because parts of the following sections may be hard to read. And I’m a big fan of reducing stress.)

Most of the time

Most of the time our correspondence was light. I sent him a lot of funny stories about my daughter Sofia. But the events unfolding around him were anything but light. K was the first troop I ever got to know and he had one of the more difficult deployments of all the troops I’ve come to know. 10 days after I adopted him, they had a casualty. His unit had only been there a few weeks and this was not the first one. Then a nearby base was overrun and many lives lost. And so on. He would state these events simply, never going into detail.

At home, when I mentioned an attack, most people hadn’t heard of it. That felt very isolating. I felt like I was caring about somebody in a parallel universe. But I understood that people weren’t aware because I used to be one of them.

The worse things got, the more I wanted to do something to help protect him. I know that sounds crazy because he is a highly trained, very capable soldier and I am afraid of spiders. But I’m also a Mom so that protect-gene is hard to turn off.

Maybe I could do this

K told me that getting mail was like Christmas morning for them. I know that mail = better morale. Better morale can reduce stress, depression and anxiety. I thought, hey…If I could keep his morale up, maybe I could help him get home in better shape. Then I found out the Army has a soldier’s creed. So I made a “volunteer creed.”  I never told K because I wrote it for myself. I feel a little vulnerable sharing it but, I think it captures how I had come to feel.

I am my soldier’s soldier. My mission is to make sure he hears his name at every mail call for the duration of his deployment. To make him feel that the hard, dangerous job he does, the long stressful hours for days on end…is appreciated. To brighten his day if only for a few moments with a taste of home. To pray for his safe return. And to do this with no effort, thanks or consideration required on his part.  And no complaints or wavering on my part. I am my soldier’s soldier.  And I will never fail him.

He was in a remote base and mail arrived by convoy every two weeks. When you adopt, you send one care package a month and one letter a week. I doubled that to increase my chances of hitting both deliveries. Once he got a box much quicker than I expected. He explained that the convoys kept getting attacked so they started doing helicopter drops. Now mail came every 2-3 days.

ME:  That’s great!

ME ON THE INSIDE:  Uh oh.

How the heck was I going to make all those mail calls? Of course, it’s not like anyone knew that was my goal. A more sane person might just say forget it. Clearly, I am not that person. I decided to rely on the kindness of strangers.

Enlisting strangers

I started carrying around postcards. Especially when I travelled for work. If I were delayed at an airport I’d sit at the bar. After chatting with the bartender for a few minutes, I’d ask if he could do me a favor and say “hi” to my adopted soldier. Or if I were getting my nails done, I ask the girls around me.  After the initial surprise (you can adopt a soldier?) the answer was always yes. They felt good doing it. After they wrote a message, I’d address it (you keep addresses private) and drop in whatever mailbox in whatever town I was in.

His wife

Usually contact is with your soldier. But the Taliban kept shooting out their internet. So for the second half of his deployment, I had much more contact with his wife. That’s how I came to see the everyday impact on the family. She would share a “first” that baby Kyle did and I would realize, wow…another thing he missed and that she did solo.

One day she wrote that I might not hear from K for a while. And she wanted to let me know what was going on. His best friend, a fellow soldier deployed with him, had shot himself. The military calls this a Non-Combat Death. I don’t think this is an accurate description because I believe combat has a great deal to do with Army suicides.

I found out this soldier left behind a 3-yr-old son. I wrote a letter to the family.

K

I didn’t hear from him for a while but I got updates from his wife. Then he went on a mission for a few weeks where he had zero contact home. By the time he returned, he found a pile of mail on his bunk. There were packages from his wife and my daughter, plus a stack of mail from me and my army of strangers. Including a copy of the letter I sent his friend’s family. He appreciated it all. But the letter meant so very much to him. Maybe it’s why that day, we decided to meet in real life.

Visiting a total stranger sounded unusual to others. But the truth was, by that point, we didn’t feel like strangers at all.

New York City skyline

Where we planned to meet.

© Gina left the mall, 2013

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

The Phoenix Coyotes vs. The Taliban

A hockey team can kick butt in a combat zone. I have proof.

It all started when I wanted to do something special for my adopted soldier. He was in Afghanistan. His area had been in the news a lot and none of it was good. Then I found out he would be going home on leave and meeting his son, baby Kyle, for the very first time. Yes, that’s a happy thing. But I thought, this is his 3rd combat deployment, he knows a lot about war. What does he know about being a dad? He’s going to hold his son in his arms and then turn around and go back there? As the mother of a young child, I felt pre-hurt for him. I decided that this situation called for more than canned ravioli.

I tried to make him a Ranger fan

I found out the one sport he loved was hockey. I tried to make him a NY Ranger fan because that was convenient for me. No way. His heart belonged to the Phoenix Coyotes.

So I went on eBay and got him a Coyotes hockey puck and some trading cards. Nothing expensive. It’s the thought, right? But when I held them in my hands, they didn’t seem up to the morale-challenge I knew was looming.

We get a lot of requests

I went on the Coyotes website and saw they had a variety of charitable endeavors.  Some involve supporting the troops. I thought maybe they could help me. Then I read that they receive a lot of requests and cannot fulfill them all. I decided to try anyway and wrote the team. I confessed my attempt to lure my soldier to the Rangers and how he stayed true to the Coyotes. Told them about baby Kyle. Mentioned the puck and cards and asked for their help. I asked for, “a program or anything at all really.” I just wanted him to have a touch of home waiting for him in Afghanistan. At at time when I knew it would be hard for him to be far from home. They wrote back that they’d be happy to help me.

Weeks go by

After the commute from hell (think “Amazing Race” with bullets) my soldier makes it home to his family and meets baby Kyle. I still haven’t received anything from the Coyotes. I’m not sure how long things take on their end. I just know that mail takes about two weeks to get from Manhattan to his corner of Afghanistan. If I add his time at home and his long commute back, I’ve got two weeks left.  I send more emails to the Coyotes. I try to ignore how annoying I must be.

Not a foam finger

Lovely Maggie from the Coyotes who had been enduring my emails, wrote to say they had sent something and could I please let her know when I received it  (it had to come to me, you don’t give out your soldier’s info.)

The package was soft. I thought maybe it was a foam finger or a hat. As I opened it, all that mattered to me was that the team he loved, from a place he loved, cared enough to do something.  Anything. Then I pulled out… a team jersey autographed by all the players!!!  I wrote Maggie back with tears in my eyes.

Don’t send it

Some friends told me not to send it. It was too valuable. Just send a picture of it. I told them the real value was that this was something he could hold in his hands that said people cared.  As I shipped it I hoped that it wouldn’t be lost. Or blown up. Their supply and mail convoys had been attacked recently. Or stolen. Some outside contractors were caught stealing care packages meant for soldiers.

Back at work

My adopted soldier in Afghanistan

When he got back, he sent me the longest email.  His wife sent lots of pictures, especially him and baby Kyle together. This is part of what he wrote:

“….It was really hard to get on the plane to come back. You think it would be easy since this is like the 10th time I have had to leave, whether it be a deployment or an Army school. But this time was the worst, now I’m leaving 2 people I love the most.”

My adopted soldier's son that he met on leave from Afghanistan

No. I didn’t think it would be easy. But I didn’t tell him that. Two days later, he had mail call.

Phoenix Coyotes Win

“…..I was so surprised when I opened the box (more like in shock) I can’t believe you wrote the team and they sent something. Thank you so much!!! I will write an email to Maggie tomorrow. I will also get some pics and send them to you. Thank you for the puck and the cards…… I still can’t believe it. I will write you more tomorrow when I get back from mission. P.S. Thank you again”

For privacy, and general OPSEC/PERSEC (operational security and personal security) guidelines, I crop the pics of him. But I assure you that he is beaming at a time when he never expected to. He called his wife and she was happy to hear his news and how it lifted his spirits. She wrote and thanked me for contacting the team.

Mail is a morale boost.  Mail reduces stress and helps stave off depression and anxiety among other things that combat can bring on. The better frame of mind our deployed have, the better they can focus on their jobs and coming home safe. That day, the Phoenix Coyotes scored a win in an away game when it was really needed.

My adopted soldier with the Phoenix Coyote jersey the entire team signed for him.

Canned Ravioli

I joked with my soldier that it was “all downhill from here” because the next box would be canned ravioli. But he knew that packed alongside those cans, or whatever I sent, would always be my heartfelt hopes and prayers for him. That’s a win too.

© Gina left the mall, 2012