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

Travel Challenge: 1-year business trip, 2 bags.

Think of your job and what you need to do it. Now imagine going away for a one-year business trip and fitting your essential work items in two bags (similar to the one below.) In this challenge, you may or may not have electricity, running water or a bed at your destination. You could be in one locale or constantly on the move. And people may be shooting at you so, bring body armor. But pack light.

empty travel bag before deployment

Troops have to carry the essentials for their particular mission with them. Then try to squeeze in some personal items. Depending on their job, they have to carry it on their backs. And while the luggage rules may vary, space is severely limited. I looked at this travel challenge and thought, what are my bare essentials? Could I do a business trip this way? Here’s my list:

Laptop

Wi-Fi

Coffee maker

Electricity for laptop and coffee maker, coffee supplies. I can use powdered creamer if I need to “rough it” so no need for a mini-fridge to store milk. However, bringing my own electricity may prove harder to solve than the milk issue. So too the Wi-Fi.

Desk and chair. I wasn’t going to add these two items, but I have carpal tunnel and if have to sit and write in a weird position for a year, I’d come back looking like one of the dancing zombies in the Thriller video. I remember some Marines I wrote to were setting up an outpost in a remote locale and their furniture didn’t arrive. So they broke down the wooden crates that other supplies arrived in and made tables and benches.

Clothes  Our troops don’t have a lot of angst over what to wear each day. “Hmm, camo or…the camo?” This makes things easy but also caused one troop I know to lose all civilian fashion sense. I did my part and saved him from some unfortunate holiday sweaters. But while deployed, most service members don’t bring a large selection beyond a few uniforms (both work and physical training.) So I guess I could live rotating just a few things for a year.

Of course I couldn’t take my most essential, essential, my daughter Sofia. Loved ones are only carried in the heart and mind. But when I try to imagine being separated from her for a year, my heart aches.

Bouncy balls and Tinkerbell

I’ve often sent toys in care packages, just hoping to make someone smile. Rubber bouncy balls have been a hit. Apparently they are fun for games of surprise dodgeball. I found out that Dan* (name changed for privacy) carried the ones I sent him in his combat assault pack “for luck” for his entire deployment. Even after he got home, he never removed them.

Dan also carried something Sofia sent. I was making a care package for him when Sofia ran to her room and came back with a set of Tinkerbell magic markers. She put them in the box. I looked up and she said, “He needs these!” She was very certain about this so, off they went. It seems she was right because Dan replaced the black marker he used for work with the Tinkerbell one. Whenever he would use it, other guys would start to make fun of him and he’d say, “a little girl named Sofia in New York City sent me this marker.” Then everyone thought that marker was pretty cool.

What we carry with us

Both the bouncy balls and the Tinkerbell marker tell me something about what is truly essential in any journey: love and support. Those are the real items we should never leave home without.

 

© 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

Coffee And A Serving Of Perspective

What can you get for one $2 cup of coffee? How about a new perspective? This happened when I bought a soldier a cup of coffee through Cup of Joe. In a post about the program, I included my message that went with the coffee and his reply. It was this soldier that gave me a new outlook.

Dear Soldier,  A cup of coffee is pretty small to be a present. So what I really want to give you for Christmas is the certainty that you are not forgotten. And to know how grateful I am for your service. I’m from NYC and whether my day is crazy good or bad, I get to live it in peace. Your hard work and sacrifice gives me that gift. Thank you for all you do. I wish you a merry, happy and safe holiday. Gina

Thank you so much Gina. It is Christmas Eve and guess what? You are the first person to give me a present 🙂 And a cup of coffee is NOT too small to be a present. It is just fine. My name is SFC _____ and I’ve been in Afghanistan for almost 7 months. I have seen some things I hope to forget but I have some things I hope I never forget. As it is Christmas Eve I am just trying to be thankful to have a place like the U.S. to go back to with nice people like you who care enough to give me a cup of coffee. 🙂 Thanks again, ____

I’ll call this soldier “Gibbs” for reasons that will soon become clear.

The question

Gibbs and I became pen pals. It’s not always easy to think of things to write to a stranger. So I’d ask questions. Most people love animals so I’d ask about pets. Or, “did you ever break a bone?” Often, there is some funny childhood mishap involved. One time I asked Gibbs what his most incredible experience in the Army was. What was his favorite memory?

My stealth motive for asking that was to boost his morale. I figured recalling some positive experiences would be…..positive. I didn’t expect the stunning answer I received in return. It was emotionally powerful and the imagery he used… well, I felt like I was there. After I told him how amazing it was, I suggested he print out what he wrote and save it for his kids.

GIBBS:  No. I don’t want to share it. In fact, I’ve never shared that with anyone before.

ME:  Why?

GIBBS: No one ever asked me that question before. Besides, I don’t want to glamorize war. I went to war so my kids and your Sofia won’t have to. No war for them.

ME:  Understood. Big fan of peace. But what about when your kids are grown so they can know you better? You told me your dad was a Vietnam Vet. Is this story the kind of thing you wish you knew about him?

GIBBS:  Yeah. I wish I would’ve known.

ME:  So you’ll save it for them.

GIBBS:  No.

ME:  Well, what about the Library of Congress? I think you can do it anonymously. They are collecting soldier stories.

GIBBS:  Gina, you have to understand, in my real world I don’t talk a lot. With you…you’re not going run into anyone I know so, it’s okay. Nothing is going to bite me in the ass.  But in real life, I’m like Gibbs (from the TV show NCIS.)

ME:  Okay, so the one person you shared this incredibly moving story with is a total stranger you will never meet in real life?

GIBBS: Yes.

As a woman, a mom, and a writer (I’m in a communications field!) this made me crazy. But it’s not about me, is it? This is about letting him chat or vent and just being supportive. So I dropped it. Knowing how much his privacy meant, I deleted the email. And I’ve never repeated what he told me. But his story is an indelible memory that I have the honor of carrying. In my heart, I hope he did share it with someone in his real world. Because I think he is worth knowing and I’m rooting for him in every way.

Payback

Along with the coffee and emails, I sent him a few care packages. One was “dinner and a show.” That consisted of 1 can of soup, some candy for dessert and a DVD of his favorite TV show, NCIS. I admit the DVD was more money than I normally spend on a care package. But they had some bad days and I knew he’d really like it so, I sent it. As his deployment drew to a close, he told me he wanted to pay me back for the DVD. I told him if he sent me money I would hunt him down and “put the hurt on him.”

GIBBS:  Lol…Okay, if you won’t take money, what about this? What about my Unit patch that I’ve worn this whole deployment? It’s been through a lot and I’d like you to have it.

ME:  Don’t you want to save that for someone in your real world?

GIBBS:  I would like you to have it because you were the one who was here with me.

ME:  Tell you what, I will accept it and hold it for you. If you ever change your mind you can have it back.

When it arrived I held it and thought, of all the places this patch has been, the most unlikely is probably the palm of my hand in my little corner of Manhattan. I decided to carry it in my wallet and use it as a “perspective check.” When I have one of those days where I get caught up by the small annoyances, a bad commute, someone rude in the checkout line…what have you, I can look at it and remember. I remember there are worse things and places. I remember to be grateful for the good in my life. And when I face the big challenges, I can look at it then too. I look at it and remember to have courage. Because I am holding proof right there in my hand that difficult times can be overcome. And I got all that with one $2 cup of coffee.

Unit Patch  "Big Red 1"

© Gina left the mall, 2012

Deploying Puppy Power

A puppy helped me lift morale for my adopted soldier “K.” It started with an email. Afghanistan is 9.5 hours ahead of New York so I was usually asleep when his messages came. But this one arrived while I rode the train to Long Island to visit my cousin Laura. In it, K talked about how much he missed his puppy. This “puppy” was a 100-pound Italian Mastiff named Angus.  It was clear from the way he wrote that K was Dog People.

Dog People

You know them. You might even be one. I think dogs are awesome but Dog People have a special connection. And now that I knew K did, what kind of care package could I come up with? Sometimes I liked to go beyond beef jerky and canned ravioli. I was still wondering exactly what and how when Laura picked me up at the train station.

LAURA:  I’m thinking of drawing again. I haven’t sketched anything in ten years but I’m thinking of doing portraits of dogs.

ME:  What????

Laura is Dog People too. I informed her that her first portrait would be my adopted soldier’s dog.

LAURA: What????  You adopted someone? How old is he? How does that work? How did you meet him?

ME: He signed up. I signed up. I send one letter a week and one care package a month. It impacts morale. Mail call is like Christmas morning for them. No, we never met. But he’s awesome. I’ll get pictures from his wife. It’ll be great.

Laura did not think it would be great. Only because she didn’t think her drawing would be good enough. I explained that the thought, time and effort would meet that threshold and then some. He was in a remote base with limited internet access and few entertainment options. It would be a really nice surprise to “bring” Angus to him this way, to bring some warm fuzzy puppy love here:

Combat Outpost in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan

K’s Combat Outpost in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan

Picture this

K’s wife sent me a bunch of pictures and Laura chose one where K and Angus were connecting. Laura’s teenaged children had never seen her draw before and said, “Wow Mom!” I was excited too. For privacy/security, I had to blur part of the image. But I hope you can still get a sense of it.

My adopted soldier and his 100-pound "puppy"

Angus and K

Sketch of my soldier and his 100-pound "puppy"

Angus and K. Again.

I put it in a glass frame because it’s not like there’s a store nearby where he can pick one up. Then I worried, what if it shatters? Mail goes through a lot to get to his base. I didn’t want to be the volunteer that actually harms troop strength! So I bought a large roll of bubble wrap and used all of it. You could bounce this thing when I was done.

Real power

K loved it and couldn’t believe someone would take the time and trouble to do this for him. Especially someone he had never met. His wife loved it. Her parents loved that my family (well, really just Laura) did this for him. K’s battle buddies got to see that strangers care. Laura got to re-debut her artistic side in a meaningful way.

This was not the first or last mail call I asked for help with. At times I would simply ask someone to fill out a postcard. But no matter what, the results were always the same. K was moved and it helped him during a very difficult time. Those helping me were moved too. It feels good to do good. To know that you’ve made a difference for someone. That’s a real power we all have. One that we can “deploy” at any time.

Dog treat

Love is a powerful thing. On fours legs as well as two. Here are a few dogs welcoming soldiers home. Enjoy!

© 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 

Even The Storms Are Beige

sandstorm

sandstorm (Photo credit: bzo)

my marineMy Marine in the desert was tired of beige. The sand was beige. The tents, trucks, uniforms, even the storms, while tremendous to witness, were beige. When I asked him what he was missing, he said: color. Especially the green of nature. For a minute I thought about sending him a handful of grass and some fall leaves. Instead, I sent him 25 postcards of Central Park all at once (15 arrived on one day. The rest over the next year) He hung them up in his tent so they would be the first thing he saw every morning. I laughed at how excited he was to get them. He reminded me not to take the little things for granted. In fact, he asked me to notice and appreciate them for him. I promised I would. But every day is busy and after a while I noticed that I kept forgetting to notice. I felt bad about this unkept promise to a man I never met.

We “met” over coffee

My Marine, Gunnery Sergeant MZ, had signed up with Soldiers’ Angels to be adopted and was on the wait-list. Volunteers like me would send a letter or one-time care package to hold them over. I had sent him coffee and a mug and we wound up becoming pen pals. He was what some at Soldiers’ Angels would call my “unofficial.” That’s someone you support but not at the same commitment level of adoption which is one letter a week and one care package a month for the duration of deployment.

Little Is Big Day

To make up for my delay, I decided to appreciate as many little things as I could for a whole day. Here’s just the first two:

1. Hot shower

I usually turn on the water without thinking. But this morning as I paused to appreciate this act, a certain troop I helped came to mind:

“We spend most of our time in a very remote outpost living and working with the Afghan National Army, living a very meager existence.  We don’t have showers or running water. We live out of the back of our armored vehicles or from our rucksacks. We are very far from home. Anything you could provide my soldiers would be greatly appreciated.  Some of my men do not have families in the States who can support them.  Our communication back home is infrequent and unreliable. Letters and packages are our lifeline and the only way we know we are not out here alone.”

2. Waking my daughter up

This is usually a difficult task as my daughter is the U.S. Sleep Champion. And she only trains on schooldays. But this morning I thought of all my troops who were separated from their children. I remembered a female combat medic I wrote to with three kids. Her youngest was a little girl the same age as mine. They were both starting 1st grade. This combat medic would miss every wake-up struggle for the whole year and more. Then suddenly this difficult task felt like a gift. I get to do this in freedom and safety because other men and women are not doing it. This is part of what they sacrifice when they raise their hands to serve.

A promise kept

Little Is Big Day turned out to be very meaningful and sometimes emotional. But it helped me hit the reset button. So now even on busy days, I’ll take a moment to find a little something special around me. If you try Little Is Big Day, please let me know how it turned out. As for mine, I’ll tell you somewhere in an arid sea of beige, I made one Marine very happy.

© Gina left the mall, 2012