When Uncle Sam Breaks Up With You

A while back I told you about my soldier who was fighting to stay in the Army despite his many injuries. The post was called Beating The Odds. I shared our unlikely friendship (we don’t have much in common) and how our paths would never cross except in a cafe in Iraq over a $2 donated cup of coffee (Cup of Joe.) I also asked for some supportive comments he could share with the Medical Evaluation Board. Readers responded and he and his family were very touched. This post is the update to that story.

It worked before

Staff Sergeant RD had been injured before and forced to medically retire before. He fought his way back by getting stronger and getting waivers. That was a good thing because when it came to being a civilian, his transition was like something out of a movie. Specifically, the second act of a movie where the hero is in trouble and the zombies are winning. It was a nightmare.

This is especially true when he took a few sleeping pills to deal with his insomnia. His mother didn’t know this and struggled to wake her groggy son. She grabbed his shoulders roughly. In that moment, he thought he was being attacked. He flipped her to the ground and it wasn’t until he had a knife to her throat that he realized that she was not the Taliban. He was so devastated by this event that he left. He disappeared for a year. It took him a few more years to get healthier from that point. But he did it. And Uncle Sam took him back.

10 years later

Since then, RD has done a lot. Most soldiers don’t like to talk about medals, but I found out that his include: 2 Purple Hearts, 2 Bronze Stars, and 2 Army Commendations. But along the way his injuries have gotten more serious, numerous, and include the bonus thrill of PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) He was hoping to teach. To train soldiers and share the benefit of his knowledge. But the Medical Evaluation Board turned him down. He will be retiring in the coming weeks.

Most of the troops I know are active duty. A few have retired but that was their choice. I asked RD how he felt about all this.

RD: Borderline failure. The mission’s not complete.

ME: You wanted to go for 20 years? 

RD: I wanted to go till my grave.

ME: How do you feel about returning to civilian life?

RD: It changes. Sometimes it scares the shit out of me. I remember the first time, which was horrible. Then I think, well…I’m 10 years older, more life experiences… I’ll handle things better. Plus maybe doing it once before gives me insight.

ME: You also have a strong marriage and other connections you didn’t have before. And a job lined up.

RD: That’s true. And all that matters. It does. But it’s hard to lose the sense of brotherhood. I can’t talk to my wife or my mom about the things I’ve done and seen. I don’t want them to know. I don’t want my wife to roll over and look at me and think: What the “F” did I marry? And all the people I can talk to are dead or won’t be around me. Plus it’s hard to watch the news. To know I can’t do anything. To know that my brothers are there. I feel like I let them down.

ME: What could a family member or civilian do to help with your transition?

RD: I honestly don’t know. If I did know the answer to that, I wouldn’t be worried about transitioning.

ME: Are you okay if I share this?

RD: G, if it helps one person, it’s worth it. In fact, I participated in a study about PTSD at the college nearby. They hooked me up then showed me images of dead bodies. Friendlies, enemies, children…all sorts of horrible things. They measured how my brain reacted. MRIs etc. Then they made me talk about my worst stories. It tore me up. But I did it. Because if me being torn up for one week helps even one guy not suffer like this, it’s worth it.

ME: How does your wife feel about you retiring?

RD: She’s excited. And worried. You know, because she knows it was rough last time. It’s also something new…having me around. Me not leaving for 12-15 months at a time. It’s a new part to our relationship.

ME: Will you always feel like a soldier? Is that your identity?

RD: The day I turn in this uniform, is the day I’ll stop being a soldier. But I will always be a patriot. I will always care.

Second chances

I told RD that I was feeling hopeful. I readily admit that I am no psychologist. But looking from the outside, I see a man with a self-awareness that he didn’t have 10 years ago. RD knows his strengths and weaknesses. And he voluntarily put himself through personal hell to be part of that study. He chose to take his pain and try to make some good come out of it. I also think his strong family connections are vitally important. As is the job he lined up.

Maybe I’m being naive, but I believe in his resilience, passion, and determination. I believe in him. And I like his chances of moving on from Uncle Sam.

soldier's boots

© 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

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