Coffee Can’t Cure Everything

When someone asks me about sending troops coffee, care packages, or letters, I share ideas that have worked or went horribly awry and should be avoided at all costs. Either way, I’m helping. When I’m asked to support troops in areas I’m not so familiar with, I do my best to refer the person to organizations, blogs, or anyone I think may help with forward motion. However, sometimes I get a question that’s just beyond my caffeinated or handwritten powers.

Catch-22

A young woman reached out to me. Her friend is in the reserves and their unit is being treated unfairly. Note that I do not identify the branch of service. Also note that “treated unfairly” is an incredible understatement and purposefully vague. Why? Because revealing details would be the opposite of help. (A) The troops love their unit and don’t want to publicly trash it (B) higher-ups would not take kindly to this and (C) “repercussions” are a reality on some level and why go there and make things worse?

So my first suggestion of, “write to a congressman” went out the window once the ABC’s were explained to me. Undaunted, I asked her, “who speaks for the reserves?” I wondered if there were some high-level person that was an advocate for these men and women. Maybe we could write to this person privately. She could not find anyone. Next thought: maybe fellow troops could advise. Let’s write a letter to Stars & Stripes describing the problem (without identifying the unit) and ask how current reservists or vets would handle the issue.

But describing details would help identify the unit plus make the young woman feel that she was betraying her friend’s confidences. I pointed out the conundrum:

How can anyone help if you don’t tell them what’s wrong? Even if we assume good faith, like it’s a bureaucratic red tape issue and not something purposefully or willfully wrong, there’s no way to find a solution without stating the problem. You can’t reach out to the Dept of Defense and say, “Something, somewhere, is amiss. Please look into it. That is all.” With no information, you’re not even giving someone the chance to resolve the issue.

A smaller cure

When I initially spoke to the young woman her voice was trembling because she was so upset. As I came to understand the situation, I became hurt and angry on behalf of these troops as well. So when I ran out of ideas, I apologized. I felt bad that I could not think of one viable way to fix things.

She surprised me by saying I did help. Because I tried, I cared, and I gave her the opportunity to vent, she felt a little better. I’m sure in a much bigger way, she gave the same kind of help to her friend.

So while coffee or the other small gestures are not a cure, they can do one thing—assure someone in a tough spot that they are not alone. Sometimes all you can do is help someone get through one moment to the next. Sometimes, that’s everything.

coffee cup with bandaid

© Gina left the mall, 2014

Monster Coffee

“Dear Soldier, Today is Halloween so, along with this cup of coffee, I thought I’d send you a scary story. My 8-yr-old daughter decided she wanted to be a Monster High girl for Halloween. On the off-chance that the Dept. of Defense does not issue Monster High Dolls with your combat boots and you are unfamiliar with them, simply imagine fashionable werewolves, vampires, etc who go to a super-cool high school. As far as I can tell, there are 10 girls and 1 boy at this high school.

My daughter put on her costume and suddenly my little 8-year old looked 16. That was frightening. Later today, she will go ask strangers for candy (clearly a Mom did not invent this holiday) and be surrounded by monsters and more, laughing and having a wonderful time. Of course, one reason she can enjoy this holiday without fear is because of you. The hard work you do helps keep us safe. Thank you for helping my daughter have the freedom to scare me 🙂 We appreciate your service today and always. Sincerely, Gina

This is the note I sent to 10 troops this morning through Cup of Joe (COJ.) It’s twice as long as the messages I usually send but, unlike Twitter, COJ doesn’t limit my character count. That means I can do what I want. BWAHAHAAAAAA (I hope you read that with your inner monster voice.)

As always, COJ lets you send any amount of coffee to deployed servicemen and women for only $2 a cup. You can check the pen-pal option or not check it. Either way, most times you’ll receive a thank-you note. It’s a small thing but a terrific way to boost someone’s morale. If you’ve never tried it, I have to tell you it really is a great program.

Darth Vader kicking butt in a wheelchair

Darth Vader Tie Fighter Costume

Darth Vader Tie Fighter Costume (Photo credit: Tostie14)

A while back I happened upon a blog called Military Special Needs Network. Each staff writer is a military family member with a special needs child (or children.) They created this network to share information, inspire, empower, and connect other families in the same situation. They were also kind enough to help me with one of my soldiers who was facing difficulties. I am very grateful for that.

If you think of those you know with a special needs child, you have an idea of the challenges they face. The stress of deployment adds another layer. So does waking up one day after you’ve got a routine down with teachers and therapists your kid is thriving with and surprise…you’re moving across the country. Or to Germany. Possibly next week. Wheeeeee……

Sometimes when I read their blog I learn about things specific to our military families. Sometimes I gain a deeper understanding of the special needs world in general. And there are topics any parent could relate to. Like finding a great Halloween costume.

Until the other day, I never knew there was such a thing as Adaptive Costumes. In their post, Adapting Halloween, one of the links was for a great Pinterest page with adaptive Darth Vader, Batmobile, a little girl who turned her crutches into the front legs of her giraffe costume, and more. The creativity, the joy, the spirit…these kids looked great. And I think they knew it. Their smiles made my smile even bigger.

That’s one of the things we all want. To make the people we love happy. And sometimes, to make strangers happy too…with or without the aid of monsters. Happy Halloween!

MonsterCoffee

© Gina left the mall, 2013

The 24,600-Mile Coffee Break

What would a coffee mug from a total stranger mean to you? Well, when you’re deployed to Iraq, little things can mean a lot. That, plus 24,600 miles, led to one of my best coffee breaks ever.

While you wait

A Marine named Adam signed up to be adopted at Soldiers’ Angels (they help every branch of the military.) I volunteered to send a care package while he was on the waiting list. I sent over an I LOVE NY mug, some coffee and snacks.

My care package was the first he received in Iraq. That made the mug special to him. I found out just how special at the end of his tour. When he packed his gear there wasn’t an inch to spare, let alone room to LOVE NY. But Adam couldn’t throw the mug out or leave it behind so, he decided to carry it home by hand.

Germany joe

Imagining this Marine walking around in uniform with a duffle bag and an I LOVE NY mug, made me laugh. I asked him if any of the other guys gave him a hard time.

ADAM:  I got a lot of flak from my guys, but in Leipzig Germany, we were sitting in a hangar and they had a coffee machine. Shortly after we were there they ran out of little styrofoam cups, I pulled my mug out. BAM! Just like that, I had coffee still! And of course some of the guys were jealous, but as Marines always do, we adapt, adjust and overcome. Some of them were cutting Gatorade bottles in half for some joe.

Since he brought it all the way back, I tried to guess the mug-milage. I was not even close. For one thing, I didn’t know his mail gets routed through San Francisco. Adam did the math for me:

Ok. So let’s take the fact that the mug was Made in China out of the equation.

From Manhattan to San Fran is about 2800 miles, and crosses 12 states. (According to Google’s fastest route).

From San Fran to Iraq, as the crow flies, 9800 miles, passes 9 states and 9 countries on 3 continents.

From Iraq to Camp Pendleton we’ll say another 9800 miles.

Cp Pendleton to Cincinnati, 2200 miles and 9 states.

So this mug traveled 24,600 miles, give or take a couple hundred, 39 state crossings, 18 countries crossed, and 5 continents crossed.

That’s enough to cross the world at the equator once.

Cincinnati joe

About a year later, I found out we’d both be in Cincinnati at the same time. Adam said he would like to buy me a cup of coffee as a thank you. I’ve only met a few of my troops in person so this was something special. I got to the cafe first. As I waited, I thought it’s funny how you never know what ripple effect a random act of kindness will have. I never thought that little care package would mean so much or that I’d gain a friendship.

Adam walked towards me and at first, I didn’t realize it was him. He looked so much younger than the pictures I had seen of him deployed. I think what I was really seeing was the effect of home and peace (that’s a good look on anyone.) Seeing Adam healthy, happy and safe was a wonderful feeling. My smile was big and my eyes filled with tears. Then I saw what he was carrying and I laughed. The server came over to take our order and Adam said, “Ma’am, I’ve brought my own mug. If you don’t mind, I’d like you to use it for my coffee, please.”

I LOVE NY mug© Gina left the mall, 2013

What are the chances?

What are the chances of reading an article online and then randomly “meeting” the writer in Iraq a few months later? Apparently, 100% because it happened to me with a deployed troop.

6 out of millions

I had just adopted a soldier and realized…I don’t know anything about soldiers. So I thought it might be a good idea to read some stories or articles written by troops. A quick search got me millions of results and I randomly chose six. Clearly, this was not exhaustive research. I just wanted to get a sense of what deployment was like for our troops. To understand a little how they felt when going through it.

A few months later, I started doing Cup of Joe (COJ) a wonderful program where you send a cup of coffee with a message to deployed troops. COJ distributes them randomly to any troop that signs up. It costs $2, many of them email back a “thank you,” and there’s a pen pal option.  I met Jim when I sent out a few COJs that Christmas.

ME:  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

JIM:  That was about the sweetest sentiment I have ever received. I will copy this and save it for Christmas’s in the future. I truly appreciate your gesture and message. May Christmas find you with happiness, love and always security. Warmest of regards Jim Martin

I am using Jim’s name with his permission. Normally I don’t use full names because of privacy and/or security. He was a Senior Medical NCO for a Heavy Brigade Combat Team. When I told him I was a writer, he mentioned that had always been a dream of his. In fact, he had even gotten something published online once. I asked for the link. When I got it, I realized it was one of the six that I had read!!  Six articles out of millions…. thousands of deployed troops and my coffee finds him??  I smiled and laughed at this wonderful surprise. I had loved the emotional honesty in his words. “Meeting” the man who wrote them made it even more special. This is the article: Honor Our Sacrifice

$2

Along with a very nice “small world moment,” I got the pleasure of getting to know Jim. What our troops do, endure and brave is pretty amazing.  What are the chances we can do something meaningful in return with a $2 investment?  I’m happy to say the odds on that are also 100%.

chance

© 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

Somebody Called Me A Patriot

The word stood out because no one had ever called me that before. Which was fine because I had always associated it with politics and I don’t like politics. I vote, but I don’t discuss it (except with those closest to me.) There’s so much animosity between sides, I just want to cry like that little girl in a battleground state who apparently had enough of the battle.

The only time I really heard the word used was when politicians were trying to out-patriot one another with photo ops. Or accuse someone else of not being patriotic enough if they disagreed with them. Which gave this word some negative baggage for me. And then this happened:

I said/ He Said

It was around Christmas and I bought some deployed troops coffee through Cup of Joe. Below is what I wrote and one of the responses I received.

Dear Soldier,  A cup of coffee is kinda small to be a present. So what I really want to give you 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.

Ms Gina, you are the reason we as service men and women, “Do what we Do.” It is close to the holiday season and home is soo far away. I work and live every day helping the Iraqi’s police and security become better. This effort is providing a safe and secure Iraq for the people. But living with the Iraqi’s as advisors comes with great risk. I am truly thankful for my fellow Patriots (you) who support the hard work we all are doing everyday. You are the reason I get up and Soldier on everyday! God Bless You and I hope you have a happy and safe holiday! Keep all of us in your thoughts and prayers. Army Strong! J___ , Captain, U.S. Army P.S. Your cup of coffee means more than you will ever know!

I told my buddy Andy that a soldier called me a patriot and my feelings about the word. He was surprised because he has very positive feelings about it. He got quiet for a moment and then explained that “patriot” doesn’t belong to any political party. He said, “It means you care about this country. You do. And you are.”

The talk

I don’t care if the troops I support vote the same as me or not. I care that they are away from their families and in harm’s way. I care that my daughter and I get to skip down the street without looking over our shoulders because of their service and sacrifice. That’s precious. I was in NYC on 9/11 and I will never forget what it felt like to walk down the streets that day.

That said, I was in a bar with a friend and found myself in a conversation I didn’t want to be in. I think liquor bottles should add that to their warning labels: consumption may cause birth defects and political debates.

He felt I was supporting war and that there should be no military. Well first of all, I am all for world peace. I would be thrilled if our troops only deployed for natural disasters. But under any scenario, I don’t see why you wouldn’t support the troops. Even if you disagree with a political action, there’s a difference between the war and the warrior. Our troops don’t decide where they go. We do. They have a civilian commander chosen by mostly civilians (active military = 1% of the population.) They go and do what this country says at tremendous personal risk and sacrifice to them and their families. If you don’t like what they’re doing, work to change it. But these are our sons and daughters. We have a duty to care. Also, I disagree with the thought that we don’t need a military.

Finally I said, “We both have a lot of passion for our respective beliefs. I’ve helped hundreds of people with my passion, what have you done with yours? Have you written one letter to your congressman? Shown that you care where our servicemen and women are? Done anything to promote world peace…ever?” There was silence. Some hurt feelings too. But we agreed that taking action was good and that we weren’t going to agree on most everything else.

Political Action

Tomorrow is Election Day. My political action will be to vote. Then I’m going to send a few cups of coffee to the troops. Because one reason I have the freedom to vote, a right so many people in the world are denied, is because our troops safeguard it. So I do this small kindness to honor that. And if that makes me a patriot, then that’s what I’m proud to be.

© Gina left the mall, 2012

The Strongest Coffee In The World

I found a coffee that can reduce stress and anxiety, mentally transport you and even make a grown man teary.  Are these magic beans?  Close.  It’s Green Beans Cup of Joe for a Joe.  This is a cup of coffee you buy for a soldier who is deployed. You send a personal message with it and it’s like eight ounces of ‘liquid home” for the troop receiving it.  Oh, and it’s easy to do and costs $2.

I want to share some of the ones I’ve done and a few troop responses.  I also want to warn you about my Christmis-hap (that’s short for my mishap over Christmas).

But first, how it works…

Green Beans Company has cafes in many of the bases where our deployed troops are. Servicemen and women sign up for Cup of Joe (COJ).  Then strangers (you and me) go to the COJ site where we can buy our troops a cup of coffee.  Each cup is $2 and you can even buy just one.  You send a personal message with it.  Most of the time they write back a thank-you note.  There’s also the option to be pen pals if both sides wish to.

Dear soldier

They’re not all soldiers but “Dear Soldier, Marine, Sailor or Airman” sounds a little impersonal.  I write “Dear Soldier” and if they’re not, they’ll let me know.  Also, the Army is the largest branch so the math is on my side. The note you send goes out to however many troops you bought coffee for.  If you become pen pals, that’s one-on-one.

You can write something short.  Don’t be thrown that I sometimes go long. I also vary the tone and subject.  I think all that counts here is sincerity.   Even saying hello and wishing someone well has great value.  Imagine coming off a 14-hour day in a combat zone.  The closest thing to home is this café.  You stop to have a break and someone you don’t even know cared enough to say a few encouraging words and “PS- coffee’s on me.”  These are the kinds of things that impact morale and reduce stress.  And we have the power to make that impact from our living room.

I said/ they said – dinosaurs

Dear Soldier,  My little girl Sofia taught me something you may find useful in your work. It’s the reason why dinosaurs are extinct.  SOFIA:  A giant astronaut fell from space and made a big crater in the earth and made the dinosaurs extinct.  ME:  Do you think maybe that was a giant asteroid and not a giant astronaut?  SOFIA:  No. —-There you have it.  At any moment an exceptionally large NASA employee could come barreling out of the sky butt-first.  So be sure to look up now and then…Also, I want to thank you for all you do. Thank you for letting me have dino stories and more in safety and freedom. Take care, Gina

-Ms. Gina, Thanks so very much for the coffee.. and for sharing Sofia’s story about the falling astronaut!!  Both brightened my day and brought a smile to my face. The story made me think of my young daughter and of the unpredictable things that come from the mouths of babes.  And by the way– I’m an Air Traffic Controller here in Iraq, so if we pick up any falling NASA employees on the radar scope, I’ll be sure to let you know! With sincere thanks, __________ SSgt, USAF

-Gina; Thanks for making me smile 🙂 Sofia sounds a lot like my little girl from a few years ago; she turns 9 in two weeks and this is the first time in her life I will miss her birthday. Don’t ever think that it doesn’t mean a lot to have people you don’t know thank you for what you are doing … it means the world. Regards, LTC _______________

I said/ they said – Christmas

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 Gina. I received your coffee on Christmas Eve.  We were all having a pretty tough day here but finding your note with the coffee was sweet.  Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.  Thank you, _______

-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, _______

Christmis-hap

Between sending care packages to my adopted soldier and handling presents at home, I was having some holiday mailing stress.  That’s when I found COJ.  No boxes, no post office…just a few clicks.  It was so easy that I bought a lot of coffee that day.  When I got to the part about pen pals, I checked “yes.” I figured what are the chances that all these troops are going to want to be pen pals?  I learned that at Christmas, when everyone is missing home very much, those chances are 98%.  The rest of the time, it’s only a few troops that want to write.  But after Christmis-hap, I don’t put a giant order in all at once.  I spread it out.

With some troops, you just exchange a few emails.  Some write the entire time they’re deployed.  There are a few I’ve kept in touch with after they’ve gotten home.  One is a solider who taught me one of the most important things I learned in this journey.  That story is for next time.  But for right now, may I suggest a cup of coffee?   I know where you can get some powerful stuff.

© Gina left the mall, 2012