4 Lovely Surprises

The package in my mailbox had a return address in the Middle East. It was from Drew*, my adopted Airman. I wasn’t expecting to hear from him. Well, no volunteer expects anything. You do it to be supportive as our troops do a difficult, dangerous job for long hours far from home. Some troops wish to connect and have access to do so, others do not. Whatever they want is fine. And up to then, Drew had not been in contact.

However there—squeezed in amongst the relentless Christmas catalogs that kept coming while we were away at Grandma’s for the holidays—was Drew’s mail. Lovely surprise #1.

Inside the package was a beautiful letter thanking me and my daughter Sofia for our support. We were really touched. Especially when we learned how much he loved the postcards. Sofia had sent him 19  (with one word each) and they were all scenes of New York City.  It turns out that Drew is also from New York Ctiy! We had no idea we were sending him little pieces of his hometown. Lovely surprise #2.

“I hope you find a place for this in your home”

Yes Drew, there is a place in our home for your kind gift. And a place in our hearts for you, your family and all that you do.

Souvenir art from deployed troop

He said it was a small token of his appreciation. But there was nothing small about the smile it gave us.

Surprise #4

I don’t know if Drew will get the letter I sent on New Year’s. Or the one I am sending to thank him for this. Why? He is going home sooner than I expected. And that’s the best surprise of all.

*name changed for privacy

© Gina left the mall, 2016

Finding The Beautiful Parts

C-130 in Afghanistan, snow-capped mountains

A soldier wrote to me about the snow-capped mountains in Afghanistan, “it’s too bad we don’t get along, I would love to snowboard there.” Another spoke of a local shopkeeper who served him tea while hand-carving a box he was buying. Yet another told me about a warm encounter in a bread factory in Kabul. These sound like very little things but they made me happy. I was glad that even in a combat zone, these troops still noticed the beautiful parts, whether in nature or simple human connections with strangers.

With all that we know about PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and the real threat strangers can pose, I think retaining the ability to find the beauty around you is important.

Hand-carved box made in Afghanistan

Hand-carved box made in Afghanistan.

Kabul bread factory

This is a story Col. Mike, one of my Cup of Joe soldiers, shared with me:

We inspected a bread factory in Kabul where they make all the bread for the police in the city. The bread factory is in a huge building that was built by the Russians over 35 years ago. They have 5 giant ovens and machinery that mixes the dough. Machinery inside a bread factory in KabulWhen I walked into the bread factory, there were the usual flies and there are birds that fly in through the broken windows pecking at the fresh baked bread! The women who were working there told me about how they wrap their hair with a scarf so their hair doesn’t get in the dough. I told them that I didn’t have that problem and they had a good laugh over that!

The workers shape the bread into different forms, some is flat, others are in loaves and they also make a sweet bread that is my favorite! All the bread tastes great and is a main part of every meal. Most of the workers are women and were very friendly. They were really proud of their work and kept asking me to sample the different types of bread. After every bite, I’d say “Xhoob as!” (That’s good!) and they would just get the biggest smiles on their faces!  When I tried the sweet bread, I said “Beeseyahr xhoob as!!” (That’s very good!)  I think they were just happy to get visitors. Unfortunately, the place was pretty run down and showed the years of use, and the strains of the turmoil over the last 30 years. But in spite of all that, they still made some of the best bread I’ve ever tasted!

Fresh baked bread in a  Kabul bread factory

In spite of all that…

In spite of all that, there are still moments of warmth to be shared and natural wonders to be appreciated. These things may be a small defense against disconnecting and feeling numb from the bigger and more dangerous moments. But as long as these troops are still noticing and connecting, that makes me feel like they’re going to be okay. And that’s a beautiful thing.

My Soldier’s Wife

Friends. Family. Total strangers. “My adopted soldier’s wife” doesn’t fall neatly into the usual categories. My situation also wasn’t the norm. The Taliban kept attacking my soldier’s base and knocking out their internet. After a while, I had more contact with his wife than him. And along the way, I learned things worth sharing.

The family also serves

My soldier’s wife is amazing. When we “met” she was a new mom (he missed the birth by two weeks). His deployment was difficult and their contact was limited. He could call her once every 3 days for 15 minutes. Unless his mission took him away for…who knows how long. That uncertainty was her everyday normal. But the everyday resiliency and grace she exhibited was impressive.

She went house-hunting solo (from out-of-state no less). Set up the baby’s room. Handled the bills. Handled everything. I wish I were half as buttoned-up.

I’m sure she had her bad days that she shared with those closest to her. But the part I saw was her taking action. Doing all she could to keep her family thriving. That also meant making him feel as connected as possible to home. Including sending updates and pictures to a total stranger in NYC. I think she didn’t want me to mistake his increasing silence as a sign to stop writing.

If I’m worried…

There was a bad attack in his area. The news named his task force and unit. The military has a communication blackout policy when there are KIAs. I was worried for him. But then I tried to imagine how she felt. That’s the moment I figured out that when a soldier raises his hand to serve, the whole family serves as well. Not just in the scary moments. In the ordinary moments too, where we do most of our living. Imagine going months without the help and support of your loved one. That is just part of what we ask of our military families.

Questions

“Doesn’t his wife mind you writing to her husband?”

SFX (sound effects):  NEEDLE SCRATCHING RECORD

I stopped what I was doing. The beef jerky hovering above the flat-rate box I was packing for him. “What??? He sent me pictures of them together. I’m sure she knows and supports his being adopted and um…um….”

That’s when I decided to assume he was not the only one reading my emails. I’d assume his wife and roommate were too. Not that I was planning on writing anything “bad” anyway. I would just keep the potential audiences in mind. It was a long time before I shared that I’m a single mom. I was a little cautious because I wanted to make sure that nothing I wrote came off the wrong way.

“Doesn’t he have a wife to send him care packages?”

“Yes he does. She’s at home with the newborn he hasn’t met. He’s in firefights in Afghanistan. So should we have her shoulder everything? Do we all get to skip to the park with our kids feeling safe and on the way we’ll yell out- hey you two, thanks for handling that freedom and security thing.”

There was a less sarcastic answer to that question. I just didn’t feel like using it.

The power

I sent my soldier some snacks and included four small water guns. I thought they were funny to send to a sniper. My soldier’s wife wrote that they loved them. They used them to “ambush” a guy on his birthday. She said they’re all really big kids at heart and how it was great that I thought to do that. And what she said next is the reason why I’ve wound up doing things for over 800 more troops.

She told me that they felt grateful and lucky that he got me as his adopter. The thought and effort I put in was making a difference for him. She told me that she felt lucky too and how it made a difference for her.

I thought, I have never met any of these people. But being a total stranger did not in any way stop me from having a positive effect in their lives that day. Even if it was a small thing, it was something good in the face of challenges.  How cool is it that we each have that power? Realizing the impact I was making inspired me to step up and expand my efforts.

I don’t think I ever told my soldier’s wife that she was the reason I started doing more. So I’ll tell her here that she made a difference in my life right back.

© 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

To Be Honest, I Never Thought About The Troops

I wasn’t against the Military.  I just thought of it as another big government institution.  Granted, a heavily armed big government institution, but still…I had no personal connection. Back in 2009, I had only a vague sense of what “peace keeping” in Afghanistan or Iraq meant, either for the men and women doing it or for their families at home.

Then one random event led me to adopt a Soldier.  And everything changed. I made a difference for him and his family.  I saw how our lives were connected. That inspired me to do a little more.

Along the way, I’ve done that “little more” for over 800 Troops. This blog is about what I learned.  It will include the good, bad, funny and sometimes heartbreaking.  But it will always be honest.  And I have two hopes:

1.  This helps others who want to support the Troops.

2.  This gives people like me (well, the old me) who never really thought about the Troops, a reason to feel connected.  To care.  And to help close the divide between civilian and military.

That’s my Mission.  Thanks for giving me a chance to accomplish it.

Gina

© Gina left the mall, 2012