Saying, “I do” to Someone in the Military

I married my best friend Scott who is in the Air Force. After we got engaged he jokingly said, “Hey, with all your volunteer work, you know what you signed up for.” He was both right and wrong. Before, I was one step removed. As it turns out, that’s a pretty big step. So I’m sharing some things I knew and some that took me by surprise.

If you’re wondering why I haven’t mentioned him before it’s because he’s a bit on the shy side.

husband-and-wife

This is us.

Redefining togetherness

I met my first adopted soldier and his wife after he returned from Afghanistan. Back then I thought deployments were the only times military couples were separated. Until she said, “We married right after high school and I figured out that between his deployments, training, various schools, and TDYs (temporary duty) we’ve spent 50% of the past 10 years apart.”

There’s also been a great deal of travel for most couples I know. Everyone seems to have a mix of beautiful places they’ve loved along with less thrilling locales. One of which I’m told held the promise of, “three years of bad hair” due to swamp-like humidity.

Most folks I’ve met have moved together, but not all of them and not all the time. Sometimes the spouse and kids stay in one place because of school or they have roots in the area and then the servicemember moves from base to base and comes home to visit. We would be in the latter category. So right now our wild fantasy is living in the same zip code full-time.

You had plans?

Again my thoughts go back to my first adopted soldier. The Army told him he could deploy two weeks after his unit so he could be there for this birth of his first child. Then the Army changed those plans and he wound up meeting baby Kyle on leave a few months later.

Yet somehow it still took me by surprise when Scott informed me that he might have to deploy before the wedding (you know, and miss it.). Then he almost had to go TDY (and miss the wedding). Then he said that he’d been asked, “Does Gina want to get married in Germany?” and my bridal stress rose higher.

HUSBAND: We’re lucky. Not every unit would even ask or try to work around our wedding. They would just send me.

ME: I’m planning this wedding from out-of-state and we’ve got people coming from far away with NON-REFUNDABLE plane tickets so, “lucky” does not describe my primary feeling right now.

HUSBAND: Yes, dear. I love you.

After that he decided not to tell me every time a potential change came up. I decided not to tell our guests unless I knew for sure we’d have to postpone. Finally, all things were set and I knew we’d have two weeks together after the wedding before he deployed. Then that changed to one week.

Can you hear me now?

Scott figured that since we were used to traveling to see each other, I was sort of prepared for being apart during deployment. What surprised me was how separated I still felt. I blame emojis—and texting in general. I never realized until he was gone and not easily reachable how often we reached out to each other.

HUSBAND: You’re lucky. Back in the day, there was no facetime and we could only call home once a week. But you and I get to talk a few minutes each day! And this is a shorter tour, it’s not like it’s a year.

ME: Okay, when I say I’m feeling sad and I miss you, I kinda don’t want to hear how lucky I am. I just want to know that you miss me too.

HUSBAND: Yes, dear. I miss you too.

Kindness

I’ve sent a lot of care packages. What could possibly surprise me here? I have always been grateful for any help folks gave me for, “my” troops. And I’ve often spoken about how much our troops appreciate any little thing—a cup of coffee, a postcard. But now I was even more deeply moved by all of this. Now I understood. Each act of kindness felt like a hug. It meant a great deal to me that people remembered my husband and his unit. It made me feel like I was not in this alone.

Heartbreak – part 1

Ten days before my husband was supposed to come home I got a call about my mother, Lalin. Beautiful and gracious—my first best friend, mentor and hero—Mom had had a catastrophic hemorrhage on the left side of her brain. I rushed to be by her side. And it was instantly clear to me that the tubes keeping her alive did not even remotely resemble the life force that she was.

Soon, doctors declared that there were no signs of brain activity. Lalin had triumphed over adversity many times, but she would not win this battle.

We were asked about organ donation. The thing about mom is that she was the single most giving and selfless person I have ever met. She would always tell me, “Do for others, do for others.” She was so proud and happy any time I followed this mantra. So even though we never discussed it before, I knew she would have wanted this.

It took two days to find a donor match. Those were two hard days. Finally, we escorted Lalin to the operating room. My brother and I held her hand on either side of the gurney surrounded by an entourage of doctors. You know how in old movies when royalty walks down the stairs and someone holds their hand on either side? That’s what it felt like to me. My mom was 4’10” and about 100lbs and so tiny in that big hospital bed, but such a large presence. We said our final goodbyes and the doctors looked at me for the signal to proceed and I announced, “Okay Mom, now you go change some lives just like you changed ours.”

Three hours later, the transplant coordinator called to tell me that Lalin had just saved the life a 56yr old woman.

momme

One of my favorite pictures of my mom and me.

Heartbreak – part 2

This is when I needed and wanted my husband most—and he was not here. It took me all day to even get him the news. I was hysterical by the time he reached me. We prayed for a miracle as I made arrangements for my daughter Sofia’s care and got myself a plane ticket to get to Mom.

Nine days before Scott was coming home we knew there would be no miracle. His commander asked him if he wanted Emergency Leave. You would think we’d jump at that, but there are things we paused to consider.

Lalin had made it clear many times that she did not want us to, “sit around being sad.” She wanted to be cremated and did not want a funeral. So even as we waited for the organ match, I knew we’d be doing memorial events for mom, which would not happen immediately.

I also knew that with one unit leaving and one coming in, this was an important time for Scott to be there. Could his unit do without him? Yes. But it was not ideal. Could we wait nine days so he could take care of his people there? My husband was torn. He wanted to be home for me and he loved my mom. But he also wanted to be there for his guys. He said he would do whatever I wanted. Then I heard Lalin’s mantra in my head, “do for others.”

We decided to wait and let him finish his tour. I admit that I underestimated just how long those days and nights would be. There were calls where I couldn’t even manage words. I just sobbed as he said reassuring and loving things. It was hard on him too because he felt helpless. And when he got off the plane and I ran into his arms, I felt like I had found home after being lost.

cominghome

Homecoming.

Strength

It’s easy to be impressed by the military spouses I’ve become friends with. I’ve seen one drive to the new state they’re moving to, do all the house hunting, then buy, and start to paint and repair the home, all while her husband was deployed. I’ve seen them support children through special moments, tough times, and the everydayness that is most of life, without their, “other half.” I’ve seen them start, delay, and restart education and careers because the reality is— they too serve and sacrifice. I’ve seen friendships withstand the rigors of time and distance because they are more than friends. With their shared experiences, they are more like family.

Gratitude

The Chaplain who married us called to check on me as I waited my husband’s return. Others in his unit and well as our civilian family and friends have been supportive in countless ways. And even though I haven’t been a military spouse for long, my experience thus far has made me even more deeply appreciative to everyone before me and after me who has chosen this path as they walk down the aisle.

wedding

Saying, “I do.”

© Gina left the mall, 2017

I Adopted Some Moms

Deployed moms. One in the Army, one in the Air Force. Usually, I take whoever is next, but this time was different. This time I went looking for the moms. I won’t tell them why. I’ll just send letters, care packages and be upbeat. But I figured I could tell you.

Pre-missing my own mom

Last year my mom had a stroke. Turns out she has a chronic brain bleed and a small aneurysm over the area of her brain that controls speech and memory. Apparently there is no treatment, cure, or expected progression. She could be fine or get worse. She could have more strokes. Or not. No one knows.

She’s doing better now but we live in different states and over the phone, I can hear what’s missing. I hear the blank spaces for words she can’t find and events she can’t recall. I feel like I am losing her very very slowly. And joining a club I don’t want to belong to (I have friends with parents who have Alzheimer’s and other challenges).

Sometimes I fear that the space between us will one day be more than miles. It will be a gulf that all the love in the world can’t cross. And she won’t know us. Then some days I just feel incredibly grateful for where she’s at now.

This pain of current and possible separation makes me want to DO something. But what can I control? I can try to lessen the ache of separation for some other mother and child.

Pre-missing my daughter

I get that this will sound silly. But my daughter is going to sleep-away camp for the first time for three weeks this summer and I’m not ready. SHE’S ready. But not me. This will be the first time we’ll be apart this long. I never went to camp as a kid so this is a foreign idea to me.

Also, I’ve been a single mom since she was five. Yes she sees her dad, but she’s with me most of the time. We’re a team. Although one member of the team could clean up more but, she’s my super girl. I dread her empty room. And I can’t imagine not getting the daily details of whatever good, annoying or LOL things happened. She jokes that she’ll have some of her stuffed animals have “sleepovers” in my room while she’s gone to help me. I laugh but part of me is considering it.

So what can I do about this? I can remember to have perspective. Yes it’s okay to miss Sofia. But I need to remember that other moms are separated from their kids for much longer and for much more serious reasons. Maybe a good way to keep that top of mind is to ease their time apart.

Mom on the brain

Strength is a beautiful, wonderful thing. But lately there have been days when I don’t feel so strong. When I wish someone would scoop me up and “mom” me a little. Make me a grilled cheese sandwich, bring me a soft blanket, snuggle on the couch and tell me everything’s going to be okay.

So how can I feel better? I think giving to others makes us more joyful and stronger inside. Taking action—the act of caring—is its own reward. And, since I’ve had “mom” on the brain and in the heart, I figured adopting these troops who are moms would be a good step to take. For them and me.

My daughter's handprints when she was two years old.

My daughter’s handprints when she was two years old.

© Gina left the mall, 2016

Deploying Snowballs To The Fight

What do you do when you have a troop in the desert that misses winter? You send him snowballs! Of course, a soggy box of real snowballs (a.k.a. water) does not have a high fun factor. Plus neither the U.S. Postal Service nor the Dept. of Defense takes kindly to boxes leaking liquids.

However, I solved this shipping/climate challenge with Hostess® sno balls®. I figured it was a delicious way to give him a taste of winter. These treats became the main ingredient in my snow-themed care package for Brendon*.

Winter-themed care package with "snowballs" and more.

Winter-themed care package with “snowballs” and more.

This mini winter wonderland included:

Hostess sno balls – a bunch of 2-packs and two boxes of sno balls underneath

“Christmas snow” instead of bubble wrap

7ft strings of paper snowflakes

Snowman mug

Bacon-flavored instant cocoa. Yes, they make this. I also included other flavors.

Cocoa toppers- little sugar snowmen with candy cane straws that you garnish your cocoa with. What warrior doesn’t need this?

Snowman cookie- if you’re a longtime reader, you know I don’t bake. But if you need a deployment-friendly recipe, Wendy at The Monday Box has smiling cookie snowman stacks she says are easy but take some time to put together. Or search her blog with the words “military care package”.

As close to Alaska as I can get

I am in touch with Brendon’s wife Ashley and I asked her if she thought he’d like the decorations or if he’d think it was silly. She said, he’d love it. When I mentioned the sno balls she laughed because that’s one of his favorites. Double-yay!

Then I asked her if she had any other ideas I could add in. She mentioned she heard that someone from their home state of Alaska once sent over a small vial with some melted Alaskan snow. I decided to stick with sno balls and not try this because:

1. I don’t know anyone in Alaska.

2. There is no snow on the ground by me right now (Manhattan) and even if there were…

3. pure New York City snow just doesn’t have the same ring to it.

The forecast ahead

According to the Farmer’s Almanac, the weather forecast this winter is essentially: DOOM. Some areas of the country have already had a sampling of this. So, it may be hard to see at this chilly moment how someone could be wistful for the powdery nemesis of commuters and school principals everywhere.

But home is home. Whether it’s palm trees, city streets, or Santa’s neighborhood. And no amount of distance can keep the people, sounds, sights, and tastes of home far from our hearts. So I’m sending him a snow day filled with warmth and good wishes. Hopefully I sent enough sno balls that he can share. I wouldn’t want a fight to break out.

*names changed for privacy.

© Gina left the mall, 2014

Your Child Can Help A Military Child With :15 to :30 Of Joy

Sometimes all a kid really wants for Christmas is to have mom or dad home. At least that can be the case for thousands of military children who have a parent that is deployed. While the folks at The 9/12 Generation Project can’t grant that wish, they have come up with a way for students to help show support for military children called Operation Sending Hope.

Operation Sending Hope invites kids grades 6 through 12 to create 15-30 second video messages for military boys and girls who will be without a parent during the holidays. A total of $1000 in grants will be given to the sponsoring schools or organizations of the students with the “best” videos. I’d hate to have to decide that contest. Kids are already maximum cuteness. Add a kind act on top of that and I melt every time.

There are actually two rounds of submissions. Round 2 is still open:

Sponsor fee: NONE

Deadline: midnight, December 17, 2015.

Who is The 9/12 Generation Project?

On 9/11, we saw the worst of humanity. But on that day and the difficult days that followed, we also saw tremendous acts of courage and kindness. People came together from all over to help and The New York Says Thank You Foundation was created to give back. It’s goal is, “to build hope and provide healing to people around the world as a way to continually ‘pay it forward’ for the humanity, kindness, and volunteer spirit New Yorkers – and all Americans –experienced on 9/12.”

The 9/12 Generation Project is the service-learning program of the New York Says Thank You Foundation. They are the educational experts that hope to inspire students to take action. They create programs, “focused on community revitalization, disaster relief, and the arts” to let students see the impact they can make.

Where will these videos appear?

These videos will appear on the 9/12 site, social media, and The Military Child Education Coalition will be helping get the videos out to military children.

Operation Sending Hope? Joy?

I know the 9/12 folks named their program “Operation Sending Hope” but I also think there will be a lot of joy in this operation. In the doing, the sharing, the giving and the receiving….so that’s why I put some joy in the title of this post. Of course, the people at 9/12 are professional educators and me—I’m the one who did the class project for my adopted soldier that had a few mishaps, but I digress…

No matter what you call this program, it’s a wonderful way to make civilian kids more aware of what kids just like them go through when mom or dad serves in the military. It’s empowering for any child to see that their words and actions make a difference. And it’s comforting for any child to know that they have not been forgotten.

I know there’s not a ton of time but, if you’d like your child to participate, you can click here. In the season of thanks and giving, this seems like 15 to 30 seconds well spent.

Operation Sending Hope from 9/12 Generation

Photo credit: 9/12 Generation Project

© Gina left the mall, 2014

I Supper Love You

“I supper love you too,” Sofia whispered and smiled as she ran towards the school doors to start her day. This moment with my daughter made me think of one my soldiers and an amazing letter I received from his family.

Supper and separation

Sofia had meant to write, “super” a few years ago in her note to me, but I’m glad she didn’t. This error has turned into a special saying for us. Of course, in high-profile, high-stake situations like the 500-ft radius around her elementary school, she says it quietly so the other kids won’t hear. This occurs right after she drops my hand a block early so no one sees because she is, “too big to hold hands” and only does so to indulge me.

I-supper-love-you

The note I came home to one day

At this “supper” moment however, my heart ached because I was pre-missing her. My daughter is with me most of the time but she had an upcoming trip with her dad (my Ex). Let me be clear—I am in no way comparing this separation to the separation of deployment. But when I feel the tugs on my heart, I can’t help but think of our military families and all that they sacrifice. My next thought is one of gratitude for all the time I do have with her and safety I enjoy with her.

While I was in this frame of mind, I received a letter from a military family. The dad is a soldier and has been missing home very much. For some reason, it has been even harder this deployment to be away from the children and this has led him to make a big decision. When his current enlistment is up, he’s going to leave the Army so he can spend more time with his kids. His wife shared this news and added something wonderful:

In support of his decision and because of the amazing gift he has given me by allowing me to stay home with our kids all these years, I have started my own home-based business. I am working my butt off so I can take over as the primary income and my husband can enjoy time at home with our crazy kids like I have.

I laughed in happiness for them and also thinking of the occasional transitional challenge of going from warrior-leading-men-in-combat to stay-at-home dad, “ordering” small children around. I know he will do great. But I will be very disappointed if there are not some funny stories along the way.

When I read how his wife wanted to give him the same gift he gave her, I wanted to cheer them on and cry at the same time. He’s endured and achieved a great deal in his Army career. I’m proud of him and happy that he’s recognized when he has done enough and that he’s brave enough to take on a completely different kind of platoon. I can’t wait for his days to be filled with “supper” love moments and more.

© Gina left the mall, 2014

The Sock Hunt

“Remember those socks you sent me four years ago?” This was the answer I got when I asked John, my deployed Marine, if he needed anything. It seems the ones I sent him last deployment had finally started wearing out and well, he loved them. Unfortunately, my memory of those socks is both good and bad at the same time.

What I DO remember:

I remember the ones he had were taking a beating. I remember me wandering into a random store and staring up at an entire wall of socks. When the salesman asked me what I was looking for, I told him the most comfortable and toughest socks he had for my Marine in the desert.

It turns out the salesman was ex-Israeli Army and had very strong opinions about this. Keeping your feet comfortable, dry, and healthy matters. He also served on a joint forces mission with some American troops. Since he knew Americans so well, he felt confident that what he selected was the best choice. He rang me up at the register in the back and gave me his employee discount as a way to thank John for his service. He had dark hair, dark eyes, and was wearing a gray sweater.

What I DON’T remember:

The brand or style of sock, the name of the store, or even what part of town the store was in. And by “town” I mean, “the island of Manhattan.”

I had asked John to send a picture but he hadn’t. Then I wrote again asking for a brand name and description.  I went online and didn’t see it.  Could it be that over the past (almost) half-decade, they changed their products?

Maybe if I could find the store, I could find the guy and he could find the sock or make another great recommendation. I tried to think of the places I went four years ago. I narrowed it down to: the East Side. If you divide Manhattan in half, that would be the piece on the right.

Manhattan Neighborhoods

Manhattan Neighborhoods (Photo credit: estimmel)

I picked different neighborhoods and googled the clothing stores. Then I went on google street maps to see if I could recognize the storefront. Nothing. But I wasn’t giving up. A friend once told me, “you know, sometimes you’re like a dog with a bone.” I can only assume that meant, “gee, you can be determined and I find that trait delightful.”

Go West!

I decided to expand my search to the West Side. The third store I street-mapped looked familiar. Very familiar. I ran there after work, excitedly burst into the store and….they’ve reduced their magical sock wall into a small area with four offerings. Apparently they’ve also made a few changes in the past (almost) half-decade.

So I decided to make a change too. I found what I thought were good options someplace else and got those. Will it be the exactly the same? No. But without change, how would we find new things to love?

© Gina left the mall, 2013

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