Tell My Soldier

I have a friend whose fiancé was deploying to somewhere near Syria. Then his orders were put on hold. Then they told him he was leaving in a few weeks. The other day that got changed to 24 hours and now he’s gone. I am trying to imagine putting my heart through the emotional gymnastics my friend just had to. Uncertainty is part of life for our military families.

Two months ago I told you about my “snail-tweeting” project for my very first soldier, Sergeant K, who was deploying again. I planned to mail him one tweet a day on a postcard, every single day for the duration of his deployment. His expected departure date has changed a few times. Luckily, his uncertainty led to more time at home. However, the latest update looks firm and I am ramping up now so I’m ready.

Sgt. K’s wife told me that mail delivery is supposed to be terrible where he is headed. I replied, “Challenge accepted!” I think one of the upsides to the snail-tweet project is the quantity. I figure the more mail I send, the more chances I have of getting through.

Your chance

If there’s anything you wish you could say to one of our troops, here’s your chance to tell my soldier. Leave your “snail-tweet” in the comments or email me and I’ll write it on a postcard with your name and mail it to him. It should be:

1. Short. Think one sentence or two short ones. Or even just a few words.

2. No politics please. I’d add, “be nice” but, if you’re doing this, you’re already pretty nice.

3. Include how I should sign your name. Something like, “Linda from California.” Or whatever fabulous alias you have.

If you’d rather email me, the address is: gina@ginaleftthemall.com

Meet Sgt. K

It’s not always easy to write to a stranger. So here are a few things about Sgt. K to help you get to know him.

-His favorite sport is hockey. His favorite team is the Phoenix Coyotes. Any attempt to make him a New York Ranger fan is futile (trust me on this.)

-He loves dogs.

-He missed the birth of his first child by two weeks because he was deployed. He was there when his second child was born. He and his wife are expecting again and he hopes to come home on leave for this birth.

-He’s funny.

-His wife is awesome.

-They’re one of those couples that are great to be around because they love and like one another. They were high school sweethearts and have been together ever since.

-After reading this blog, his mother-in-law was inspired to adopt a soldier.

-He loves cigars and canned ravioli. Not necessarily together.

-This soldier and his wife are the reason I was inspired to do more after I adopted him. Doing more led to everything I learned in the Ways To Make A Difference page and eventually starting this blog.

Beyond me

Below are the postcards I’ve picked up so far to send. I originally planned to do this myself and maybe ask for help once in a while. But then I thought about what it would feel like for him. What if he could see that the care went beyond me? I think that would be very special. In fact, I’m certain of it.

Postcards to "snail-tweet" my soldier

Ready to “snail-tweet.”

© Gina left the mall, 2013

7 Tips From Packing To Package

133° at 1300 hours (1:00 p.m. for us civilians) is precisely why you don’t send chocolate to Iraq and Afghanistan in the summer. It is one of seven tips that by themselves, would not be a very exciting post. However together, they comprise this absolutely thrilling list.

1. Chocolate Season is November to April

Early afternoon temperature in Iraq

A soldier sent me this picture from Iraq one summer afternoon.

2. Getting to know the Customs

The United States Postal Service Customs Form PS 2976-A comes with two pages of instructions (front and back.) Here are my highlights:

a. Most of its obvious, like your name.

b. Military addresses are mostly acronyms and numbers that identify division, unit, etc, and make little sense in English. I fill out the form the exact same way the address looks when I receive it. The areas I left empty don’t apply to me and probably won’t apply to you either. Some areas are for the Post Office to fill in.

USPS Customs Form example for shipping to APO/FPO

Form # can be found on bottom left.

c. There are only four lines to describe contents. If you need more lines, you have to fill out another form. FYI- The USPS does not want vague entries like: food.

d. I never fill out the weight and no one has asked me to. Maybe it’s because I always use flat-rate boxes. (It’s one price no matter how heavy it is.) The postal clerk fills it in.

e. If the box can’t be delivered for some reason, you have options for it to be returned, abandoned, or given to someone else. I check the last box and write in: Chaplain. This way at least someone who needs a morale boost will be sure to get it.

You get these forms at the Post Office. Or you can order them online at the USPS site. They also have online shipping options that I’ve never done. If you have, let me know if you like it.

3. Flat-out crazy with flat-rate boxes 

Besides putting the address on the outside of the box, I fully address the envelope with my letter on the inside as well. This way, if the top panel gets damaged, I have a second chance for it to get to the servicemember. Of course, since I trust nothing, I also put a piece of my clear packing tape over the address. This is to foil rain or a rogue coffee spill from smearing the address. I also tape up every box edge when I send to the desert so no sand gets in.

Again, with these boxes, you pay one shipping price no matter how much it weighs. You can get them for free at the post office or have them delivered to you.

4. Bubble-trouble

When I buy bubble-wrap I hide it. My daughter Sofia finds it and pops it. This reduces its effectiveness. So to save money (and aggravation) I recycle packing material from other things or that friends give me. I also use tissue paper from gifts we get. And I try pack items in a way that protect others. For example, if I’m shipping socks, I’ll strategically place them around things that need cushioning. Most things I ship are not fragile but I still don’t want the contents shifting around.

5. Bleach-flavored potato chips

If you pack food and hygiene items in the same box, you risk the food absorbing the strong cleaning scents and tasting like soap or perhaps a pine forest.

6. T is for Thank You

Holidays and seasons easily inspire care package ideas. Random days on the calendar can be big blank spaces that lay there inspiring nothing. Of course, you don’t need a theme at all. But it’s fun and can add a few extra smiles. So I figured I’d share my current random day idea.

I have a soldier named Thomas and I used his first initial to choose the contents. Every snack and toy begins with the letter “T.” Sofia signed the note, “love Sofia and Mommy (Gina).” I guess she added my name so he doesn’t mistakenly think it’s from his mom.

Initial-theme care package

There’s also a table-top football game (maybe the trophy will go to the winner.) The only things I had to pack carefully were the taxi cookie and the T lollipop.

If his name began with another letter, I’d just rewrite the line to reflect that. Even the thank-you line can be written differently. Examples: A –All our good wishes, B- Blessings, J- Just to say thank-you. For significant others of a K, you could add Kisses and hugs.

7. Never and Always

Some items that seem safe in everyday life can become dangerous if shaken or subjected to extreme temperature and pressure changes. The US Postal Service says never to send these items internationally:

  • Aerosols
  • Air bags
  • Alcoholic Beverages
  • Ammunition
  • Cigarettes
  • Dry Ice
  • Explosives
  • Fresh Fruits & Vegetables
  • Gasoline
  • Lithium batteries
  • Nail Polish
  • Perfumes containing alcohol
  • Poison
  • Pool Chemicals

I’m pretty sure most people don’t have a burning desire to ship air bags but, better safe than sorry. Also, for our troops in the Middle East you can add pork products to that list. However, no matter what items you put in the box, there is something you always send with every package. The care part. That’s what’s needed most and matters most. With or without chocolate.

© Gina left the mall, 2013

He Said, “Send Anything”

My first thought for Sergeant J’s care package was: PIRATES! This is because I learned that Talk Like A Pirate Day is coming. I figured eye patches, Pirate Booty popcorn, pirate cups, plates, and whatever else a deployed pirate might need. Then I checked the date and it’s on September 19th. Damn. My box wouldn’t make it to Afghanistan by then because mail delivery takes at least two weeks. My pirate idea was scuttled. Instead, I could do a theme I’ve done before or simply no theme. “Anything” is pretty open. Almost too open. So I kept thinking.

I looked up other strange holidays for inspiration and learned of National Bacon Day. Sounds fun, but it’s not an option because you never send pork products to the Middle East. I would also never send related items like bacon-scented soap and bacon-flavored dental floss (real products.) While they are technically not bacon, why walk around smelling like contraband? Toss in whiskey shampoo (also real) and you’ve got a recipe for trouble. Sadly, Bacon Day didn’t get me any closer to a care package idea.

It’s A Girl!

Then I found out that Sergeant J’s wife just gave birth to a baby girl! Wonderfully, they now have two little girls. Conveniently, it also made my job easier. I decided to send him a box of every pink candy I could find to celebrate the arrival of his sweet baby girl. I thought it would be fun for him to share with his buddies.

I put my daughter Sofia in charge of selection. She was literally “kid in a candy store” happy about this and went off-mission only slightly. When she discovered non-pink gummies shaped like Mario, fighter jets, and dinosaurs, she insisted that he had to have them. Then she continued her treasure hunt. We avoided anything chocolate because “chocolate season” is between November and April (other times of the year are too hot and it would melt.)

Doing this with Sofia was very special to me. I used to have her help me a lot. But one day she was writing a letter to a soldier and I looked over her shoulder. It said, “I wish I could trade places with you.” With tears in her eyes, she told me she was afraid he would get hurt and worried about all of them. I took the pen from her hand. Then I let her decide if and when she wanted to help. After a long break, she got involved again. Each time, it touches my heart.

After all the candy she picked out for Sergeant J, she found one small lollipop she wanted for herself. Of course I said yes.

Pink candy care package for soldier. It's a girl!

I put a list of contents. But good luck matching them all up.

Baby on the way, civilians on the case

Soldiers’ Angels has a group of volunteers that love to help deployed families celebrate their bundles of joy. It’s called Top Knot. I pulled the info below from the Soldiers’ Angels site and Top Knot also has a facebook page. I shared this with Sergeant J in case he and his family would like to sign up.

Top Knot is a nationwide network of service clubs and Angel individuals who sew, knit and shop to create gift baskets for infants and expectant mothers in military families. Deployments are difficult on the entire family unit, but even more so when that family is expecting or has an infant child. Our mission is to commend the women and children at home for their strength, to let them know we are proud of their sacrifices as well as their husbands’ and fathers’, and most importantly, to do what we can to support them during the emotionally challenging times of deployment.

Our dedicated volunteers knit, crochet, sew, quilt, and design blankets, booties, hats, onesies, bibs, and many more homemade gifts. We also assemble and deliver gift baskets full of goodies such as bottles, diapers, onesies, pacifiers, washcloths, grooming kits, and more. Additionally, we make sure to remember Dad by sending “It’s a Boy!” or “It’s a Girl!” bubblegum cigars to wherever he is stationed.

Anything goes

According to my holiday research, National Punctuation Day and Hug A Vegetarian Day are both right around the corner. If I knew that Sergeant J felt strongly about either commas or broccoli lovers, I would try to find a way to make those themes work. In the absence of such knowledge, I’m feeling good about the pink candy idea. Although, I know this soldier would appreciate anything.

© Gina left the mall, 2013

Vets Capture War In Six Words

What if I asked you to tell me about a major experience in your life with just six words? Good, bad, ugly, funny, whatever, but you only get six words to do it. That challenge is what two vets, Mike Nemeth and Shaun Wheelwright, asked of their brothers and sisters in arms who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan. They asked them to describe what they’ve been through in six-word essays. The finished result will be the first crowd-sourced memoir about these conflicts called Six Word War.

Nemeth and Wheelwright did not invent the six-word essay. A famous example is attributed to Hemingway, “For sale: Baby shoes, never worn.” But Six Word War expands on this idea by collecting the voices and viewpoints of many. Together, they tell a story that no single one could capture on their own. Some vets sign their essays. Some are anonymous. Here are some examples:

I am tired of the goodbyes. 

Mom, can’t chat now. Rockets incoming. 

Deployed three years, but for what?

Boredom, Boredom, Sheer Terror, Boredom, Boredom. 

Where did I leave my pants?

Air so bad. Filter cigarette’s healthy.

Sometimes I wish I was back.

Stories untold

When I came across Six Word War, I couldn’t help but think of some of the stories troops have told me. Especially the one I couldn’t convince a soldier to share in his real world. Maybe six words would be big enough for him to have a voice and small enough to not make him feel exposed.

I also think about the soldier who helped me understand PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) None of his buddies wanted to talk about the subject. So he described his own PTSD and it was a painful experience for him. But afterwards, I’m happy to say that he found it helpful to open up a little. I wonder if other vets who struggle with their story would find it healing to share it in six words. The brevity forces you to focus. And again, maybe it’s small enough to not feel completely vulnerable or raw.

Submissions and possibilities

The Six Word War Kickstarter campaign has been funded (I participated) but they are still taking essay submissions for the next few weeks at the Six Word War site. If you know a vet, please share this with them. Give them a chance to be part of it. If you are vet, please consider doing this. Be heard.

Six Word War

I hope the book becomes wildly successful. Because one possible result would be greater understanding between civilians and military. At some point, all of these thousands of men and woman who have been through this unique experience return to civilian life. How much better will we all be with a little shared knowledge and empathy?

I also wonder about a possible “companion book” from the family’s point of view. What six words would a military spouse have? How about a ten-year-old boy who’s Dad has deployed for half his life? Military parents? Or any loved one who has held their breath when the evening news came on.

Imagine the conversations that could begin with just six words.

© 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

Snail-Tweeting My Soldier

The first soldier I ever wrote to is headed back to Afghanistan soon. So I’ve been thinking about doing something special for him. Technically, this is not necessary because he’d appreciate anything. And technically, this may not be easy. During his last deployment I got creative a few times (like the golf ball episode) and occasionally lucky (help from a hockey team.) After a while I jokingly told him, “It’s all downhill from here.” But I also know this:

1. Little things mean a lot when you’re far from home. Even the smallest kindness.

2. Continuity helps. Contact throughout the entire deployment has a greater morale impact than sporadic contact. Sporadic has a greater morale boost than no contact.

3. Do what you can. I learned this lesson the hard way after taking on projects for him that were too big and/or not asking for help when I needed it.

Obviously, these three things add up to the invention of Snail-Tweets. Or my version of it.

Snail-Tweeting

What if I could send him a tiny bit of support for every day that he is deployed? Hearing your name at mail call is a powerful thing. However, if I sent letters every day I’d run out of things to say pretty quickly. But what if I kept it to 140 characters or less? What if, instead of tweeting online, I did it on postcards?

As I started thinking about stockpiling interesting and fun postcards, point #3 -Do what you can, popped into my head. So this is where I ended up:

1. I will try to send him a snail-tweet every day. “Try” being the operative word in that sentence.

2. If I need help coming up with snail-tweets, I will ask for it. My daughter often has memorable lines. I bet my wonderful readers do too. It may even be more interesting if they’re not all from me. If I ask strangers, I could make their “handle” something descriptive like GuyAtHotDogStand.

3. I’ll number the cards so they’re easier to track. I’ve mailed things on the same day before and one will get there in two weeks and the other arrives months later or not at all. I know anything topical becomes historical when I put in a mailbox, but to me they’re moments. Being deployed, our troops miss so many everyday moments. It may be nice to get a few back.

Urban Dictionary has Snail-Tweet defined as, “a conventional postcard.” I think my version of it is less conventional.

The plan

So that’s my plan right now. Of course, like all plans related to the military, it is subject to change. Plus, you never know, there could be an outbreak of world peace. And those last 64 characters would be well worth giving up snail-tweeting for.

postcards

postcards (Photo credit: petit zozio)

© Gina left the mall, 2013

Back To The Desert

A Marine I met two years ago is deploying for the fourth time. But this is his first time doing so as a dad. Before, one of the things he missed most was color. Like the green of grass and trees. Of course, this time, he is already pre-missing his baby girl. So I tried to take that into account as I thought about what to send him. This is what I came up with:

Essential gear

1. I LOVE NY coffee mug- Nothing says, “I’m a friendly guy, please sit down and chat a while” like something that screams New York. I am laughing on the inside because I know this Marine can be a bit difficult when he wants to be. After he shared a few work-related stories, I jokingly asked, “You’re kind of a pain in the a**  aren’t you?” He replied, “Only to people who try to mess with my Marines.

2. 1lb of coffee and assorted snacks. This is essential gear.

Dad factor

1. Notes from dad- I included a box of cute cards for him to send to his daughter. Sure, she can’t read yet, but I thought it would be nice for his wife to receive them. Maybe she’ll put them in a scrapbook or maybe just save them for later. Either way, I think it would be sweet for his daughter to have them.

2. Simple durable frame for super-adorable photo.

3. Motivation tip from my daughter Sofia. To help him at work.

Name blurred for privacy. Smiley-faces blurred so I don't get in trouble with some Sticker Cartel for copyright infringement.

Name blurred for privacy. Smiley-faces blurred so I don’t get in trouble with some Sticker Cartel for copyright infringement.

4. More help from Sofia: groovy, multi-patterned pencils for sharing. You know, in case the other Marines forget to bring theirs.

I thought about sending him a parents’ magazine and labeling it, “INTEL” but I didn’t know if seeing those other kid pics would bum him out or not. Plus, I wasn’t sure how interested he’d be in the articles.

Welcome back?

I don’t really expect smiley-face sparkle stickers to become part of his official routine. I think it would be hilarious, but I don’t expect it. However, this Marine may as well learn now that he’s got all kinds of sparkle ahead of him. But as he arrives in the desert, we’ll “welcome” him back with the certainty that many people care. Even strangers. I’ve never met this Marine in person, we became pen pals through Soldiers’ Angels. Like my fellow volunteers, we hope to send a few extra smiles until we can say, “welcome home” again.

Update: He loved the box and followed Sofia’s advice! Two of his Marines did a very good job and he told her to imagine them in a combat zone with smiley face stickers on their uniforms. He said, “that should bring a smile to your face.” It most certainly did!

© Gina left the mall, 2013