20 Years And The Water Gun Banquet

“Magic Marv,“ formerly known as “Mad Marv,” was retiring from the Air Force after 20 years. They called him “Magic,” for the way he knew the answer to anything you needed. “Mad,” came from all the yelling he did at Airmen who didn’t know answers he thought they should. Both sides of Marv wanted an informal retirement ceremony. Which is how we wound up at the all-you-can-eat Chinese Buffet. 

Marv’s ceremony and an annual awards banquet were two events on the same day that I had the chance to attend while visiting one of my Air Force families. The events were totally different yet, in some ways they were exactly the same. 

Magic/Mad Marv

The 10 of us ate-all-we-could for $6/person. That’s either a great deal or just my reverse sticker-shock when outside of Manhattan. Then Marv’s boss, Senior Master Sergeant Tracy, got up to say a few words. She spoke of his talents and contributions over the years. That part I expected. Then simply and almost gently, she spoke of a difficult time in Afghanistan. How Marv helped prepare the young Airmen around him and others for what they would face and how much that meant to her. Even though she didn’t come out and say it, it was clear they had lost troops in their unit that day. While some other professions face life and death together, the vast majority of us don’t. We aren’t asked to give everything to a mission or co-workers up to and including our lives. Being reminded of that in this context was striking.

Thoughtful gifts and certificates of appreciation are also part of saying goodbye. But what I liked best is when Sergeant Tracy asked Mrs. Marv to stand. Then she handed Mrs. Marv a bouquet of flowers and thanked her for her service…for all the long hours and late nights waiting for Marv, for all the support she gave him at home and during deployments. For everything she went through too. Then she handed her a retirement pin to add to his uniform. As Mrs. Marv placed it on his lapel, Sergeant Tracy said, “Thank you for letting us borrow your husband for 20 years. This pin symbolizes his return to civilian life. We are giving him back to you. You are now his commander again.” There was laughter and a few tears. Marv said some words too. None of them angry and a few of them magical in a Marv way.

There may be water guns

When I was told there would be another function, I asked what the dress code was. “Well, it’s a banquet. And there may be water guns. So, business casual.” Of course. I also found out over 1,000 people would be attending.

There are times in life for formal banquets with white tablecloths, waiters and flower arrangements. This was not one of them. It was being held in an airplane hangar and catered by a local barb-b-que joint. I’ve been to annual awards banquets held in very nice ballrooms and no offense to the Waldorf Astoria but, I thought the hangar was kind of cool.

Airplane Hangar

Not the Waldorf Astoria.

There were four main teams there and each had a color designation, a nickname and a mascot. The mascots appeared to be homemade. Part of the tradition of this event involves attempting to steal the mascots. When one team found theirs missing, they promptly “stole” another team leader’s spouse and forced her to sit at their table until the items were returned. It was an energetic crowd. Yes, one team brought water guns. Luckily I was sitting out of range.

The awards were for outstanding hard work they had done both at home and while deployed last year. That involves some serious stuff. But being able to laugh together is vital to healthy work relationships too. The pride they had in each other was genuine. So was that feeling of family again. Whether they are 10 people or 1,000 they are truly brothers and sisters. And, for one day, I felt like part of the family too.

© Gina left the mall, 2013

Guam. Really?

Guam does not usually add stress to my life. It is a little dot in the Pacific and can be hard to spot on a map if you don’t know where to look. The island is hot, humid, and beautiful. The people are abundantly kind, generous, and friendly. It is very laid-back. I know this because I used to live there. I have a lot of family there. And unless a big typhoon is forecast, Guam doesn’t keep me up at night. This is in stark contrast to my current island, Manhattan.

Guam

Guam…..(photo credit, chotda)

New York City skyline

Not Guam

For many people in the Pacific Rim (and beyond) the news from North Korea lately has caused some anxiety. My mom is one of those people and she asked if any of my troops, “had heard anything at work.” She was looking for some kind of reassurance. I told her that no one is going to tell me “anything.” But I called one of the guys anyway and he confirmed my suspicions about how National Security works: Random civilians are not on the need-to-know list. Then he kindly called my mom to tell her that everyone is paying close attention, is highly trained, deeply dedicated, and other things that helped her feel more at ease.

My danger plate is full

When it comes to danger, I got used to worrying about troops in the Middle East. When you know people in harm’s way, the news feels personal. After a while, I learned to do what many military families do… limit how much news I watch. I would give myself a CNN “time-out.”

My first “time-out” occurred after I thought my adopted soldier’s base was attacked and overrun. The initial information in the news matched his area. It turns out it happened at a base close by: COP (Combat Outpost) Keating. It was a horrible battle. Because there were casualties, there was a mandatory communication blackout while next of kin are notified. It was weeks before I found out if my soldier was okay. During those weeks I poured over every article trying to find information on him.

Even though that was years ago, there have been others that I’ve prayed for in different situations. So you can understand why I am not emotionally prepared at this time to take on additional worry-regions. If one area of the world wants to flare up, I’m afraid I’m going to have to insist that another area calm down. Of course, I dont want that flare-up to be where my family is, or yours, or people in general. In fact, I would simply prefer an outbreak of world peace.

The safety zone

I was relieved when one of my soldiers left Iraq and got transferred to Korea. I figured I don’t have to worry about him now. But the truth is, “less safe” can happen anytime, anywhere. Troops are on call 24/7 and can be sent anywhere, anytime. They don’t get the luxury of saying they are weary of conflict. One soldier wrote me, “You know who hates war? Those of us that have to do the fighting and pay the price.” But they raised their hands to serve for those they love and millions of random civilians. So I will bring my hands together to pray for their safety and ours. I will never take a “time-out” from that.

© Gina left the mall, 2013

A World Away From Walmart

I think the sign on this store in Afghanistan is either humor or some shopkeeper’s overly generous view of his inventory level.

Walmart sign hung on a store in Afghanistan.

A shop in Afghanistan. Not really a Walmart. (Soldier pointing to sign is blurred for privacy.)

Of course, nobody goes to a combat zone for the shopping. But if there were more of a selection, requests wouldn’t have gone out for Matchbox cars, a year’s worth of Hallmark moments and children’s books. All three were different ways that troops tried to feel more connected to home. All three requests came via Soldiers’ Angels who were doing their best to help the troops they adopted in every way they could.

Matchbox contest

Two Airmen were having a friendly contest to see who could get more Matchbox cars. One of them wanted to take pictures of the cars around the base to email to his 4-year-old son and then ship the cars home. This way his son could see where Daddy worked and hold the cars that were there in his hands. Both troops started receiving these small vehicles. However, the Airman with the little boy had been adopted by a Soldiers’ Angel. He happened to mention the contest to her. As a surprise, she put the request out to the group (I am a member) and he received cars and encouraging letters from all across the country. The ones I sent are below. Technically, the NYPD and FDNY are not Matchbox but, I thought his son might like them.

Matchbox cars and note to deployed troop for his care package

(name blurred for privacy)

This Airman was moved by the outpouring of support for both himself and his son. Even his buddy enjoyed seeing how much people cared.

Happy “______” Day

A Soldier with two pre-teen girls wanted to be able to send them cards on every holiday. He always did this at home and wanted to keep that up while he was gone. Creating or keeping small rituals can help people feel closer. However, stationery stores aren’t easy to find. So his Angel put the word out.

Now you may be wondering what happens if he gets more than he needs? The thing is, troops share. They share with each other and, if the items can be used by the local orphanages or the community, they share there as well. In fact, many troops donate time, effort and goods to those in need. One of my readers, blogger and Soldier Jenny O, is among them.

Cat In The (camouflage) Hat

Why would troops need children’s books? Because they wanted to read to their children at night over skype.  Or to record themselves and send it home. It’s another one of those little rituals that mean even more if you are separated. To be able to maintain it is something special for both parent and child. So I purged my daughter Sofia’s bookshelf and then got a few new ones too. That night when we had storytime I had tears in my eyes and an ache in my heart. Other families were trying hard to have that very moment.  I didn’t want to take it for granted. After all, it’s one of those you can’t buy in a store. No matter what the sign says.

© Gina left the mall, 2013

“Dear Jane Letter” And The Gnomes

A female Sailor I was pen pals with received a care package from her boyfriend. Inside she discovered the keys to her truck. That’s how he broke up with her. By mailing her keys to a combat zone. She had to mail them back to a friend so they could retrieve her truck- from his driveway. She decided not to attempt to reconcile with him. I was very supportive of that idea.

Deployment can strain any relationship. And shaky ones are not made stronger by it. After all, if long dangerous separations were romance-builders, everyone would do it.

PERSON IN LOVE 1: Baby, I think we’re ready for the next step.

PERSON IN LOVE 2: Gasp!  You mean…

PERSON IN LOVE 1:  Yes, see you next year.

PERSON IN LOVE 2:  Awesome! I’ll handle everything solo. You try not to get shot.

SFX (sound effects) :  KISS

The effects of deployment extend beyond romantic relationships. They impact the entire family. Especially children. All kids are different but all miss their mom or dad. You can get a sense for what a young child goes through here. An Airman told me that his 3-year-old son was angry with him for not doing what the boy instructed. He kept saying, “Daddy, just steal a helicopter and come home!”

And then there are gnomes

I have heard and read so many stories about “deployment gnomes.” How everything goes wrong the minute troops leave. The boiler breaks. The engine fails. The plague arrives. Sometimes all on the same day. These gnomes can cause the person at home to feel even more stressed and on their own.

You know how there are sounds that only dogs can hear? I think there’s one that only appliances, vehicles and small children can hear. When a plane full of troops takes off, I think it emits a sound that alerts all devices and toddlers that now- NOW! is the time to have a meltdown.

DM C-130 takeoff

Just because you can’t see the gnomes or hear the signal, doesn’t mean they’re not there.

The cure for heartaches & gnomes is…

If I had the answer I’d be a millionaire. Love and appliances can be difficult in civilian life. Deployment takes it to a new level. But I think there are things that can help.

If you know a military family with a deployed loved one, please check in with them from time to time. If you can offer any help, being specific is better than a general, “hey if you ever need anything, let me know.” This way the person knows it’s a genuine offer versus just being polite. For example:

“I’m going to the supermarket, is there anything I can pick up for you?”

“I heard the kids were sick.  Do you need a hand?”

“We’re having movie night, why don’t you join us?

Or simply the occasional email saying they are in your thoughts. Showing concern is wonderful. However, if you see something bad in the news, don’t bring it up. Many families try not to watch the news or only want to discuss it AFTER they know for sure everything is okay.

Overall, both troops and their loved ones need to know that they are not forgotten. Will some relationships still end? Of course. Just like some washing machines were meant to die. But knowing you have people standing with you, rooting for you and just generally on your side…well, that’s when we all have our best chance to thrive. Gnomes be damned!

© Gina left the mall, 2013

It sounds funny to say “thank you” for…

the hugs un-hugged and bedtime stories unread,

for the school plays you didn’t attend,

for not changing the oil,

for skipping date night and taco night,

for not playing with the dog,

for every single everyday moment you’ve missed with your family and every single moment they’ve missed you right back.

Troops stand in harm’s way on holidays and all days to protect those they love as well as the millions of us they will never meet. They raised their hands to serve and this is their job. But the families sacrifice as well. They’re in this together.  And when we understand and appreciate what they endure, we’re in it together too.

© Gina left the mall, 2012