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

Silent Night?

I haven’t heard from my adopted Airman yet. That could be for many reasons. Troops are busy—many work 12-16 hr days, 6 or 7 days a week, they go out on extended missions, they may not have access to email, plus they’re already doing so much—you don’t want make them feel they “have” to do more to get support. So there are no expectations or strings attached. If someone is “silent” you keep on supporting them anyway.

That said, I’ve only had very Un-silent troops in the past. When one couldn’t connect, his wife would reach out to me. Some would send long emails or even letters. And one told me more about field-dressing an elk than I ever wanted to know. I’ve been lucky to “meet” some amazing people and develop some lasting friendships. I’ve also realized that it’s a lot easier to make a care package when you have some idea of what someone wants, needs, or is missing. In the absence of that hard intel, and with the Christmas mailing deadlines quickly approaching, I had to make some decisions.

I know from past care packages that candy and silly toys were always a hit. So I figured I’d do that. But I also yearned for a Theme to have some fun with. So, in the loosest possible definition of Theme, I came up with:

Things That Are Red, Things That Are Green

That’s right. And let me tell you I made myself laugh in the aisles as I used that as my shopping guide. Spiderman erasers? Red licorice? Sure. Green ninja pinball and dried wasabi peas? Toss ’em in! Maybe in the randomness of the selection, I’ll hit on something he loves.

Now in case my loose Theme was too subtle, I added red and green tape. My daughter added the holiday emoji stickers because she has a thing for emojis (and texting me loooong messages consisting solely of emojis).

Holiday Care Package with Red and Green theme

As you can see, the Things That Are Red, Things That Are Greeen theme is easy to pull off 🙂

A Quiet Win

I hope that when my Airman opens this box he smiles. I hope he feels a genuine sense of care—that there are people back here rooting for him and that it does not go unnoticed that he is far from friends and family while we gather with ours. And while a smile doesn’t make a sound, it’s possible for it to have a resounding impact.

© Gina left the mall, 2015

Giving Thanks to a Soldier, a Friend, and a Stranger

If you have thanks in your heart but don’t have the words in your pen or keyboard, I invite you to use some of mine. Why? Because it has come to my attention that some people hate writing. It could be just people I’m related to (especially at homework time) but I suspect they are not alone. That’s why I’ve jotted down a few words that may come in handy this week for anyone that needs them.

There are many things to be grateful for. Such as the fact that there are too many to list here. So my joyfully incomplete list includes three people you may wish or need to give thanks to on November 28th: a soldier, a friend, and a stranger.

Soldier

Somewhere, thousands of miles from home, there are Soldiers, Airmen, Marines, and Sailors you’ve never met who would do anything to keep you safe, up to and including sacrificing their lives. They raised their hand and took this on. However, choosing this life doesn’t make their hearts less vulnerable. If anything, they appreciate the moments with their loved ones even more. Everyday things like reading to your child at bedtime become like treasure.

I know you’ve probably heard the words, “remember the troops” a thousand times. Possibly a few of those times were me. But the truth is that it’s important they know they are not alone.

One way to remember them is to send a thank-you with coffee through Cup of Joe (COJ) Below are two options if you’d like to do this but need some ideas on what to write:

1. Simply replace the underlined details with your own.

Dear Service member,  My two brothers, sister-in-laws, their kids, my parents, and 2 dogs are all headed to my place for Thanksgiving and then sleeping over. Along with my family (husband, 2 kids 1 dog, 1 cat, 1 turtle) this is the recipe for craziness. The very best kind. Sure, every dish may or may not turn out perfectly. Someone may or may not fight over the X-box. But this much is certain: we are grateful for your help in making this day possible. Because of what you do, we have the freedom to be together in safety. Thank you for this on Thanksgiving and every day. Sincerely ___________________

If you’re not hosting the dinner, you can change the opening to reflect your plans, “We’re headed to _________”

2. Copy or change as you like.

Dear Service member, It is Thanksgiving and you may be far from home, but you are not far from our thoughts. It is your service, and that of your brothers and sisters in arms that allow us to gather at the table, free from fear. Not everyone in the world enjoys this amazing gift. So, I wanted to take a moment to say thank you. Please tell your family that my family thanks them as well. Sincerely_________

Each cup of coffee you send costs $2. You can even send just one.

A friend 

My family is spread out from NY to the Pacific Rim (that’s geographic, not cinematic.) For me, Thanksgiving usually means heading to Nancy’s house on Long Island. If you’re headed to a friend’s and want to include a note along with the wine or pumpkin pie you’ll be bringing, here are my words:

Dear Nancy,  Just wanted to say thank you for including us and making us feel like family. Knowing we have a place to call home for the holidays means more than I can say. Not having to cook for five hours is also pretty exciting too. Thank you for all of it. You rock. xo, Gina

A stranger 

For the first time ever, I’m traveling ON Thanksgiving Day. I’m taking my daughter Sofia to Florida to see Grandma and Grandpa. For the journey through La Guardia Airport, we’re bringing a bag of candy to share. It’s for the Policemen, TSA agents, gate agent, flight attendants or whomever we meet. Maybe they wanted to work, maybe they got stuck with the shift. Either way, there are probably slightly more desirable ways to spend a day devoted to family than x-raying a stranger’s carry-on luggage. Plus, since holiday travel can be stressful, any drop of kindness is probably a good thing.

This time, the words we’ll use are simple and what I wish for you and those you love:

Happy Thanksgiving!

Some of the candy we'll give out at LaGuardia Airport on Thanksgiving Day

Some of the candy we’ll give out at LaGuardia Airport on Thanksgiving Day

© Gina left the mall, 2013

3 Things Vets Want You To Know

November 11th is a day of national attention and affection that we honor our vets with. Of course, how we treat them after all the parades matters even more. So I’m re-posting the 3 things I learned after I attended the NYC parade last year. As for today, I’m headed out to celebrate with IAVA (Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America) I hope that whatever your plans are, you take a moment to think of our vets and thank any that you know. Our men and women that have raised their hands to serve are pretty incredible.

3 Things…

As the NYC Veterans Day Parade was about to start, I asked a few Vets this question: What three things do you want civilians to know? These were not in-depth interviews as there was an impending parade. You’ve heard of speed-dating? This was a speed-survey. But I got a lot for investing just a few minutes.

Tireak, Marine Corps Veteran 

1. We need a hand up not a handout. We’re proud.

2. We’re normal. Don’t be afraid to learn about Veterans

3.  Tom Hanks had an interesting idea about service in a speech he made at Yale. He talked about our years of service and challenged them to match that service by helping Veterans transition from soldier to citizen.

I pulled this excerpt from Tom Hanks’ speech:

We all will define the true nature of our American identity, not by the parades and the welcome home parties, but how we match their time in the service with service of our own….Give it four years, as many years as you spent here at Yale, in acts both proactive and spontaneous and do the things you can to free veterans from the new uncertainty that awaits them.

Lyndsey, Army Veteran 

1. Please don’t forget the family. I get a lot of thanks. That doesn’t recognize the strength this takes for our family members.

2. Not everyone has PTSD. (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder)

Lyndsey mentioned trying to do a project at work involving soldiers. It was not embraced for fear that “something might happen” because of PTSD. She felt this was an inaccurate perception and an overreaction.

3. Take advantage of our leadership skills. Capitalize on our service. We can handle stress and deadlines. We already have.

Moses, Marine Corps Veteran

1. We’re still people. We’re human, not robots. I still yell at the TV during the game. My Giants are killing me. (NY Giants lost that day)

2. We’re not helpless. We’re used to leading and we love to serve.

3. Serve with us. You see Vets doing Team Rubicon, helping with Hurricane Sandy. Involved in giving back in so many ways. Serve with us in the community.

Matt, Air Force Veteran

1. We’re very motivated.  We continue to serve in different ways after [our military] service.

2. “Thanks” goes a long way. When I travel I shake the hand of someone in uniform….I know it meant something to me.

3. Employing a Veteran is the best decision you’ll ever make. They’ll be the best employee you ever had.

Maria, Army Veteran 

1. Embrace PTSD as normal. It’s not a stigma.  It’s normal to be different. Handling this kind of stress can take even greater strength.

2.  Employers shouldn’t think we are without experience because we don’t have industry experience. Our skills are transferable.

3.  I would also say more support for the families.

Tom, Vietnam Vet

1. jobs

2. we want to know people care

3. jobs

ME:  Okay Tom, everyone wants jobs. Could you be more specific about what Veterans need?

TOM:  We need mentors in different fields. Vets often don’t know how the skills they have acquired translate to a specific industry. Personal attention makes a difference. I organized a job fair but kept it small so they got personal attention.

A few more voices

This is obviously not the entire list of everything Veterans may wish to share. (Also I’m missing Navy and Coast Guard here) but maybe it’s a conversation starter. I didn’t speak with Paul Rieckhoff who leads IAVA, but I heard him say three things that day that stood out to me so I’m adding them in.

1. Vets aren’t a charity, we’re an investment.

2. We’re not a problem, we’re the solution.

3. Make every day Veterans Day. Put them on the frontlines of your company.

One day closer

Almost all of my volunteer work has been for deployed troops. But each day, every one of them gets one day closer to completing their service. To becoming a civilian again. They will be shaped by their experiences. Some will have scars both seen and unseen. But whatever their individual story, I hope they will find the support they need to come home and thrive. Last, but of course not least, thank you to all our Veterans and their families.

My first soldier's platoon in Afghanistan, 2009

My first soldier’s platoon in Afghanistan, 2009

© Gina left the mall, 2013

A Patient Reminder

I no longer take for granted the little luxuries like hot showers or color. Our troops have helped me to appreciate these things in my own life even more. After all, when you don’t see grass or trees for a year, the green of nature is like gold. I’d like to say that I remember this every single day. I’d like to, but I can’t. Some days I will in fact, “sweat the small stuff.” Luckily, it’s never long before something comes along to remind me to do otherwise.

The waiting game

I have to admit that I do not excel at waiting. In fact, I have been known to “abandon line” in stores if the checking-out process is too long. Once I accompanied my friend Linda shopping for clothes at a department store. An hour later, she had an armful of items and we made our way to the register. However, there was a long line AND multiple returns. For some reason, my friend refused to leave. So I scoured the place for the most “interesting” outfit (this was the 80s so….lots of choices) then I held it aloft and called out, “Linda! They DO have it in your size!” At first, people stared. But after I kept bringing Linda fashion-forward combinations to consider, they were laughing. Yes, Linda was laughing too. Eventually.

Fast forward to yesterday. I had waits and delays at every turn. If I were not already stressed, I probably wouldn’t have found it so irritating. Later, after I got home, I came across some old pictures one of my solders had sent me. The note on this one said, “waiting.” I couldn’t remember the rest of the story so I called him.

soldiers waiting in a bunker in Iraq

DYLAN: Well, that was Christmas morning in Iraq, 2009. Our base was being mortared. It started before sunrise. I think we had to stay in that bunker 7 or 8 hours. The good news was that they had shut down the chow hall earlier. I say that because we took a direct hit there. Luckily no one was inside. 

Suddenly, my delays didn’t seem quite so horrible. Instead, I felt lucky that I had the freedom to go run whatever errands I wanted. I had two uninjured legs to stand on in those lines. My reset button had been hit. So I jokingly said to Dylan, “Oh yeah? Well let me tell you about MY day and the waiting I endured.” As I feigned outrage, we both started laughing.

Dylan told me that he doesn’t like waiting either. Then he shared a checkout challenge that involved Walmart, two open registers, and what appeared to be the entire town shopping there at once. His quest for milk and lightbulbs took one bad turn after another and we laughed some more. As we talked, he never said, “don’t lose sight of what really matters.” He didn’t have to.

© 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

I Adopted A Heavily Armed Grown Man

My finger froze above the keyboard, as I was about to submit my name to adopt a soldier. This was 2009. Soldiers weren’t winning Dancing With The Stars in 2009.  Back then, the only time I heard about troops is when something bad happened. Either they were hurt or had P-T-S-something and hurt someone else.  So I hesitated. What was I getting myself into? If I’m mailing stuff, this guy is going to know where I live. I was having a “stranger danger” moment.

Then I remembered the tears in that sailor’s eyes when my daughter Sofia thanked him for being brave (A Sailor Wrecks My Indifference). And I thought about what I was signing up for. To send kindness and care to someone far from home who was risking their life to protect people like me. You know, strangers.

I hit send.

What is Adoption?

You commit to sending one letter a week and one care package a month for the duration of the Deployment. Mail is important. It affects morale.

It’s like Christmas Morning For Us  

I could write an entire post on just how much getting mail means. So many of my guys have told me it’s like Christmas morning. When I was doing research about adopting, I ran across these thank-you notes from two soldiers.

Soldier 1:  Although I can not truly speak for everyone, I am sure there are thousands of service members who feel the same way I do when I say beyond the cards, letters, and care packages you send to us, the most important and valuable thing you send is a sense of worth. What I mean by that is we realize we are not forgotten by people other than our immediate families. That it does make a difference in the world what we are doing, and that if there is at least one person out there who cares then the sacrifice that so many of us have and or will endure, it is worth it. Thank you very much.

Soldier 2:  The guys out here really appreciate what you’ve done for us and so do I…what you and your friends do makes a difference. Morale lifts and with it depression, anxiety, anger, frustration and loneliness to name but a few things. What you do allows us time to feel good about ourselves because someone we don’t even know cared enough about us to do something wonderful. It allows us to be able to do our jobs out here with a sense of clarity. It helps us all try harder to come home safely. I can never say this enough, THANK YOU ALL. 😉                                                                                                                        

Your Soldier Information from AAUSS Adopt A US Soldier 

This is what I got for hitting “send”.  (For privacy, I took out a few details and cropped the photo of his wife.)

My name is xxxx I’m 24 and from the great state of xxxx. I’ve been in the military for 6 years now and this is my 3rd combat deployment. I’m married to a beautiful girl named xxxx   She just gave birth to our first baby about 7 weeks ago. We had a baby boy Kyle. I still haven’t been home to see him but should be home for leave in a few months. Just got to Afghanistan in mid June and will be here until sometime in May.

my adopted soldier in Afghanistan

I looked at the beautiful but dangerous place he worked. I looked at the child he had yet to meet. I looked at his wife who was about to have all those “first” baby moments solo.  And I felt bad that I ever hesitated. This young family had a lot at risk. I think I can manage a letter and some beef jerky. I also decided to send him a What To Expect The First Year book and call it his new “field manual.” I would try to think of creative things to send. This would be fun! 10 days later I found out it would be something else as well. His email began, “We had a rough week…”

© Gina left the mall, 2012