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

Beauty Is Who You Are

I had never heard of Aaron Mankin when they handed him the microphone. He only spoke for a few minutes, but I was inspired to learn more. I found out he was a wounded Marine, his opinion on beauty, and the amazing story behind it.

Aaron Mankin

Cpl. Aaron Mankin addressing IAVA marchers before the NYC Veterans Day Parade 11.11.13

What I heard him say

I was standing with IAVA (Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America) marchers this past Veterans Day in NYC as they waited to join the parade on 5th Avenue. Aaron Mankin was introduced as a leading voice of this generation of veterans. Since November 11th is about expressing gratitude, he spoke of that.

He said that when people would come up and thank him, he always felt awkward and uncomfortable. “What do I say? Hey…you’re welcome!” The semi-cheesy way he delivered the line “you’re welcome” made everyone laugh. He said that after a while he realized what his response should be. “What do I say now? Thank you for your support. Because all this…right here with each other, in our hometowns…all across the country, if we have this, we have all we need.”

As I stood in the cold, I found the warmth of his words uplifting and comforting. I loved his sense of humor. And I feel strongly that supporting each other, even with the smallest kindness, has tremendous power. So I was looking forward to finding out who he is and why he was a “leading voice.”

Marine Corporal Aaron P. Mankin

“On May 11th, 2005, Cpl. Mankin was wounded when the 26-ton amphibious assault vehicle he was traveling in rolled over an improvised explosive device and was propelled 10 feet in the air.

Four Marines died in the attack and 11 others were injured. In addition to the damage sustained to his throat and lungs from smoke inhalation, Cpl. Mankin suffered intense burns on over 25 percent of his body. His ears, nose and mouth were essentially gone and he lost two fingers on his right hand.”

This is the information about Cpl. Mankin at Operation Mend. He was their first patient two years after the attack. Operation Mend is a program at UCLA Medical Center where top plastic surgeons and reconstructive surgeons donate the their time and talents to vets with severe facial injuries and other medical issues.

After almost nine years, he’s had over 60 surgeries. When I found images of when he first got hurt, I was absolutely shocked. I did not recognize the man I saw speaking that day. I have to admit that looking at them made my eyes fill with tears. I’m not sure what surgery # the photos below are, but even the “before” photos are incredible progress. I am so grateful for Operation Mend and the work they do.

Part of the journey for Cpl. Mankin. (photo credit: UCLA Health and UCLA Operation Mend)

Part of the journey. for Cpl. Mankin. (photo credit: UCLA Health and UCLA Operation Mend)

Through it all Cpl. Mankin has continued to serve by helping other injured veterans to heal, to be a voice for them, and to inspire everyone around him to find their own ways to serve. He also helps spread the word about Operation Mend.

If you know of a veteran that could be helped by Operation Mend, please tell them about this organization. If you live in the LA area, you have the opportunity to be a Buddy Family. This program helps patients and their families spend some time beyond the hospital and hotel walls by joining host families for a home-cooked meal or an activity. If you wish to make a donation, you can do so at their site as well.

A beautiful truth

Cpl. Mankin actively avoided the mirror in this hospital room. When he finally did look, he didn’t recognize the man staring back and he says plainly, “I cried for a long time.” But then he made a choice. He said he didn’t want a stranger who dug a hole and planted a bomb to dictate who he was. He was still the same man inside. And that man chose to continue giving and serving with courage, kindness, and humor. He doesn’t avoid the mirror now. Because, “beauty is who you are, not how you look.”

© Gina left the mall, 2013

The Day I Got A Flag

I didn’t own a flag and then one day, a troop sent me one from a combat zone as a heartfelt, “thank you.” As July 4th approaches, and more flags adorn more places, I thought I’d share the story of how I got mine.

No outdoor space

I live in an apartment building in NYC. While some people do have yards or balconies, I do not. Hanging things outside your window, many stories above unsuspecting pedestrians, is frowned upon here more than large sodas. Living vertically means certain safety considerations. When I lived in the suburbs we had a flag on the porch. But the porch stayed with the house. When I crossed the city line, owning a flag never crossed my mind.

“You have a package from Afghanistan”

In my volunteer experience, emails are easy to exchange but letters are mostly from here to there. So if I got correspondence, “from the sandbox” I was very touched. On this particular day I was not only surprised to have a package, but by the contents as well.

At times, troops will have flags flown at bases or in this case, carried aboard aircraft, in honor of someone. It’s a way to say thanks. I never knew about this tradition until that day.

I had been pen pals with an Airman and before he came home, he decided to do this for me. It seems that sharing funny stories about my daughter Sofia and the care packages we sent had helped him through a difficult period and painful losses. But because he never shared what he was going through at the time, I had no idea how much the little things we did meant to him. Then I opened the box.

Flag flown in combat, in Afghanistan. Gift from an Airman.

When I held the flag in my hands I was very moved, thinking about where it had been and his reasons for sending it. Underneath it, I found this certificate. The words “combat mission” made something I know is serious and dangerous, seem even more real. And, as always, made me wish for an outbreak of world peace. Seeing the words, “for Gina and Sofia” also struck me. We were strangers that wrote to him through Soldiers’ Angels. Yet he and all the others, “do what they do” for people they love and for the vast majority of us that they do not know and will never meet.

flag certificate from combat zone

(names blurred for privacy)

Happy Independence Day

Beach, barb-b-que, red, white, & blue cupcakes, fireworks, I wish you a happy holiday whatever you’re doing. I also thank our troops everywhere for helping ensure we can celebrate our country’s birthday yet again. I thank them and their families for the freedom to enjoy days like this with our own families. And, while my flag still remains indoors, I’m very grateful to have it.

© Gina left the mall, 2013