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

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

How To Write To A Soldier

Troops say mail call is like, “Christmas morning.” But what do you write if you’re strangers? Many people have asked so I’m sharing a few tips and a simple structure that work for me. If you’ve never written before or just want some ideas, feel free to use anything here.

Tips

Be positive and encouraging. Remember, troops have the stress of being far from home and who knows what else may be going on. This is not the time to vent. That’s what BFFs and the pint-sized ice cream container were invented for.

The polite company rule – avoid religion and politics, is always a good first letter idea. Another is to simply be conversational and genuine. If your spouse, child, or other loved one were deployed, how would you want someone to talk to them? 

And, of course, safety first. That would be OPSEC/PERSEC. It stands for Operational Security and Personal Security. Don’t share their address and other info.

As for specifics, I’ve divided your first letter into four easy pieces: Dear_____, intro paragraph, wonderful middle, and sincere close.

Dear ___________

I follow the lead of whatever’s in the request or information I receive. If troops use their first name, so do I. If they use rank and last name, that’s how I fill in the blank. In some cases, you don’t have a name but a branch of the military. If it’s Army, then I write, Dear Soldier.

All troops are not Soldiers. Army = Soldier, Air Force = Airman, Navy = Sailor (Navy construction battalion, it’s Seabee) Marine Corps = Marine. Coast Guard I have heard referred to as Coast Guardsman and those stationed on ships as Sailors. If you don’t happen to have a name or branch, you can write Dear Servicemember.

Intro Paragraph

I introduce myself and why I’m writing. I also include the name of the charity I got their information from. In some cases, they may not be expecting my letter. That happens when others submit a troop who they feel needs a morale boost.

Example: Hi, my name is Gina, I’m a Soldiers’ Angel from NYC and I’m writing to thank you for your service. I have an awesome little girl named Sofia who says to tell you, “hi.” 

If I know anything about them, such as where they’re from, I’ll talk about it in the next line or two. Then I start setting up whatever story I’m going to share.

The Wonderful Middle

Here I write about home. After all, home and all the wonderful things in it, is what they miss most. In my case, it’s often a funny story involving Sofia. But other great topics include sports you watch or play, something special about your hometown, your amazing pet, a recent movie, concert, an event with friends- even if it’s just sitting around the fire pit under the stars telling jokes, hobbies, …whatever you care about.

I think what’s also helpful is if you can write it visually. A Vietnam Vet told me that when he received letters that they would transport him, even if for a short time, away from the horrible place he was. So whatever story I’m writing, I try to paint a picture to help them take a break from their current locale. For example, you can see how the fire pit sounds more interesting than the other items in the list above because you can “see it.”

I also try to include a question or two to give them something to respond to if they reply. Of course, not everyone has the time or ability (regular internet connection or outgoing mail) to write back. If you’ve just worked eight 16-hr days in a row, you may want to spend your day off getting some rest, trying to connect with family, or just zoning out in your bunk with movies and games.

Sincere Close

I wrap up by acknowledging this servicemember’s role in the wonderful things we get to enjoy. Example: I know the reason Sofia has the freedom to ______(whatever I just shared) in peace and safety is because of the hard work you and your fellow troops do every day. Thank you for all you do. 

Sometimes I’ll ask them to thank their family on my family’s behalf. Because I know they are sacrificing too. If I know there’s been a specific morale issue, I may assure them they are not forgotten. If I know there’s been loss of life or injuries, I’ll want them to know we are keeping them in our prayers. Then I include my email address to make replying easier.

Write right

There’s more than one right way to do this. I think if you let courtesy and kindness be your guide, you’ll do great. Our deployed troops really do appreciate any little thing. Including a stranger taking the time to remember those who fight to defend their freedoms.

Update on a note Sofia sent that follows none of these tips…lol (although, this wasn’t her first letter to our Marine.) He deployed again and took her advice! Two of his Marines did a very good job and he told Sofia 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!

(name blurred for privacy)

© Gina left the mall, 2013