The Perfect Excuse

The other day I received an important request:  I’m doing those ‘open when’ cards for a friend who is deploying. I have one for open when you are sick and I want to put a funny please excuse soldier today “mom” style sick note in there… But I’m not a mom and I’ve never written one before. Please help.

Of course I am happy to use my powers for good! If you are currently deployed or love someone who is and you need a mom-note, feel free to fill in the blanks on this one.

Dear Sir or Ma’am,

Please excuse _____________________ from _______________ today as he or she has a stomachache.  Although _____________ is not my child, I am a mom and therefore imbued with the unalienable, unquestionable, and formidable power to write this note.

If you have any doubts, I invite you to consult your own mother who will not only guide you through this “teachable moment,” but ensure that you do so without a smirk on your face, running with scissors, or worse—running with scissors while smirking.

If ___________is feeling better, he or she will be in tomorrow.

Sincerely,

Gina

excuse note

More excuses lead to 3 soldiers

In a rash moment of non-clarity, I decided to give up chocolate for Lent. I have come to realize that I love chocolate very much and that this was a mistake. So I devised a brilliant plan to excuse myself from this situation and I posted it on Facebook. In all honesty, I was kidding. But I got some very thoughtful responses, caring prayers, a little guilt, and three new soldiers to write to. This was my brilliant plan:

Attn fellow Catholics: I gave up chocolate for Lent and I regret it. So, if you “forgot” to give up something for Lent and are feeling guilty, I am now willing to sublet my sacrifice. It’s a win-win-win. YOU get a discount on time served/suffering till Easter. I get to resume a daily habit that’s up there with breathing air as a mandatory activity for me, and God still gets to balance the books on a promise kept. If you’re interested in being a team on our mutual salvation, let me know.

What I learned is that a few of my friends have given up “giving something up” and instead do kind deeds. One person even recommended writing to soldiers. I told her that I couldn’t count something I already do as Lenten activity, but I would be happy to write to any soldiers she needed help with. She sent me three.

So now I have the perfect excuse to start buying chocolate again—to send to these troops in Afghanistan.

© Gina left the mall, 2014

Coming Home Early

Exciting news!!! My soldier’s deployment is being cut short AND he will be home in time for the birth of his child! YAY!!!!! Of course, before we all get too comfortable, he’s already been informed he’ll be deploying again this year. But for now, we’ve hit his mail-stop date and all kinds of joy are just around the corner.

This is the same soldier, Sergeant (Sgt.) K, that many of you helped me support with my snail-tweet project (one postcard a day, every day.) Thank you for all the messages you left here for me to send. Thanks also to everyone who sent me postcards from their home state to use.

He did get most of them. And he loved them. That’s the big win. If I ever do this again, there are a few small things I would change. And many things I wouldn’t.

Snail review

1. Getting postcards ahead of time and having snail-tweets from other people is a huge help.

2. Writing to the same person every day made me more aware of the passage of time. And gave me an even greater appreciation for what Sgt. K’s family goes through.

3. Deciding after you start snail-tweeting to create a craft project and photograph each one (both sides) in different locales with different backgrounds adds a layer of complexity that is not necessary at all.

4. If you travel, bring more than the exact number of postcards that you need in case something goes wrong. Like you are ambushed by a sneak rainstorm while visiting your mom in Florida a few months ago.

The ambush

It was a beautiful sunny day. See?

(I blurred out the last names and address for privacy.)

(I blurred out the last names and address for privacy.)

Do not trust this shade of perfection-blue. It may turn on you. Innocently, I wrote out that day’s postcard. Then, adhering to my Mom’s outgoing mail system, I used a wooden clothespin to attach it to her mailbox. The mailbox is protected by an awning that extends five feet. I put it on and went out with Mom to run an errand.

In my absence, it rained hard for 10 minutes. Sideways. The postcard was soaked. Gingerly, I peeled it free and then attempted to return this near-pulp object back to a solid state with a blow-dryer. After I was done, I still wasn’t sure the structural integrity would hold so, I put it in an envelope. Back it went to the mailbox with the clothespin but this time I kept a steady eye on the skies.

Trying to save snail tweet #31

Trying to save snail tweet #31

Luckily, it survived all the way to Afghanistan. This is part of Sgt. K’s office wall.

Some of the snail tweets that made it to Afghanistan. #31 is among them.

Some of the snail tweets that made it to Afghanistan. #31 is among them.

Since this picture was taken, more 4×6 doses of morale-boosting care have arrived and been added to the wall. Soon Sgt. K will take them down and start concentrating on a much better decorating project: the finishing touches on the nursery for his new baby.

© Gina left the mall, 2014

It Sounded Good

One day I decided to send my adopted soldier a toy. So I asked a few guys at work what childhood item they would love to have right now. Video games were out because I wasn’t sure what systems (if any) my soldier had access to. Or how reliable things like electricity were. No, I wanted to go old school, low-tech, and it had to fit in a flat-rate box.

Out of the suggestions given, I picked one I never heard of. Why? Because I thought the name sounded good. It sounded nostalgic. Like something invented in the 50s that Opie Taylor might use in Mayberry down by the fishing hole. To me, the name also had a hint of romance about space exploration. The toy I picked was the wrist-rocket slingshot.

I had never seen one before but it was easy to find online. I also ordered the “accessories” which in this case were extra rubber bands and small metal balls. After all, how fun is a toy without the parts? I imagined my soldier opening this box and being flooded with happy childhood memories. I pictured him going to the “backyard” of his remote brick hut in the mountains of Afghanistan to play with his buddies. Or maybe he’d bring it as a welcome diversion when he went to the even more remote outpost he’d work at for weeks at a time.

Combat Outpost in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan

Not Mayberry.

Sweet shots

After my soldier came home, I got the 411 on various packages I had sent. I wanted to figure out which ones were the best ideas. The wrist-rocket came up.

ME:  Did you like it? Did you guys use it?

HIM: Oh yeah it was great! What was really funny is some other guys got Frisbees the same day and they were playing outside. Then I walked out wearing my wrist-rocket slingshot, they were pissed and jealous…lol.  So I shot them with the marshmallow hearts that Sofia sent. (Sofia is my daughter)

ME:  Why didn’t you use the little metal balls?

HIM:  You mean the ammo? Because I didn’t want to kill someone. 

It didn’t dawn on me that the accessories were ammo. When I mentioned this to another solider I was pen pals with, he told me he had received a wrist-rocket slingshot as well. A church sorority group made up of very lovely 70-year-old women had adopted him. They sent him care packages with beef jerky, soup, shower shoes (flip-flops) and hygiene items. Then one day he got the slingshot. “I think someone’s grandson had a hand in that package…lol.” He did not use the ammo either. He used Jolly Rancher candy as projectiles. Then he would “help” the other soldiers during marksmanship practice by shooting their legs. “Hey, you have to be able to handle distractions. I was being a distraction.”

In the end…

I asked my adopted soldier if he brought it home and he said no. It seems he was concerned about it being confiscated because the wrist-rocket slingshot is not a toy and is considered to be a weapon. So in one smooth move I managed to bum out the Frisbee players (thus un-doing the happy impact that some fellow supporter had tried to create) and send an instrument of danger. Nice.

Not every plan I have works out exactly like I intend it to. Sometimes they work out better (the Phoenix Coyote episode and hopefully the Chaplain) Or I learn something valuable in the process, like when I’m in over my head (Killer Snowflakes).

But most of my mishaps also come with something pretty nice—a smile. Even if the laugh is at my expense, it still counts! My soldier got a kick out of my lack of wrist-rocket knowledge. Also, after the initial marshmallow assault, he shared it with the other guys so they all had fun. And that sounds very good indeed.

© Gina left the mall, 2014

When Should You Tell A Missing Limb Joke?

How about when you’re a wounded warrior doing stand-up “therapy” with comics like Lewis Black, Zach Galifianakis, B.J. Novak, and Bob Saget? When I’ve written to wounded warriors in hospitals, I’ve secretly worried and wondered what was next for them. Would they have all they need to face the challenges ahead? Feel forgotten? Have a VA-delay nightmare? What about their families? I never thought to ask if trauma could be treated with laughter, even though every troop I’ve met has had a great (and often dark) sense of humor.

But I found out that an amazing group of comics did ask. They wondered about “healing through humor” and the result is a project and documentary called Comedy Warriors. It features five vets like Bobby Henline, the sole survivor of a roadside bomb who was burned over 38% of his body and lost his left hand. This man will make you laugh. And touch your heart. Meet him and the other incredible vets in this trailer:

Comedy Warriors

A slight divide

1% of the population serves in active duty. If you add all vets, the number goes up to around 6%. With that kind of math, many of us don’t know what our troops and their families endure. The military experience is unique. For the wounded, that becomes even more true when they get back to the civilian world. Wounded Warrior Project, a group that “honors and empowers wounded warriors,” has these recent battlefield figures: 6,717 deaths, 50,897 wounded, 320,000 estimated TBIs (Traumatic Brain Injury) and 400,000 estimated with PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.) For perspective, the current U.S. population is about 322 million.

So if you’ve been wounded, how do you explain, express or connect with those around you who may have little understanding of what you’ve been through? If you hold everything in, how do you heal? I once asked a soldier I know who has PTSD and other combat injuries, to help me understand PTSD better. I didn’t realize how hard it would be for him to respond. But in the end, sharing eased his pain a little. When I tried to picture him doing a project like this, I laughed out loud. He’s a piece of work without a microphone. I bet he’d excel at comedy therapy.

Sharing (and healing) through humor is both disarming and empowering. Fear and pain are pushed aside to create a space where military and civilian can come together. And when we’re in something together, we are all strengthened. These wounded warriors are resilient, inspiring and yeah, pretty damn funny. I would love to see the whole documentary. But I have to ask. Actually, a lot of us have to ask. In order for the film to get wider distribution, our local PBS, cable providers, and movie houses need to hear that we’re interested. I’m going to send a few emails. I hope you do too.

Did you hear the one about the wounded warrior who got the last laugh?

Imagine if we could all say, “yes!”

*Update: Bernadette Luckett, a Co-Producer on the film, told me that this was a labor of love for all involved. She also told me how they’re trying to bring Comedy Warriors to a larger audience by entering film festivals to get attention and secure a distribution deal. They’ve won top prizes in the ones they’ve been able to enter. If anyone would like to support their participation at major film festivals through a tax-deductible donation, this is their help page. 

© 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

Apparently, You Can’t Reenlist In A Latrine

You’re in a combat zone and your enlistment is up. Exit Strategy? Nope, a chance for dedicated professionals to raise their hand once again. And while I’m sure each ceremony is very moving, the ones I’m familiar with also include a slightly different emotion. All the troops I’ve “met” have a pretty healthy sense of humor. If you’ve seen the troops imitating cheerleaders’ Call Me Maybe video, you know what I mean.

One of my soldiers in Afghanistan sent me this picture of himself and a few buddies sharing a special moment in the Pesh River. He told me a favorite reenlistment locale for his unit was standing on top of the Battalion Commander’s desk.

Taking the oath in the Pesh River (I blurred faces for privacy)

Taking the oath in the Pesh River (I blurred faces for privacy)

Keeping with the water theme, here’s one I found on YouTube for a Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class.

What would mom say?

Sgt. Brown* (name changed for privacy) was in Iraq and thinking about whether or not to reenlist. I asked him what his parents thought and he said his Dad was for it. Then he shared that his Mom had died when he was a boy and he missed her very much. I told him that if he ever wanted an Official Mom Opinion, I could hook him up. I told him those opinions and the ability to write excuse notes were powers bestowed in the maternity ward. I didn’t expect him to say, “yes, I’d like that very much.”

I was kidding around to brighten his mood. This is a serious thing, how do I answer? Especially when I have a little girl that I wish I could swathe in bubble wrap and never let out my sight? (Attn: Child Services, no bubble-swathing has occurred) I wanted to do right by this fellow mom I never met and be supportive of her son. So this is what I said,

“If you reenlist, I will not get one good night’s sleep until your boots are safely back on American soil. But what is also true, is that I am so proud of the man you have become. So what I want you to do is this: follow what’s in your heart. If that’s the Army, then that’s what I want you to do. But if you’re done, I want you to come home now. Don’t feel guilty about leaving your buddies. Don’t worry about the economy. I will be there for you and help you figure out what’s next. Just promise me you’ll be honest with yourself. That’s what I want you to do.”

He thanked me and continued to think about it. Finally, he decided he wanted to reenlist. The officer in charge asked him where he’d like to do it. Sgt. Brown said, “the latrine.” That idea was overruled. I laughed and told him it was probably against regulations.

We would’ve done it

I spoke to my Pesh River soldier about the latrine locale and he said, “Our unit would’ve done it. They would’ve wondered why you’d want that, but…sure.” Apparently, you can raise your hand more ways than I thought, and even cause a few smiles along the way.

© Gina left the mall, 2013

Baby Monkey. Good Roommate?

There are pros and cons to living with a baby monkey. Most of them revolve around the inescapable facts of 1. baby and 2. monkey. This is something my adopted soldier, Staff Sergeant K and his platoon found out when they rescued and adopted one in Afghanistan.

Meet Joe the monkey

Joe. Baby monkey rescued and adopted by soldiers.

Joe

One of K’s men was on patrol when a villager threw a rock at a baby monkey. The rock struck its nose and injured him. After seeing this, the soldier bought the monkey and brought it back to their forward operating base so they could care for him.

injured baby monkey rescued by soldiers

You can see Joe’s injury here and why the soldiers rescued him.

They named him Joe and decided to adopt him. So that would be 24 soldiers, 1 monkey, no problem, right? Well, like many forms of life with the word “baby” in front of it,  Joe did not like to be alone. Or to sleep at night. Joe made this known to his human friends with the time-tested tactic of throwing tantrums. K told me that they had a meeting to work out the logistics. That made me smile. I pictured the normal agenda, sharing intel, upcoming missions and then…monkey-sitting duties.

Why I like Joe

It was good for Joe to get out of an abusive situation. But I think Joe was also good for the soldiers. I base this on my years of no psychological training. (This would be similar to my years of no medical school in A Healthy Cigar)

K and his men were in a remote area and they had many difficult days. They had limited contact with loved ones and few amenities. That also means they few distractions from their situation (one reason why mail call is such a morale boost.)  But here is a little innocent monkey they can care for. I think pets help you take the focus off yourself at times. In a stressful situation, that can actually reduce your stress. I did a quick search just now and WebMD has  27 Ways Pets Can Improve Your Health. Of course, none of them are about combat, but I believe the same principles and blood-pressure lowering benefits apply.

Roomies

K’s wife wrote me, “Did you hear about the monkey?” She was home with a newborn and my daughter was 4 then. We both suspected that baby anything was going to be more work than they expected. We laughed about the learning curve. But even if Joe kept them up, he made them laugh too. Joe was fun and affectionate and good to be around. What more can you ask of a roommate?

© Gina left the mall, 2012